Sugar doesn’t cause diabetes, and other myths

2010-10-22 00:00

Eating sweets and sweet things causes Diabetes

This is not true. Diabetes is a disorder characterised by abnormally high blood-sugar levels. This results, not from eating too much sugar, but rather from a shortage of the hormone insulin. Insulin is responsible in the body for maintaining blood sugar at normal levels. Type 2 diabetes, which is by far the more common of the two, is caused by a breakdown in the production of insulin, or the way it is used by the body. The second cause is known as insulin resistance, and this is the inability of the body to use the insulin correctly, thus preventing the cells in the body from getting enough sugar from your bloodstream. Eating too many sweets will not cause diabetes, but it can overload your body and cause insulin resistance, which is a precursor to diabetes Type 2.

Diabetes Type 1 is an auto-immune disorder, where the body destroys the cells in the pancreas which are responsible for producing insulin. The resulting breakdown means that the body produces minimal or no natural insulin. The causes are uncertain, but genetics are thought to play a part, with the environment, for example stress, a virus or poison being the trigger factor which may begin the cell destruction.

If you have the genetic predisposition to become diabetic, and if there is a strong family history, it is important that you do not stress the cells of the pancreas as this may cause a breakdown in their function, and accelerate the onset of the condition. If you do like to eat sweet or fatty foods, it is important that you do enough exercise to counteract the excess calories, and keep your weight down, as this will take some stress off the cells in the pancreas and keep them functioning properly. It is advisable only to take in sweet or fatty foods in moderation to prevent insulin resistance. Remember too, that as you get older, things may not work as efficiently in your body as they did when you were younger, and more restriction of your sweet tooth may be necessary when you are 60 as opposed to when you were 20.

 

You have to be overweight to develop diabetes

Type 1 diabetes is an auto-immune condition, and more often occurs in younger people. People who get Type 1 diabetes tend to lose weight as part of the condition before diagnosis due to the lack of insulin to move sugar out of the bloodstream and into the cells. To cope with the excess sugar in the bloodstream, the body excretes it via the kidneys, thus losing the extra calories.

Twenty percent of people with Type 2 diabetes are of a normal weight, even though Type 2 diabetes is associated with obesity. The obesity is linked to insulin resistance, which in turn may lead to Type 2 diabetes. Research has shown that there are numerous factors which interplay in the cause of Type 2 diabetes, of which obesity is only one. You do not have to be overweight to develop Type 2 diabetes. If there is a strong family history you are at risk even if your weight is normal. Another thing that has come to light is that even slim people who do not exercise may carry abdominal fat, and fat surrounding their major organs, and are just as much at risk of chronic illness as the person who is visibly overweight.

If you are constantly thirsty, get up to go to the toilet regularly in the night, wake up tired and with a headache or have constant infections — urinary tract is a common one — ask your doctor to test you for diabetes. Other symptoms that you may have include burning or tingling in hands and feet, which may indicate long-term nerve damage. Take into account your family history and lifestyle too.

 

I only have a touch of sugar, I don’t have to worry

This means that your blood sugars are higher than normal, but may not be high enough to be diagnosed as diabetes. It is an indication that you are insulin resistant. It is also called pre-diabetes and should be considered an alert. Changes made to lifestyle and weight at this point can prevent full-blown diabetes. It has also been shown that nerve damage can occur before the diagnosis of full-blown diabetes, and if blood sugars do go into the elevated range sometimes, nerve damage does occur. A loss of five percent to 10% of body weight in an overweight person, as well as starting dietary and exercise regimens, may return blood sugar to a normal level. If this intervention does not prove to be sufficient, then medication may be prescribed as well.

 

Type 2 Diabetes is not as serious as typE 1

Yes, it is true that a person diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes has to inject themselves with insulin for the rest of their lives. The difference between Type 1 and Type 2 is that Type 1 generally has a very dramatic onset, with the individual becoming seriously ill and ending up in hospital for stabilisation. It is thus treated quickly, and provided the individual takes to heart the necessity for good control and maintains as close to stable blood-sugar levels as possible, while making the necessary lifestyle changes, the likelihood of complications is considerably reduced.

A Type 1 diabetic who takes good care of him or herself can live a relatively normal life. Type 2 diabetes on the other hand, is often diagnosed many years after the condition actually started. This is due to the gradual development of symptoms, which may be missed as they can be lived with. By the time the diabetes is actually diagnosed, some complications have already set in and quite often the diagnosis occurs when the individual is admitted to hospital for something else, such as a heart condition.

The bottom line is that if Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes are mismanaged both can be equally serious and devastating.

 

If I have to go on insulin, I will die

Even Type 2 diabetics sometimes need insulin to control their blood- sugar level. This is because the body eventually fails to the extent that the pancreas is not producing any insulin at all, and then it needs to be supplemented with an insulin injection. Insulin is a hormone, and another way to look at it is just as a hormone replacement. Insulin is necessary as part of the treatment process. Initially tablets or even just diet may be sufficient to control the blood-sugar levels. But diabetes is a progressive condition and down the line the tablets may not be effective, and insulin is added as part of the medical regime. Insulin is replacing what is naturally lacking in the body, and for most people is the start of better health as it is the most effective way we have to get blood sugars under control.

The belief that insulin causes diabetic complications such as blindness or kidney failure comes from people seeing their loved ones suffering with such conditions soon after starting insulin therapy. The reality is that the complications are not there as a result of starting insulin, but rather as a result of years of poorly controlled blood-sugar levels.

Insulin-use leads to improvement in blood-sugar levels, resulting in the person feeling less tired, having more energy, functioning better, improved vision and better sleep as they are not waking up to go to the toilet all the time. It also has long-term benefits in that it prevents the long-term damage caused by high sugar levels, such as heart and kidney failure, sight and hearing loss, and the painful diabetic foot syndrome known as neuropathy. Insulin is often introduced in the medical fraternity as the “last resort”, where it should be really used as the next stage of therapy in a progressive condition.

The sooner insulin is used to treat Type 2 diabetes, the better the long-term prognosis.

 

• Kate Bristow is a professional nursing sister who has specialised in the field of diabetes and diabetic education. She runs a diabetes managed-care programme as part of her diabetic services, and readers can contact her for more information at 082 406 8707. She writes a monthly column in The Witness.

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