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How Diabetes Works

Posted by: Patrick Catanzariti on March 10, 2016

Over four million people in the UK have diabetes. It’s a disease where the number of sufferers has more than doubled in the past 20 years. With over 700 new cases each day in Britain, diabetes has become a growing problem.

The sad truth is almost everyone knows of at least one person with diabetes. The disease dates back to ancient times and is one of the earliest known medical conditions.

How diabetes works

To understand how diabetes works, it’s important you know about a hormone named insulin. It’s something that the body uses to handle glucose, a primary form of energy that it needs for cell growth.

When someone suffers from diabetes, their body is unable to produce enough insulin. In some cases, the body can even become insensitive to it. If there isn’t enough insulin in your body, it will produce too much glucose. That can then have a severe adverse effect on the body’s organs.

Why our bodies need glucose

Glucose is a simple sugar that gives energy to each cell in your body, and gets found in the food you eat. All the cells in your body take glucose from your blood and convert it into energy. Glucose is also the sole energy source for brain and red blood cells.

After consuming food, the glucose from your food gets absorbed by your intestines. This is done by the use of the hormone insulin. Glucose then gets distributed to your body’s cells via the bloodstream.

Insulin gets made and released by beta cells in your pancreatic islets. These are tiny “islands” of endocrine cells in the pancreas. With approximately 51 amino acids, insulin gets used by most cells in your body. In particular, it targets liver, fat and muscle cells.

Your body also tries to maintain a constant supply of glucose to its cells. To do this, it stores excess glucose in your liver and muscles. The result is glycogen: long “chains” of glucose linked together.

When we don’t eat, a hormone called glucagon gets to work. Produced by alpha cells in your pancreatic islets, it targets the same cells as insulin. But, it has the opposite effect! Glucagon breaks down the stored glycogen in your liver and muscles.

In a healthy body, insulin and glucagon get counterbalanced in the bloodstream. They help to keep your blood glucose concentration at a constant level of 90 mg per 100 ml of blood.

What happens when insulin and glucagon don’t balance out

Diabetes means that your body cannot produce enough insulin. In some cases, it can mean your body has a resistance to it. For example, it cannot use the insulin it produces.

There are three types of diabetes:

  • Type 1 – your body cannot produce enough insulin. This form of diabetes can be genetic;
  • Type 2 – your body cannot use the insulin it produces. It is something that affects 90% of British diabetes sufferers. In most cases, this form of diabetes is preventable by leading a healthy lifestyle;
  • Gestational – this is a form of diabetes that occurs in pregnant women. Sufferers usually have normal glucose levels after they give birth.

To find out if you have diabetes, you would need to visit your GP. You will then get asked to take a glucose tolerance test. This is a controlled test that measures your blood glucose levels.

The bare facts of diabetes in the UK

Type 2 diabetes is the most common form and is usually usually caused by obesity and a lack of exercise. The most likely people to suffer from diabetes are those in their middle ages, and in their 60s.

When someone develops diabetes, they’re also at higher risk of having other health problems. Examples include cardiovascular, kidney and eye disease. Some people may even need limb amputation due to the onset of neuropathy and even foot ulcers.

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