November is Diabetes Awareness Month. I find it kind of ironic since November is also the month we celebrate our thankfulness by over-eating. But I digress! Historically, diabetes was classified as juvenile or adult onset. But, now, these terms are obsolete as Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes affect both adults and kids.
There are a bunch of different kinds of diabetes, but for simplicity’s sake, I’m only focusing on Types 1 and 2. In its simplest form, diabetes is an insulin problem. Either your body just doesn’t make insulin at all (Type 1) or your body no longer listens to the insulin you have (Type 2).
The Biology Basics:
It’s important to understand how the body uses food as energy to understand why diabetes is a problem. The body breaks down everything you eat into fats, proteins, and carbohydrates. Fats and proteins are slow energy, but carbohydrates are fast energy. The body breaks down (metabolizes) carbs into sugar (glucose). Insulin is the chemical in the body that tells every part of the system how to pick up glucose to use it for energy.
The pancreas releases insulin when blood sugar levels go up. Insulin is pretty cool, actually. When there is too much sugar in the blood for the body to use as energy, it even helps store sugar for later. Evolutionarily, this was awesome because people could thrive in feast or famine. Insulin allowed us to use glucose as energy when there was plenty, and stockpile it for when there was none.
This type of diabetes is an autoimmune condition. Which means, the body attacks the pancreas and destroys the insulin-making equipment. And, as a result, destroys the body’s ability to use sugar as energy. People with type 1 diabetes have to get insulin from somewhere else: a shot or a pump. We don’t know exactly what causes Type 1 diabetes, but we do know it seems to be a combination of genetic predisposition and environmental triggers.
This type of diabetes is lifestyle related. It happens when the body stops listening to insulin. In our society, we don’t have to worry about famine, or energy deficit. Food is readily available. Sounds great, except now we’re over-riding our body’s natural ability to regulate by bombarding it with sugar. For someone with type 2 diabetes, all of the sugar storage space is full, but blood sugar remains high. So, the pancreas just thinks the body didn’t get the insulin memo, so it makes more insulin. After a while, the body stops listening to insulin, the pancreas keeps making more, and we end up with “insulin resistance.” And, again, the person with diabetes can’t use sugar as energy.
Sugar, when it’s not being used as energy, is actually quite harmful to the body. It’s a sharp crystal so it damages small blood vessels in places like the eyes, kidneys, and brain. Also, the body needs energy to survive. Since it can’t use sugar, it breaks down muscle tissue and fat stores, and the waste products can be fatal.
Here are some early symptoms of diabetes from the Beyond Type 1 Network:
- Unquenchable thirst
- Frequent urination
- In babies and toddlers, heavy diapers
- In children with no previous concerns, sudden bedwetting
- Weight loss (despite an increased appetite)
- Decreased energy level
- Blurry vision
- A fruity smell to the breath
If you recognize any of the symptoms, contact your provider immediately. A simple in-office test for sugar in the urine is used for diagnosis. If that test is positive, then a drop of blood from the fingertip will confirm diabetes. Every day, thousands of adults and children around the world are diagnosed, but many go undetected. Early diagnosis cannot prevent diabetes, but it can head off potentially devastating, even fatal, health concerns.
All of the practitioners at KidMed are able to diagnose diabetes in your child if you are concerned or if their symptoms warrant testing. Also, we are able to help arrange for follow up with a pediatric endocrinologist (in consultation with your pediatrician) or direct hospital admission if needed!