Today, the 14th of November, is World Diabetes Day. All over, awareness is being created in addressing one of the silent killer diseases- diabetes mellitus. Diabetes mellitus is often shortened as ‘diabetes’ although another form of diabetes is Diabetes Insipidus. Below are answers to some frequently asked questions about diabetes mellitus.
What is Diabetes Mellitus? Diabetes mellitus (DM) is a chronic disease whereby the body tissues cannot utilize the nutrients (especially sugar) which have been absorbed into the blood from food. Commonly, DM results in high blood sugar as a result of inability of the tissues to take up the sugar from the blood. Diabetes mellitus also affects utilization of nutrients from protein and fat food items.
What is the cause of diabetes mellitus? The hormone involved in the disease is insulin. Insulin is involved in helping the body tissues to take up sugar which has been absorbed into the blood. In DM, insulin is either not produced in sufficient amount, or the amount of insulin in the body is appropriate but the body tissues are not sensitive to its presence.
The cause of diabetes mellitus is actually not known but the following factors, among others, may increase the chance of an individual having the disease:
- Family history of diabetes mellitus
- Overweight or obesity
- Conditions that damage the pancreas (the organ that produces insulin). These conditions include infection of the pancreas, accidental injury to the pancreas, radiations, autoimmune diseases (whereby the body fights itself and damages the pancreas), medications like steroids, etc.
- Pregnancy (occasionally)
- Excessive alcohol intake
Is it hereditary? Yes, the presence of DM in one member of the family increases the risk of other blood related members in that family of having it.
Does excessive intake of sugar cause DM? Strictly speaking, excessive intake of sugar doesn’t directly cause DM. However, with every intake of food item that makes sugar to be absorbed into the blood, insulin is produced by the pancreas so that the tissues can use up the sugar. It therefore means that the pancreas works more with excessive sugar intake. In the presence of other factors that can predispose to DM, as listed above, an individual may become diabetic if the pancreas is stressed up and doesn’t produce insulin adequately or the body is resistant to insulin.
What should one look out for to suspect possibility of being diabetic? In some individuals, at the onset of the disease, they may have no complaints. In others, excessive thirst, excessive hunger, frequent passage of large volume of urine during the day and night, weight loss, et cetera, are suggestive of likelihood of having DM.
What organs are affected by diabetes mellitus? Aside the elevated blood sugar, if the disease is not well managed, damage may occur in the eyes, blood vessels, nerves, kidneys, heart, brain, etc. The disease may lead to death if complications affect multiple organs or systems.
How can the disease be managed? Education on dietary adjustment, regular exercises, with or without medications are the options of managing diabetes mellitus. With minimum of 30 minutes of moderate intensity exercises (jogging, brisk walking, cycling, swimming) at least five days of the week, a diabetic individual can use up the blood sugar better than an inactive diabetic person. If the individual needs to use medications, the dose of medication required to control the blood sugar is lower among individuals who exercise regularly and eat appropriately.
Is there a special diet for diabetic individuals? There is no special diet per se. Due to the fact that the body cannot utilize sugar appropriately, most diabetic individuals are counseled to reduce the size/portion of their meals. This is to reduce the load of sugar the already diseased pancreas has to handle. “Quick” sugars which can rapidly increase the blood sugar are discouraged. Quick sugars can be found in granulated or cube sugars, soft drinks, honey, sweetened drinks, and confectioneries. Instead of confectioneries, tea bags are good alternatives.
Intake of fibers found in fruits and vegetables also help to reduce the rate at which the sugar content of food is absorbed into the blood. Therefore, diabetic individuals can eat their staple or usual traditional meals but the size should be adjusted. Intake of saturated fat found in red meat (beef, pork, mutton), egg yolk, fried meals, etc should be reduced in order to lessen the burden of the disease on the body.
Can the disease be cured? There is no cure for diabetes mellitus. Dietary adjustment, regular exercises, with or without medications are life-long approaches to management of the disease.
Can the disease be prevented? Healthy habits regarding diets, avoidance of smoking, alcohol reduction, regular exercises, stress reduction, among others, are measures that help to prevent diabetes mellitus in individuals. Regular, at least once a year blood sugar check, helps to identify individuals who are pre-diabetic. With lifestyle modification, progression to diabetes mellitus is prevented.
Dr Ademola Orolu is a Consultant Family Physician. He holds the Fellowship of The West African College of Physicians. He is also an Associate Fellow of The National Postgraduate Medical College of Nigeria. He is in active clinical practice. He is a writer, a patient advocate, and has a passion for health education. He is the chief editor of The Family Doctors. He can be contacted via firstname.lastname@example.org