I recently examined a middle-aged woman who had multiple complaints including fatigue, excessive thirst, and vision changes. The only significant factor of her medical history was a lifelong struggle with obesity and dramatic weight gain over the last few years. After an extensive workup, I notified her of the unfortunate news that she was diabetic. Although she found this new diagnosis alarming and scary, I reassured her that diabetes is a disease that can often be well-managed with lifestyle changes.
Diabetes is a chronic disease that affects over 24 million people in the United States today. Specifically, it is a disorder that affects the way your body regulates sugar levels. In normal circumstances, your pancreas is able to produce a hormone called insulin to normalize sugar levels. However, with diabetes, this process breaks down causing blood sugar levels to rise to concerning levels. Diabetes increases your risk for several health conditions including heart attacks, stroke, kidney disease, and circulation problems.
There are two main types of diabetes. Type 1 diabetes often occurs in young individuals when the pancreas is completely unable to produce insulin. Type 2 diabetes, which is much more common, tends to occur at an older age. Ninety percent of people with Type 2 diabetes are overweight. These individuals produce insulin from the pancreas, but it is not used effectively to regulate blood sugar levels.
The top 7 risk factors for Type 2 diabetes include:
- Sedentary lifestyle (lack of physical activity or exercise)
- Unhealthy eating habits
- A family history of diabetes
- Increased age
- Hypertension and high cholesterol
- Diabetes during pregnancy
There are several treatments for diabetes. For all individuals, nutrition is the key element for managing diabetes. In addition, since most people diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes are overweight, exercise and weight loss are extremely important. Other therapies include the use of oral medications, and insulin administration.
Diabetes is a unique disease in that treatment often requires a proactive approach with aggressive lifestyle changes, which can dramatically alter the course of the disease. I am pleased to report that the individual I mentioned earlier is doing very well today. She has been able to control her diabetes well through appropriate nutrition, exercise, and weight loss. She is also currently on oral medication, however her ultimate goal is to completely eliminate this need as she gets closer to obtaining a healthy weight. As a physician, I find it exciting to empower patients; giving them the tools and instruction they need to live long healthy and fulfilling lives.