What you need to know about Diabetes
We look at the fastest-growing health condition in the UK, affecting millions of people.
Diabetes is one of the biggest health issues of our time, affecting around 4.9 million people in the UK. According to the charity Diabetes UK, one in 10 people will have diabetes by 2030.
Here, we take a deeper look at the two main types of diabetes, how they are managed, and the symptoms to look out for.
What is Type 1 Diabetes?
Around 8% of people in the UK with diabetes have type 1 diabetes. It’s a serious, lifelong condition that is caused by an autoimmune attack. This means the body attacks the cells in the pancreas that make the hormone insulin.
We all need insulin to live. It performs the essential job of allowing the glucose in our blood to enter our cells and fuel our bodies. This glucose comes from breaking down carbohydrates in the foods we eat. If glucose builds up in the blood, it can lead to serious complications and damage parts of your body, including your heart, eyes, feet or kidneys.
If you have type 1 diabetes, you’ll need to take insulin via injections or a pump to manage your blood glucose levels. You’ll also need to test these regularly, to make sure they’re within a safe range.
“A lot of anxiety for patients when they’re first diagnosed with type 1 is around knowing how to manage their blood sugar levels,” says Benenden Health GP Dr Fiona Warner. “Technologies to help with this are advancing all the time. That not only helps to alleviate those anxieties, it also helps with control of the diabetes.
“Having diabetes puts you at a higher risk of cardiovascular problems. To keep that risk as low as possible, we advise people with type 1 to eat a healthy diet and follow an active lifestyle.”
If you have type 1 diabetes, your healthcare team or GP will be able to help you keep your blood sugar levels within your target range, so you can live well with your condition and reduce your risk of developing complications in the future.
What is type 2 diabetes?
Type 2 diabetes is a serious condition where your pancreas can’t make enough insulin, or the insulin it makes doesn’t work properly. This can tire your pancreas out and means your blood glucose levels keep rising.
“There isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach to managing type 2 diabetes,” says Dr Warner. “If you need help or support, there should be a clinician at your practice who has expertise in diabetes. There’s also very good information and resources online from Diabetes UK about how to manage type 2 diabetes.
“If your blood sugar levels aren’t too high, you can treat type 2 diabetes with lifestyle changes,” adds Dr Warner.
“If medication is needed to control your blood sugar levels, there are lots of different drugs that can be used. So if you try one and it doesn’t suit, it can always be changed. We’d always recommend a review every six months to discuss how your condition should be managed.”
What are the symptoms of Diabetes?
Type 1 and type 2 diabetes share these common symptoms:
Going to the toilet a lot, especially at night
Unexplained weight loss (mainly type 1)
Genital itching or recurrent thrush
Cuts and wounds taking longer to heal
“The difference between the symptoms of type 1 and type 2 diabetes is that type 1 is often picked up at a younger age, and the symptoms can often appear quite quickly, making them harder to ignore,” says Dr Warner.
“Sometimes, type 2 diabetes can have more vague symptoms and people present just not feeling themselves. “As type 2 diabetes is more commonly seen in people who are overweight, I would advise anyone who is overweight to discuss a diabetes check with their GP.”
How do you reverse Type 2?
Type 2 diabetes used to be considered a lifelong condition, but the latest research shows that losing a significant amount of weight – around 15kg – can return blood sugar levels to healthy levels. You might have heard this referred to as ‘reversing’ type 2, although Diabetes UK prefers to use the term ‘remission’. This is because further research is needed to understand the risk of future complications and whether diabetes returns.
Scientists now know that reducing the amount of fat in the pancreas leads to the recovery of its insulin-producing cells, as well as restoring the organ’s overall health. “People with type 2 can often return their blood sugar levels to the ‘non-diabetic’ range by losing weight and some people can stay in remission for many years. However, you will need to maintain and monitor those lifestyle changes, otherwise your diabetes could come back,” says Dr Warner.
Am I at risk of Diabetes?
There’s nothing you can do to prevent type 1 diabetes, but your risk of type 2 increases with age. Type 2 diabetes is two to four times more likely in people of South Asian, African-Caribbean or Black African descent.
Genetics also plays a big part. You’re two to six times more likely to get type 2 diabetes if you have a parent, brother, sister or child with diabetes. Obesity and high blood pressure are also risk factors.
‘Pre-diabetes’ is where your blood glucose levels are higher than usual, but not yet high enough to be classed as type 2 diabetes. Lifestyle changes such as losing weight can help you get back to a healthy range.
How a Benenden Health Assessment might help
A health assessment is a series of tests and examinations designed to highlight possible health concerns in the early stages. It’s an excellent opportunity to help you gain a better understanding of your current state of health and how you can work towards improving it.
Even if you’re not feeling unwell, conditions such as type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure or high cholesterol may have no symptoms but could dramatically affect your quality of life in the future.
A health assessment can help identify warning signs of hereditary and hidden illnesses. It can also provide tests that aren’t normally available on the NHS unless you’re symptomatic.
Find out more about Benenden Health assessments, starting from £74 for members.