Hesperian Health Guides


What is Diabetes?

When we digest food, it puts sugar into our blood. This sugar is called glucose and our bodies use it to get the energy we need. Sweet things turn into glucose but other foods do too, especially starchy foods such as rice, maize, yam, potato, and bread or other foods made from wheat.

Diabetes means having too much sugar in your blood. With diabetes, instead of giving us energy, the sugar builds up in the blood and causes damage to the body.

NWTND Diab Page 1-1.png Hold a piece of white bread in your mouth. Can you taste how sweet it is?

The most common type of diabetes is called Type 2 diabetes. Type 2 diabetes is mainly caused by not enough activity, eating unhealthy foods— especially processed, packaged foods—and increased stress and inequality in our lives. Diabetes is a “chronic” disease, which means it can get better or worse, but it never completely goes away.

To live healthier with diabetes, it is very important to control the amount (level) of sugar in your blood. Diabetes is dangerous because high blood sugar can cause problems such as blindness, loss of limbs, loss of ability to have sex, stroke, or even death. When you keep your sugar levels down, these problems can mostly be avoided, and you can have a productive and healthy life. This is called “managing” diabetes.

Can you be healthy with diabetes?

Medicines and medical care cannot cure diabetes. But people can be healthy with diabetes if they learn about the disease and take care to manage the disease themselves. The most important things to do are to eat healthy food, get exercise, keep your teeth and gums clean, take care of your feet, find ways to reduce stress, and get enough rest. In some cases, medicine is needed too.

Health care workers also treat diabetes by bringing people together in support groups to learn about their illness and to care for themselves.
a group of people talking.
It was hard to tell my family I needed healthier foods. But now they see how I feel better and understand that changing what we eat will help their health too.

Signs of diabetes

Early signs of diabetes are often hard to recognize. Sometimes there may be no signs at all. Many people have diabetes without knowing it.

Signs that may be from diabetes
  • Thirst
  • Frequent urination
  • Blurred vision
  • Lack of energy or gets tired easily
  • Slow-healing wounds
  • Feet that feel numb
  • Repeated yeast (candida) infections for women

These signs are common to many health problems, so you cannot tell if a person has diabetes from these signs alone. Get a blood test to know for sure.

a child reaching for a sick looking woman.
Danger signs

When blood sugar levels get too high, they cause:

  • Severe thirst
  • Extreme weakness and sleepiness or confusion
  • Hunger
  • Weight loss even if the person is eating enough

A person with these danger signs should be tested and treated fast. A person can die from very high blood sugar levels if not treated. See High blood sugar (hyperglycemia).

Problems caused by unmanaged diabetes

If diabetes is left untreated over months or years, high sugar levels can damage organs, nerves, and blood vessels. This causes serious problems in the body that can cause permanent harm or even death.

a woman.
stroke (paralysis)
gum infection, loss of teeth
heart attack
kidney failure
loss of sexual desire, painful intercourse
for men: loss of erections
for women: vaginal yeast infections
skin infections that don’t heal, ulcers
numbness or pain (neuropathy)

High amounts of sugar in the blood can cause nerve damage. Many people with higher levels start to feel pain in their feet or their feet go numb. Higher levels also cause problems with blood circulation that can make wounds on the skin heal slowly. The person may get tired quickly. High blood sugar levels can damage the eyes and kidneys, causing them to function poorly or stop working at all.

All these problems are made worse by:

Having high blood pressure makes it harder for your heart to work and pump blood, causes damage to other organs, and causes blood sugar levels to be too high. Smoking causes high blood pressure and makes having a stroke or heart attack more likely). It is important for someone with diabetes to stop smoking and lower her blood pressure.

But diabetes does not have to lead to these problems. By eating healthy foods, getting enough exercise, and reducing stress, you can help keep your blood sugar levels under control. Mouth and foot infections are easily prevented by learning a few ways to take care of your feet, teeth, and gums.

Types of diabetes

There are 3 types of diabetes:

Type 1 diabetes usually happens to young people and comes on very fast. The cause of Type 1 is not known. It is much less common than Type 2.

If a child or young adult feels thirsty much of the time, feels weak, or loses weight despite eating well, test him immediately. If he has Type 1 diabetes, he needs treatment fast.

Type 1 diabetes means that this person cannot process sugar well. To live he will need to inject a medicine called insulin every day for the rest of his life. He will need insulin and equipment, and education and support to use it correctly.
a man giving himself an injection on his belly.
The belly is a common place to inject insulin.

Type 2 diabetes usually begins in adults and comes on slowly, but young people can get it too. Most people with diabetes have Type 2 and that is mostly what this chapter covers.

People who eat more factory processed, sugary, and starchy foods and have less physical activity are more likely to get Type 2 diabetes. So are people with big bellies, who have family members with diabetes, or have experienced long-term hunger.

Treating Type 2 diabetes starts with healthy eating, increasing physical activity, and reducing stress. People with Type 2 may also benefit from medicines or plant medicines.
2 women looking at a sign.
Worried about
Come to the health worker talk tonight.

Community Clinic

Gestational diabetes is a kind of Type 2 diabetes that happens to some pregnant women. A woman with gestational diabetes will have high blood sugar and so will the baby in her womb. After birth, her blood sugar level may return to normal, or the woman may develop Type 2 diabetes.

Mothers with gestational diabetes may have difficult pregnancies and their babies tend to grow too big in the womb, making birth difficult. A woman with diabetes should give birth in a hospital in case she needs a Caesarean delivery. The baby may be born with low or high blood sugar or breathing problems.

Gestational diabetes is mostly managed with healthy eating and sometimes with medicines or plant medicines.

Most women with diabetes can give birth to healthy babies.
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This page was updated:30 Jun 2020