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November is American Diabetes Month, a time when we remind everyone that diabetes and pre-diabetes can silently take away your body’s ability to convert the food you eat into the energy you need.
What is diabetes?
Diabetes is a chronic condition where your body cannot make enough insulin—or cannot use the insulin it has well enough to regulate your blood’s glucose (sugar) levels. When everything is working properly, the body’s digestive tract breaks down the carbohydrates in your diet to create glucose, a sugar that is then absorbed into the bloodstream through the lining of the small intestine. At this point, a hormone called insulin sends a signal to cells throughout the body that it’s time to absorb the sugar and use it for energy.
When insulin cannot do its job, many systems in the body begin to break down. Unfortunately, for some people, symptoms associated with this breakdown don’t become recognizable until the damage has been happening for some time. The only way to know if there’s a problem is by measuring your blood glucose level.
How common is diabetes?
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than 130 million Americans are living with diabetes or pre-diabetes. About 38 percent of the adult population has prediabetes and about 11.3 percent of the population has diabetes. Of the 37.3 million with full diabetes, about 8.5 million remain undiagnosed.
There are two main types of diabetes: type 1 and type 2. In Type 1, the body does not produce any insulin; this only accounts for about 10 percent of diabetes cases. In Type 2, the body creates resistance to insulin. With Type 2 diabetes, there is a reversible condition called pre-diabetes, which occurs when a person is on the path to diabetes but has not yet met the full standards for the condition. If you are diagnosed with pre-diabetes, this is your chance to reverse course and improve your insulin resistance.
How do you know if you have diabetes?
Because diabetes symptoms are rarely noticeable in the early stages, a lot of people find out they are diabetic when a routine health check-up shows their blood sugar is elevated. Many activities can cause blood sugar levels to spike temporarily, so the best way to monitor a person’s blood sugar levels is to use a test called an A1C, which reports the average blood sugar level during the past three months. An A1C result of 5.6 and below is normal. A range of 5.7 to 6.4 indicates pre-diabetes, and 6.5 or higher indicates diabetes.
Sometimes when people have pre-diabetes or what is sometimes called “borderline” diabetes, they downplay it because it doesn’t sound so bad. However, once a person gets diabetes, the condition is harder to control.
Some people do have symptoms, but they do not recognize them. Too much sugar in the blood can lead to having to go to the bathroom a lot, being thirsty, feeling tired, getting blurred vision, and/or having headaches.
When it comes to treatment, earlier is better.
At the pre-diabetes stage, changes to diet and exercise can have a huge effect. These changes don’t mean you have to stop eating everything you enjoy, but they do mean you need to learn to balance your carbohydrate intake with other considerations.
I know lifestyle changes are hard. Not everyone has control over their diets. For example, the elderly who depend on Meals on Wheels cannot dictate what arrives at their door, and rejecting an offer of food from a relative may cause offense.
And some people face a tougher challenge because of risk factors, including heredity and ethnicity. But every little step helps, from decreasing portion sizes to walking for 10-15 minutes after meals. At MCC, we can work with you on a diabetic-friendly diet and other lifestyle changes to help you manage your condition. If you need additional support, we can talk about medication and other options.
If you are aged 35 or older and haven’t been screened for diabetes, ask your medical provider to order a screening test. Remember, many people live happy, healthy lives after their pre-diabetes or diabetes diagnosis. Keeping blood sugar levels within a normal range is the key.
Suzanna Hermosillo-Macias is a registered dietitian nutritionist at Mendocino Coast Clinics, a non-profit, federally qualified health center serving as a patient-centered medical home for people on the Mendocino Coast. MCC provides a team-based approach to care, offering medical, dental, behavioral health services, and more. Learn more at mendocinocoastclinics.org.
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