Living a sweet life with diabetes

2012-11-13 00:00

IT’S funny how much can change in five years. I remember so distinctly the day I was diagnosed with diabetes: I thought my life as I knew it was over, and that the rest of my days would be spent eating cardboard food and feeling ill. But diabetes isn’t a debilitating condition if you know how to look after it, and these days I feel as healthy (if not healthier) than I did before I was diagnosed.

I have Type 1 diabetes, which means that I have to inject five times a day and be aware of everything I eat — no absent-mindedly eating an orange while I work or finishing off half a packet of biscuits in front of the television. I was desperately ill before I was diagnosed (a few days away from a coma, in fact) and as a result I took diabetes very seriously, right from the start. I knew that I had to change my lifestyle to accommodate my chronic condition, but I didn’t anticipate that those lifestyle changes would be so positive.

One of the funny things about Type 1 diabetes (as opposed to Type 2) is that it isn’t lifestyle related. I was pretty much eating the right diet (except for a few chocolates and cupcakes here and there!), I exercised now and again, I wasn’t overweight at all and I didn’t drink or smoke. But I worked far too hard, I didn’t give myself a chance to unwind and relax, and I was by no means fit. One of the things I really appreciate about diabetes is the fact that it forces you to take care of yourself. These days, if I work too hard and don’t take care of myself, I feel it. If I don’t exercise for a few days, I feel it. My blood sugar is high, I’m tired and headachy, and I don’t feel well. If I have a day or two of eating badly, I feel it. It’s almost as if my wellness gauge is more sensitive because of my chronic condition, so I’m forced to do all the things we should all be doing anyway: exercise often, eat lots of vegetables and whole grains, and look after myself. It’s one of the great gifts of diabetes.

The other is that I’ve been able to connect with a whole community of diabetics. When I was first diagnosed, all the information I was given was negative: all about the many complications of diabetes, and the many and varied horrible things I could expect along the way. But nobody ever said: “If you’re in good control, there’s nothing you can’t do.” That’s one of the reasons I started Sweet Life, a diabetes lifestyle magazine and online community. I wanted to connect to other diabetics and for us to be able to share experiences, ask questions and offer advice to each other. Diabetes can be such an overwhelming condition (it is so permanent, so every day) that it’s really difficult to go at it alone. Having a community, through our community blog and Facebook page (Diabetic South Africans) has really helped me to feel part of something greater than myself.

When I first found out I was diabetic, I thought my life was over. But if the last five years have taught me anything, it’s that every day brings with it new lessons, new opportunities to live a healthier, happier life. Whether you have diabetes or not.

• Don’t think of yourself as a patient — you’re living with a chronic condition, and that’s going to be around forever, so you need to get used to it.

• Learn to cook in a new way — low GI with lots of vegetables can be full of flavour if you spend some time mastering the art of low-GI food.

• Connect with other diabetics — whether that’s on Facebook (Diabetic South Africans), online (www.sweetlifemag.co.za/community) or in person (at a local support group). It really helps to know that there are others who worry about the same things and have to deal with the same day-to-day issues.

• Exercise a little bit every day — or at least five times a week. Half an hour of moderate exercise every day is better than a two-hour sweat session once a week, because it ensures more balanced blood sugar.

• Allow yourself small treats, in moderation. You can’t be on a strict diet for the rest of your life, so the occasional small treat helps to reduce the risk of a binge day in future.

It is estimated that as many as 230 million people worldwide suffer from diabetes. The most prevalent form of this disease is diabetes Type 2, which is expected to increase to 300 million cases by 2020.

According to Dr Anchen Laubscher, medical director of Netcare and Netcare 911, diabetes mellitus (DM) is a fast-growing problem in South Africa, where large numbers of people remain undiagnosed and therefore untreated.

Diabetes results from either a lack of insulin or poor uptake of insulin by the body. Insulin is produced by the pancreas to convert sugars and food into energy, which we use in our daily activities.

Diabetes is well-known for causing hyperglycaemia, or too much sugar in the blood. Diabetes typically could lead to serious vascular diseases such as kidney disease, stroke, heart attack, retinopathy (degenerative changes in the eye) and limb ischemia (tissue damage and tissue death due to lesser blood flow to limbs). Patients with diabetes Type 1 may develop a condition called keto-acidosis, an abnormal increase in the blood’s acidity which could lead to unconsciousness and may even result in death.

There are two main types of diabetes: Type 1 usually starts in childhood, but may occur at any age. In this form of the disease, the pancreas makes little or no insulin because the body’s immune system has destroyed the insulin-producing cells within the pancreas. The lack of insulin leads to increased blood glucose (sugar), which is expelled in the urine. It can be successfully managed with close medical supervision and daily injections of insulin.

Type 2 is most prevalent in adulthood, although increasing numbers of younger people are being diagnosed with it. In diabetes Type 2, the pancreas is usually not able to keep blood glucose levels normal because the body is not able to use the insulin properly. There can be a variety of reasons for this, including genetic factors, obesity, age and elevated blood sugar levels due to high fat and sugar content in diet or a sedentary lifestyle.

A frequent need to urinate, being thirsty much of the time, increased appetite, ongoing tiredness and blurred, changeable vision are some of the symptoms of both forms of diabetes to be on the lookout for. — Supplied.

I WAS DESPERATELY ILL BEFORE I WAS DIAGNOSED (A FEW DAYS AWAY FROM A COMA, IN FACT) AND AS A RESULT I TOOK DIABETES VERY SERIOUSLY, RIGHT FROM THE START. I KNEW THAT I HAD TO CHANGE MY LIFESTYLE TO ACCOMMODATE MY CHRONIC CONDITION, BUT I DIDN’T ANTICIPATE THAT THOSE LIFESTYLE CHANGES WOULD BE SO POSITIVE.

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