Diabetes – symptoms, causes and treatments

Diabetes is a chronic (long term) condition in which the levels of glucose (sugar) in the blood are too high. This may be because the pancreas is not producing enough insulin or there is a problem with how the body’s cells are responding to it. The two main types of diabetes are type 1 and type 2.

Type 1 diabetes: the pancreas does not produce any insulin.

Type 2 diabetes: the pancreas does not produce enough insulin or the body’s cells do not react to insulin

For our bodies to work properly, we need to convert glucose (sugar) from food into energy. A hormone called insulin is essential for the conversion of glucose into energy. In a person with diabetes, the pancreas does not make enough insulin or the body’s cells do not respond adequately to the hormone. This means when a person eats foods containing glucose e.g. breads, cereals, fruit and starchy vegetables, legumes, milk, yoghurt and sweets, the glucose cannot be converted into energy and stays in the blood. This is why blood glucose levels are higher in people with diabetes.

What are the signs and symptoms?

In most cases people do not have symptoms when they develop type 2 diabetes. Regular checkups are needed to diagnose type 2 diabetes early.

When the levels of glucose in the blood are particularly high (this is common in type 1 diabetes), symptoms develop.

These include:

  • Significant weight loss
  • Tiredness and lack of energy
  • Excessive thirst
  • Blurred vision
  • Increased risk of infections, such as thrush
  • Frequent urination

Occasionally, diabetes can come on suddenly. This is more likely with type 1 diabetes and can lead to a condition called ketoacidosis, which is a medical emergency. Seek immediate medical attention if the following symptoms occur:

  • Loss of appetite
  • Weight loss
  • Vomiting
  • Excessive passing of urine
  • Altered consciousness Coma.

Treatment options

As with all medical conditions, consult your Doctor for an accurate diagnosis and treatment. There is no cure for diabetes. Treatment aims to manage the condition by controlling blood glucose levels, as well as blood pressure and cholesterol levels, and body weight to help prevent health problems developing later in life. The treatment depends on the type of diabetes.

Type 1 diabetes treatment includes:

  • Insulin injections
  • A balanced, healthy diet
  • Monitoring blood glucose
  • Physical activity
  • Regular check-ups

Type 2 diabetes treatment includes:

  • Healthy eating
  • Physical activity
  • Medications and possibly insulin at a later stage
  • Weight management
  • Monitoring blood glucose
  • Smoking cessation
  • Having regular check-ups

If untreated, high blood glucose levels can result in serious complications. These include:

  • Kidney damage (nephropathy)
  • Eye damage (retinopathy)
  • Nerve damage to the feet and other parts of the body (neuropathy)
  • Heart disease (for example, angina or heart attacks), strokes and circulation problems in the legs
  • Sexual difficulties
  • Foot ulcers or infections resulting from circulation problems and nerve damage

NOTE: Diabetes is a key risk factor for chronic kidney disease. Please ask your GP for a Kidney Health Check.

Diet hints
All people with diabetes are advised to follow a healthy eating plan. A person with type 1 diabetes may require between meal snacks to balance insulin injections or tablets with carbohydrate intake. Your GP can refer you to a Dietician who can help you plan your food, insulin and activity to best manage your blood glucose levels.

If you have Type 2 diabetes, it is also advisable to ask your GP for a referral to a Dietician as one diet does not fit everyone with diabetes.

  • Reduce saturated fats
  • Eat moderate amounts of carbohydrates
  • Eat low-fat protein
  • Use sugar only sparingly

The glycaemic index or GI is a way of describing how a carbohydrate containing food affects blood glucose levels. The type of carbohydrate you eat is very important as some can cause higher blood glucose after eating. The best combination is to eat moderate amounts of carbohydrate and include high fibre foods that also have a low GI. See the Low Glycaemic Index Diet topic for more information.

Vitamins/minerals/herbs

Always consult your Doctor before taking any supplement or herbs. Nutritional supplements may only be of benefit if dietary intake is inadequate.

  • Chromium supplementation may help to balance insulin levels.
  • Cinnamon may lower blood sugar by decreasing insulin resistance. Some studies have shown that at least half a teaspoon of cinnamon per day is required to have this effect. Cinnamon may also help to reduce elevated triglyceride and HDL (unhealthy) cholesterol levels.
  • Essential fatty acids, such as omega 3 essential fatty acids found in fish oil, help to reduce elevated triglycerides and reduce the severity of diabetic neuropathy.
  • B Complex vitamins are involved in promoting healthy blood sugar metabolism.
  • CoQ10 has a protective effect on blood vessels. Individuals with diabetes and pre diabetes are at risk of blood vessel injury.
  • Vitamin C, vitamin E and the minerals zinc and magnesium may help to reduce urinary protein output (a marker of glomerular renal function) in patients with diabetic nephropathy.
  • Alpha Lipoic Acid has been shown to help regulate blood sugar levels in type 2 diabetes. Alpha lipoic acid may also be helpful in cases of diabetic neuropathy in type 1 and 2 diabetes.
  • Garlic may stabilise blood sugar and help reduce risk of heart disease and other circulatory disorders by improving blood flow, lowering elevated blood pressure and reducing cholesterol levels.
  • Psyllium has been shown to reduce blood sugar levels.
  • Bilberry may help to prevent diabetic retinopathy and cataracts.
  • Gymnema sylvestre is a herb that helps to control blood sugar and may play a role in alleviating Type 2 Diabetes-related symptoms

Pharmacist’s advice

Ask your Pharmacist for advice.

  1. If you have any queries regarding your medication for diabetes, ask your Pharmacist.
  2. Blood glucose testing monitors are available to monitor your blood glucose. Ask your Pharmacist for advice.
  3. Urinalysis testing strips can help detect excess glucose and ketones in the urine. These should be used in conjunction with a blood glucose monitor.
  4. Sugar-free medications such as cough syrups are available. Remember to ask your Pharmacist for brands suitable for diabetics.
  5. Smoking increases the risk factors for other diseases such as heart disease and vascular disease. Ask your Pharmacist for help quitting smoking. Nicotine patches, nicotine chewing gum, nicotine inhalers and the QUIT programme are all available from your Pharmacy.
  6. Foot care products such as wound dressings, corn pads, nail clippers and orthopaedic shoes can be recommended by your Pharmacist. A Podiatrist should always be consulted for any problems with the feet.
  7. Exercise is vital, especially for Type 2 diabetes. It reduces body fat, improves blood glucose control, lowers fat levels in the blood, lowers blood pressure and reduces the risk of heart disease.