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Diabetes 101

Imagine you are at the doctor’s office for a check-up, and the doctor asks what you eat every day. You tell them about all your meals and snacks–school lunches, mac and cheese, some candy–and they nod. Then, they start using words you think sound familiar, but in reality, you have no idea what they mean. What is “glucose” and what does it have to do with how much sugar you eat? Why are they telling you about disDeases with funny names like “diabetes?”

Despite the fact that 10% of Americans have diabetes, no one tells us kids what it really means or how it’s caused. That is one reason the amount of people with diabetes continues to go up. The sooner we learn how to prevent diabetes, the more likely we can fight it.

Diabetes is a health condition that affects how we digest food. Some health conditions, like a cold, only last a couple of days. But diabetes is a long-lasting condition that can affect someone throughout their entire life.

To understand diabetes, we first have to understand how our bodies work when we are healthy. When you eat food, your body has to break it down to make energy. To do this, it breaks down the food into smaller molecules called “glucose.” A lot of people use “glucose” and “sugar” synonymously, but in reality, a lot of glucose molecules make up sugar. After we break down the sugar that is broken down into glucose and released to our bloodstream, our bodies have to store the glucose. An organ in our body called the “pancreas” naturally makes and releases a chemical called “insulin” into our bloodstreams. When our bodies sense insulin in our blood, it can take out glucose from the blood and store it as energy.

Diabetes is caused when there is a problem with the insulin in our bodies. There are two types of diabetes: type I and type II. With type I, someone’s pancreas can’t make insulin. This means there is no way for the body to take in the glucose and store it for later. It can lead to a lot of glucose in the blood, which has effects that we’ll talk about later. Type II diabetes happens when someone’s pancreas can make insulin, but their body can’t sense the insulin in the blood. This also leads to a high amount of glucose or sugar in someone’s blood. 

No one knows exactly why some people get type I diabetes. Researchers believe it might have to do with our DNA, which might make someone more likely to have it. Type II diabetes is thought to be caused by lack of exercise or too much sugar. One theory is that if we eat a lot of sugar, our bodies make insulin all the time, and eventually our cells become used to all the insulin in the blood. This means that the body will stop responding to the insulin and won’t store the glucose.

The impacts of diabetes can be serious. When there is too much sugar in the blood, someone might have to pee more and always be really thirsty. Over time, diabetes can cause serious health problems like heart disease, kidney disease, and even vision loss. Someone can start breaking down fat instead of sugar, which can cause a lot of pain. To avoid these problems, it’s really important to keep a close eye on blood sugar and try to stop type II from developing.

For someone living with type I diabetes, it is important to keep a close eye on their blood sugar. Technology allows them to do this with a continuous glucose monitor, which is a sensor that can be worn and checks on blood glucose. It is especially important to check blood sugar before meals and at bedtime–about 4 times a day. They also need to take insulin using an injection or an insulin pump, which allows their bodies to take up all the glucose in their blood and prevent any bad health problems. 

For type II diabetes, the most important parts of treatment also include monitoring blood glucose levels. Since insulin does not affect how the body takes in glucose, people with type II diabetes can’t get rid of the extra glucose with an insulin pump or injection. Instead, the best ways to keep their glucose in healthy ranges include eating less sugar and less junk food, like packaged and fast food. It is also good to increase their exercise. This means that the sugar levels in their blood will not increase to unhealthy levels.

All in all, diabetes is a lifelong disease that affects millions of people in the U.S. However, there is a chance we can decrease the number of people affected by type II diabetes. By learning about diabetes early on, we can start taking small actions to prevent the disease. To do this, doctors recommend physical activity, around 30 to 60 minutes every day. It is important to remember that all movement can be activity! This means sports, the gym, or even a long walk in the neighborhood. Additionally, while sugary foods and drinks are okay to eat every now and then, remember that too much can result in insulin resistance. Therefore, to prevent that resistance, doctors recommend eating it only in small amounts, or a couple times a week. By starting these healthy habits earlier on, our bodies won’t become resistant to insulin and us kids will have less of a chance of developing diabetes later in life.

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