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Diabetes

Diabetes mellitus (pronounce—often simply referred to as diabetes)—is a condition in which a person has a high blood sugar (glucose) level as a result of the body either not producing enough insulin, or because body cells do not properly respond to the insulin that is produced. Insulin is a hormone produced in the pancreas which enables body cells to absorb glucose, to turn into energy. If the body cells do not absorb the glucose, the glucose accumulates in the blood (hyperglycemia), leading to various potential medical complications.

There are many types of diabetes, the most common of which are:

  • Type 1 diabetes: results from the body’s failure to produce insulin, and presently requires the person to inject insulin.
  • Type 2 diabetes: results from insulin resistance, a condition in which cells fail to use insulin properly, sometimes combined with an absolute insulin deficiency.
  • Gestational diabetes: is when pregnant women, who have never had diabetes before, have a high blood glucose level during pregnancy. It may precede development of type 2 DM.

Other forms of diabetes mellitus include congenital diabetes, which is due to genetic defects of insulin secretion, cystic fibrosis-related diabetes, steroid diabetes induced by high doses of glucocorticoids, and several forms of monogenic diabetes.

All forms of diabetes have been treatable since insulin became medically available in 1921, and type 2 diabetes can be controlled with tablets, but it is chronic condition that usually cannot be cured. Pancreas transplants have been tried with limited success in type 1 DM; gastric bypass surgery has been successful in many with morbid obesity and type 2 DM; and gestational diabetes usually resolves after delivery. Diabetes without proper treatments can cause many complications. Acute complications include hypoglycemia, diabetic ketoacidosis, or nonketotic hyperosmolar coma. Serious long-term complications include cardiovascular disease, chronic renal failure, retinal damage. Adequate treatment of diabetes is thus important, as well as blood pressure control and lifestyle factors such as smoking cesation and maintaining a healthy body weight.

As of 2000 at least 171 million people worldwide suffer from diabetes, or 2.8% of the population. Type 2 diabetes is by far the most common, affecting 90 to 95% of the U.S. diabetes population.

The classical symptoms of DM are polyuria (frequent urination), polydipsia (increased thirst) and polyphagia (increased hunger). Symptoms may develop quite rapidly (weeks or months) in type 1 diabetes, particularly in children. However, in type 2 diabetes symptoms usually develop much more slowly and may be subtle or completely absent. Type 1 diabetes may also cause a rapid yet significant weight loss (despite normal or even increased eating) and irreducible mental fatigue. All of these symptoms except weight loss can also manifest in type 2 diabetes in patients whose diabetes is poorly controlled, although unexplained weight loss may be experienced at the onset of the disease. Final diagnosis is made by measuring the blood glucose concentration.

When the glucose concentration in the blood is raised beyond its renal threshold (about 10 mmol/L, although this may be altered in certain conditions, such as pregnancy), reabsorption of glucose in the proximal renal tubuli is incomplete, and part of the glucose remains in the urine (glycosuria). This increases the osmotic pressure of the urine and inhibits reabsorption of water by the kidney, resulting in increased urine production (polyuria) and increased fluid loss. Lost blood volume will be replaced osmotically from water held in body cells and other body compartments, causing dehydration and increased thirst.

Prolonged high blood glucose causes glucose absorption, which leads to changes in the shape of the lenses of the eyes, resulting in vision changes; sustained sensible glucose control usually returns the lens to its original shape. Blurred vision is a common complaint leading to a diabetes diagnosis; type 1 should always be suspected in cases of rapid vision change, whereas with type 2 changes is generally more gradual, but should still be suspected.

Patients (usually with type 1 diabetes) may also initially present with diabetic ketoacidosis (DKA), an extreme state of metabolic dysregulation characterized by the smell of acetone on the patient’s breath; a rapid, deep breathing known as Kussmaul breathing; polyuria; nausea; vomiting and abdominal pain; and any of many altered states of consciousness or arousal (such as hostility and mania or, equally, confusion and lethargy). In severe DKA, coma may follow, progressing to death. Diabetic ketoacidosis is a medical emergency and requires immediate hospitalization.

