Diabetes: Just the Basics

Diabetes happens when the amount of glucose (sugar) in your blood is too high. Read on to learn more about the different types of diabetes, risks & complications, and how you can manage the condition.

Type 1 diabetes

Your body gets energy by making glucose from foods like bread, potatoes, rice, pasta, milk and fruit. To use this glucose, your body needs insulin. Insulin is a hormone that helps your body control the level of glucose (sugar) in your blood.
Type 1 diabetes is a disease in which the pancreas does not produce insulin. If you have type 1 diabetes, glucose builds up in your blood instead of being used for energy.
The cause of type 1 diabetes remains unknown. However, it is not preventable, and it is not caused by eating too much sugar. People are usually diagnosed with type 1 diabetes before the age of 30, most often during childhood or their teens.
The good news
You can live a long and healthy life by keeping your blood glucose levels (the amount of sugar in your blood) in the target range set by your doctor


Prediabetes refers to blood glucose levels that are higher than normal, but not yet high enough to be diagnosed as type 2 diabetes (i.e. a fasting plasma glucose level of 7.0 mmol/L or higher). Although not everyone with prediabetes will develop type 2 diabetes, many people will.
It is important to know if you have prediabetes, because research has shown that some long-term complications associated with diabetes – such as heart disease and nerve damage – may begin during prediabetes.
The good news
Research has shown that if you take steps to manage your blood glucose when you have prediabetes, you can delay or prevent type 2 diabetes from developing. You may be able to reduce blood glucose levels with simple lifestyle changes, such as increasing your physical activity and enjoying a healthy, low-fat meal plan.
If you have prediabetes, you are at increased risk for heart disease or stroke, so your doctor may wish to also treat or counsel you about cardiovascular risk factors such as tobacco use, high blood pressure and high cholesterol.
The important thing to remember about prediabetes is that it doesn’t always lead to diabetes.


Risk factors

Type 2 diabetes and prediabetes can occur without you knowing it, so being aware of your risks and being tested are important. Risk factors include:
  • Being 40 years of age or older
  • Having a close relative (parent or sibling) who has type 2 diabetes;
  • Being a member of a high-risk population, such as those of Aboriginal, Hispanic, Asian, South Asian or African descent;
  • Having a history of impaired glucose tolerance or impaired fasting glucose;
  • Having already some evidence of the complications of diabetes, such as eye, nerve or kidney problems;
  • Having heart disease;
  • Having a history of gestational diabetes mellitus;
  • Having high blood pressure;
  • Having high cholesterol;
  • Being overweight, especially around your abdomen.
The risk for type 2 diabetes is higher as you grow older, so the Canadian Diabetes Association recommends screening by testing fasting plasma glucose for everyone once they reach age 40 and every three years after that. If you have risk factors that increase the likelihood of developing type 2 diabetes, you should be tested more frequently or start regular screening earlier.


Type 2 diabetes

Type 2 diabetes is a disease in which your pancreas does not produce enough insulin, or your body does not properly use the insulin it makes. If you have type 2 diabetes, glucose builds up in your blood instead of being used for energy.
The good news
You can live a long and healthy life by keeping your blood glucose levels (the amount of sugar in your blood) in the target range set by your doctor
You can do this by:
  • Eating healthy meals and snacks
  • Enjoying regular physical activity
  • Taking diabetes medications (including insulin), if prescribed by your doctor

Type 2 diabetes is a progressive, life-long condition; over time, it may be more difficult to keep your blood glucose levels in your target range. Your healthcare team can help by working with you to adjust your meal plan, activity and medications.


Diabetes complications

Over time, high blood glucose levels can cause complications such as:
  • Blindness
  • Heart disease
  • Kidney problems
  • Nerve damage
  • Erectile dysfunction
Fortunately, good diabetes care and management can prevent or delay the onset of these complications.


Managing diabetes

Here are some steps you can take to manage your diabetes and help maintain your overall health and wellness – today and in the future:
  • Don’t smoke
  • Follow a balanced meal plan
  • Be physically active
  • Maintain a healthy weight
  • Take your medication as prescribed
  • Manage your stress effectively
  • Keep your blood pressure close to target level
  • Check your blood glucose levels regularly and keep them within your target range
  • Keep your cholesterol and other blood fats within your target range
  • Take care of your feet
  • In addition to regular check-ups with your doctor, also include regular visits to your dentist and eye care specialist (every one to two years)


Diabetes healthcare team

Your diabetes healthcare team can answer all your questions about how to manage your diabetes well. Depending on your needs and the resources available in your community, your team might include a doctor (your family doctor or a diabetes specialist), and diabetes educators (nurse and dietitian).
Your team may also include a:
  • Pharmacist
  • Social worker
  • Psychologist
  • Foot care specialist
  • Endocrinologist
  • Eye care specialist
Remember: the most important member of your healthcare team is you.


Getting support

You might have a hard time accepting that you or a family member has type 2 diabetes. It is not unusual to feel scared, shocked, overwhelmed, or even angry. A positive and realistic attitude towards your diabetes can help you manage your condition. Talk to others who have diabetes – ask your local Canadian Diabetes Association branch about joining a peer-support group or visiting an information session. To find a local branch near you, visit diabetes.ca.


Gestational diabetes

Gestational diabetes (or GDM) is a type of diabetes that occurs during pregnancy. Your body cannot produce enough insulin to handle the effects of a growing baby and changing hormone levels. Insulin helps your body to control the level of glucose (sugar) in your blood. If your body cannot produce enough insulin, your blood glucose levels will rise.
The Canadian Diabetes Association has information on Gestational Diabetes.


Important information

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