Diabetes — why all the fuss?

2013-03-13 00:00

THE prevalence of diabetes mellitus in South Africa is on the increase among all races and genders, with KwaZulu-Natal women showing the highest incidence.

Living in the information age as we do, more people are searching the Internet for the latest developments, treatment options and alternative cures. This has opened the door for much misinformation to weave its way into our understanding regarding the disease and its treatment.

As in the case of pre-diabetes, as discussed last time, early intervention and lifestyle change can prevent the progression of diabetes and its associated complications. Early detection and intervention make it possible to live a full and healthy life, even after receiving a diagnosis of diabetes.

What is diabetes, really?

After eating a meal, glucose (often referred to simply as sugar) enters the bloodstream as the food is digested. This causes a rise in a person’s blood sugar level.

In people without diabetes, the pancreas responds by releasing a hormone called insulin, which then enables the sugar to enter into cells, thus removing it from the bloodstream.

In a person with diabetes mellitus (commonly referred to as diabetes), inadequate insulin is released, or the action of insulin is defective. This results in the sugar not entering bodily cells, thus remaining in the circulation and causing raised blood sugar levels.

The high blood sugar associated with diabetes results in numerous symptoms and conditions.

Although the symptoms are present, most adults can live for years without realising that they have the disease.

Early intervention with good nutrition is vital, as it can prevent secondary diseases and complications resulting from uncontrolled diabetes. Death from heart disease is two to four times more likely in adults with diabetes. Diabetes is the leading cause of kidney failure, as well as the leading cause of new blindness in adults. It is therefore essential to detect the disease early and control it well.

The most frequently observed symptoms of diabetes result from the state of hyperglycaemia (high blood sugar) in the body. The symptoms include excessive thirst, excessive urination, heightened hunger, fatigue and lethargy. If you are experiencing any of these symptoms, do not delay discussing them with your doctor.

There are three main types of diabetes. Type 1 diabetes occurs when the body fails to produce any insulin at all. Type 2 diabetes develops when the body is unable to use its insulin effectively (insulin resistance) and under-produces this vital hormone. Gestational diabetes is the third type — it develops during pregnancy and may or may not resolve after delivery of the baby.

Type 2 diabetes accounts for 90% to 95% of diabetes cases, which is a staggering majority. Tragedy lies in the fact that type 2 diabetes is the one form of diabetes that is preventable with lifestyle changes, and yet continues to account for the highest proportion of the disease.

Is prevention possible?

The main risk factors that increase the likelihood of developing diabetes include being overweight, being physically inactive, and having insulin resistance and impaired glucose tolerance. Stress and genetics also play a key role.

A recent study undertaken in high-risk patients showed that 30 minutes a day of moderate physical activity (150 minutes per week), coupled with a five to 10% reduction in body weight, reduced diabetes by 58%. In the same study, medication produced a 31% reduction in diabetes development.

Historically, type 2 diabetes was known as late-onset diabetes, presenting at about the age of 40 years. Recently, however, the disease is presenting at much earlier ages, and is associated with increasing obesity and the lack of regular exercise.

Aggressive lifestyle modifications are essential to slow down the increasing incidence of diabetes and the disease’s progression. If you’ve never had your blood sugar tested, why not do it now? A simple finger prick could set you on the road to guarding the gift of your health.

Over the next few weeks, we will cover this topic in more detail and give practical advice on how to live a full and healthy life with diabetes.

• Sharon Hultzer is a dietitian.

Inquiries: eatsmart@iburst.co.za

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