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Diabetes is a condition that affects how your body uses the food you eat for energy. It is a chronic disease that affects more than 26 million Americans and if left untreated, it can lead to serious health problems.

"The diagnosis of diabetes calls for a new way of living," according to Gayle Curto, RN, BSN, CDE (Certified Diabetes Educator), program coordinator for the diabetes center at John Muir Health. The goal of our education program is to empower individuals to learn how to effectively self manage their diabetes so they can lead an active, healthy life with diabetes.   


Diabetes is a condition that affects how your body uses the food you eat for energy.  This problem is closely tied to how your body makes and uses a hormone called insulin.  When food is eaten and the blood sugar increases, insulin is produced by special cells in the pancreas.  Insulin lowers the blood sugar level by unlocking a doorway into the cell allowing the sugar to enter the cell and be used as energy.  Using food for energy is as important to your health as having air to breathe. 

Two types

There are two main types of diabetes: When an individual develops Type 1 diabetes the pancreas does not make any insulin. The immune system attacks and accidentally destroys the insulin-producing cells in the pancreas. This type of diabetes is more common in children, but it can develop at any age. People with Type 1 diabetes must inject insulin every day until a cure for diabetes is discovered. 

Warning signs of type 1 include:

  • Frequent urination
  • Unusual thirst or extreme hunger
  • Unexplained, rapid weight loss
  • Extreme fatique and irritability

An estimated 1½ to 3 million Americans have this type of diabetes.

Type 2 diabetes is more common, accounting for about 90 percent of individuals with diabetes. It usually occurs in adults, but is becoming more common in children, teenagers, and young adults.

These people may not make enough insulin on their own, or their body cannot properly use insulin that is made by the pancreas. People with type 2 diabetes can make important lifestyle changes to improve their blood sugar levels. They can manage their condition with healthy food choices, increased physical activity, and oral or injectable medication as needed. 

Warning signs of type 2 include:

  • Symptoms mentioned for Type 1
  • Blurred vision or any change in vision
  • Tingling or numbness in legs, feet, or skin
  • Frequent skin/vaginal/urinary tract infections or itchy skin
  • Slow healing of cuts and bruises

Many people with type 2 diabetes do not feel symptoms. The American Diabetes Association estimates that about 6 million people have the disease and are not aware of it.

Gestational diabetes is less common than type 1 or type 2 diabetes. It is diagnosed during a women’s pregnancy. The symptoms are silent and the elevated blood sugar levels can lead to health problems for both mom and baby. This temporary form of diabetes usually disappears after childbirth, but it is likely to develop again during future pregnancies. Women with gestational diabetes are at a higher risk of developing Type 2 diabetes later in life.

Risk factors

Researchers do not know the exact cause for diabetes but there are many risk factors that increase the chance of developing Type 2 diabetes. The risks include:

  • Family history of diabetes
  • Being overweight
  • Being physically  inactive
  • Being a member of a high risk ethnic population: African American, Latino, Native American, Asian, or a Pacific Islander
  • Delivering a baby weighing more than 9 pounds
  • Having high blood pressure
  • Having high cholesterol
  • Having polycystic ovarian syndrome
  • Having "pre-diabetes"

The dangers

Diabetes often goes undiagnosed because many people do not feel symptoms and if they do, the  symptoms seem so harmless. But diabetes can cause serious problems with your heart and blood vessels, eyes, nerves, and kidneys. Heart and blood vessel disease can lead to heart attack and stroke, eye disease can lead to loss of vision or even blindness, nerve disease causes damage to the communication pathway among nerves that can lead to erectile dysfunction, and even limb amputation and kidney disease can lead to dialysis or the need for a kidney transplant. 

Healthy tips

If you have diabetes, you can prevent complications by maintaining a healthy lifestyle. The American Diabetes Association recommends:

  • Eat a low-fat, balanced diet with plenty of fruits and vegetables.
  • Maintain a healthy weight, or lose weight if you need to.
  • Keep your blood pressure below 130/80.
  • Monitor your cholesterol. Your doctor will test you at least once a year.
  • Monitor your blood glucose levels routinely.
  • Be active. You should get at least 30 minutes of moderate, physical activity a day, such as brisk walking, as well as resistance training several times a week.
  • If you drink alcohol, drink in moderation. Women should have no more than one drink a day and men should have no more than two drinks a day.
  • Don’t smoke.
  • Follow up with your doctor on a regular basis. Your doctor will perform an A1C test at least twice a year to measure your average blood glucose levels over several months. Keep your A1C level below 7 percent.

Team approach

Don’t get overwhelmed. Let a diabetes education team help you take control of your diabetes. The team includes you, your doctor, your pharmacist, and certified diabetes educators (CDEs) -- a registered nurse and registered dietitian who provide the knowledge, skills, and tools you need to help successfully manage your diabetes. Your team may also include a podiatrist, exercise physiologist, and/or other healthcare providers as needed.