A rarer but equally severe possibility is hyperosmolar nonketotic state, which is more common in type 2 diabetes and is mainly the result of dehydration due to loss of body water. Often, the patient has been drinking extreme amounts of sugar-containing drinks, leading to a vicious circle in regard to the water loss.

A number of skin rashes can occur in diabetes that is collectively known as diabetic dermadromes.

Causes

Type 2 diabetes is determined primarily by lifestyle factors and genes.

Lifestyle

A number of lifestyle factors are known to be important to the development of type 2 diabetes. In one study, those who had high levels of physical activity, a healthy diet, did not smoke, and consumed alcohol in moderation had an 82% lower rate of diabetes. When a normal weight was included the rate was 89% lower. In this study a healthy diet was defined as one high in fiber, with a high polyunsaturated to saturated fat ratio, and a lower mean glycemic index. Obesity has been found to contribute to approximately 55% type 2 diabetes, and decreasing consumption of saturated fats and trans fatty acids while replacing them with unsaturated fats may decrease the risk. The increased rate of childhood obesity in between the 1960s and 2000s is believed to have lead to the increase in type 2 diabetes in children and adolescents.

Environmental toxins may contribute to recent increases in the rate of type 2 diabetes. A positive correlation has been found between the concentration in the urine of bisphenol A, a constituent of some plastics, and the incidence of type 2 diabetes.

Prevention

Type 1

Type 1 diabetes risk is known to depend upon a genetic predisposition based on HLA types (particularly types DR3 and DR4), an unknown environmental trigger (suspected to be an infection, although none has proven definitive in all cases), and an uncontrolled autoimmune response that attacks the insulin producing beta cells. Some research has suggested that breastfeeding decreased the risk in later life; various other nutritional risk factors are being studied, but no firm evidence has been found. Giving children 2000 IU of Vitamin D during their first year of life is associated with reduced risk of type 1 diabetes, though the causal relationship is obscure.

Children with antibodies to beta cell proteins (i.e. at early stages of an immune reaction to them) but no overt diabetes, and treated with vitamin B-3 (niacin), had less than half the diabetes onset incidence in a 7-year time span as did the general population, and an even lower incidence relative to those with antibodies as above, but who received no vitamin B3.

Type 2

Lifestyle

Type 2 diabetes risk can be reduced in many cases by making changes in diet and increasing physical activity. The American Diabetes Association (ADA) recommends maintaining a healthy weight, getting at least 2½ hours of exercise per week (several brisk sustained walks appear sufficient), having a modest fat intake, and eating sufficient fiber (e.g., from whole grains). The ADA does not recommend alcohol consumption as a preventive, but it is interesting to note that moderate alcohol intake may reduce the risk (though heavy consumption absolutely and clearly increases damage to bodily systems significantly); a similarly confused connection between low dose alcohol consumption and heart disease is termed the French Paradox.

There is inadequate evidence that eating foods of low glycemic index is clinically helpful despite recommendations and suggested diets emphasizing this approach.

Diets that are very low in saturated fats reduce the risk of becoming insulin resistant and diabetic. Study group participants whose “physical activity level and dietary, smoking, and alcohol habits were all in the low-risk group had an 82% lower incidence of diabetes.” In another study of dietary practice and incidence of diabetes, “foods rich in vegetable oils, including non-hydrogenated margarines, nuts, and seeds, should replace foods rich in saturated fats from meats and fat-rich dairy products. Consumption of partially hydrogenated fats should be minimized.”

There are numerous studies which suggest connections between some aspects of Type II diabetes with ingestion of certain foods or with some drugs. Breastfeeding may also be associated with the prevention of type 2 of the disease in mothers.

Medications

Some studies have shown delayed progression to diabetes in predisposed patients through prophylactic use of metformin, rosiglitazone, or valsartan. In patients on hydroxychloroquine for rheumatoid arthritis, incidence of diabetes was reduced by 77% though causal mechanisms are unclear. Lifestyle interventions are however more effective than metformin at preventing diabetes regardless of weight loss.

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