Although diabetes is categorised into different types, they all have something in common, and that is how the body breaks down and uses sugars and carbohydrates from food consumed. The body either doesn’t produce enough insulin, is unable to sufficiently use the insulin it does produce, or a combination of both.
Cells in the body are unable to absorb glucose, and so its presence builds up in the bloodstream. High levels of glucose cause damage to the tiny blood vessels in the kidneys, heart, eyes and nervous system. Eventually this can lead to heart disease, stroke, kidney disease, blindness and nerve damage to the nerves in the feet.
Major types of diabetes
There are two main types of diabetes:
- Type 1 diabetes: This form of diabetes is typically categorised as an autoimmune disease. With this type, the body’s immune system malfunctions and destroys (attacks) insulin-producing beta cells with antibodies in the pancreas. The reason this happens is often attributed to genetic (a genetic predisposition or faulty beta cells in the pancreas) or environmental triggers, but the exact cause is not entirely clear. Type 1 diabetes can occur at any age, with many being diagnosed as children or young adults. Managing the condition, which is also known as insulin-dependent diabetes, involves the taking of insulin on a daily basis.
- Type 2 diabetes: This form of diabetes most often develops gradually with age (also commonly referred to as adult-onset diabetes or non-insulin-dependent diabetes). Typically, type 2 diabetes is because of insulin resistance. It is also not yet fully understood why this happens in the body. The cells in the body become unable to use insulin effectively and a resistance develops. The body’s fat, liver and muscle cells cannot take in and store glucose. The abnormal build-up of blood sugar (hyperglycemia) impairs functions in the body. This form of diabetes accounts for up to 95% of adult cases and is by far the most commonly diagnosed of the two. More teenagers are now being diagnosed with this type due to a growing number of younger people becoming overweight or obese earlier in life. Type 2 diabetes is most often diagnosed in individuals who are overweight and sedentary (inactive and remain in a seated position for extended periods of time). Genetics and family history can also play a major role in the development of type 2 diabetes. Often a milder form of diabetes, it can still lead to major health complications, especially in the smallest blood vessels that nourish the kidneys, nerves and eyes.
Other types of diabetes
Most people don't realise that there are also other types of diabetes, these include:
- Prediabetes: Technically, this is not clinically recognised as a type of diabetes, but is often a condition considered as the first stage that leads to a type 2 diabetes diagnosis. The condition is thus characterised by blood-sugar levels that are higher than normal, but not enough to be in the range of a typical diabetes diagnosis. As such, the condition merely places an individual at higher risk of a diabetes diagnosis, as well as other health concerns such as stroke and heart disease.
- Gestational diabetes: Blood-sugar elevation during pregnancy can lead to this form of diabetes. A state of pregnancy, where multiple changes occur in the body, can to some degree, lead to insulin resistance. Gestational diabetes affects between 3 and 8% of women at any stage of pregnancy. Although it does tend to subside after the baby’s birth, it should never be left undiagnosed or treated as it can cause problems such as a high birth weight or breathing problems for the baby. Blood-sugar levels increase and circulate through the placenta to the unborn baby. Generally, expectant moms are tested for gestational diabetes between 24 and 28 weeks of pregnancy. Gestational diabetes commonly develops during these weeks and must be controlled to protect the little one’s growth and development. If it develops, a woman does have an increased risk of developing type 2 diabetes within a few weeks post birth or up to five to ten years later.
- It is rare and highly irregular, but sometimes a type of diabetes can result from specific conditions, such as pancreatic disease. Surgeries, medications or infections can elevate blood sugar levels and thus have also been linked as causes of diabetes.