Formerly known as juvenile diabetes, type 1 diabetes affects more than 3 million Americans. Only 10 percent of people with diabetes have type 1, but the disease is a chronic illness which requires life-long management. The average age of diagnosis is 14, though a type 1 diabetes diagnosis can happen as early as age 5. Type 1 diabetes can be caused by genetics or a virus that attacks the pancreas, and is sometimes accompanied by other autoimmune diseases.
How type 1 diabetes works
Type 1 diabetes occurs when the pancreas creates little to no insulin for the body to convert sugar into energy. When this happens, sugar builds up in the blood stream and can damage blood vessels throughout the body. Keeping blood sugar within a healthy range is crucial for type 1 diabetes, and people with type 1 diabetes will have to take insulin through injections or a pump.
Symptoms of type 1 diabetes
The following are common symptoms of type 1 diabetes:
- Increased thirst
- Frequent urination
- Increased hunger
- Weight loss
- Dry mouth
- Nausea and vomiting
- Abdominal pain
- Blurred vision
If you experience any of these symptoms, speak with your doctor about testing for diabetes.
When the body is unable to convert sugar into energy, it will turn to fat for its energy source. When fat breaks down too rapidly, the body produces ketones, which can make the blood become toxic. Ketoacidosis is a serious medical condition that can result in coma or even death. Some symptoms of ketoacidosis are dehydration, excessive thirst, fatigue, loss of appetite, shortness of breath, nausea and vomiting, and fruity-scented breath. If you suspect you have ketoacidosis, seek medical attention immediately.
Complications of type 1 diabetes
Poorly controlled diabetes can affect the whole body, especially if blood sugar stays elevated for long periods of time.
- Retinopathy. Diabetic retinopathy happens when blood vessels in the retina begin to bleed or leak fluid. This distorts vision and is the leading cause of vision loss and blindness in people with diabetes. Between 40 and 45 percent of Americans diagnosed with diabetes will develop diabetic retinopathy in their lifetime. If you have diabetes, it’s important to see an eye specialist annually to make sure your eyes remain healthy.
- Kidney disease. Elevated blood sugar can cause irreparable damage to the kidneys. The less control you have over your blood sugar levels, the greater your risk is of developing diabetic kidney disease. Kidney damage can be detected through a simple urine or blood test that measures albumin levels. There are two stages of diabetic kidney disease: microalbuminuria and proteinuria. Microalbuminuria can be treated and may go away with treatment. Proteinuria is irreversible and will likely result in end-stage kidney failure and require a transplant or life-long dialysis.
- Poor circulation. Uncontrolled diabetes can damage blood vessels throughout the body, making it hard for veins and arteries to do their job. This can result in poor circulation and numbness and tingling in the hands and feet, also called neuropathy. People with diabetes are far more likely to develop foot problems due to poor circulation. If you have diabetes, it’s important to inspect your feet regularly and monitor any infections or cuts.
Other types of nerve damage can occur all over the body if diabetes is poorly controlled. To prevent nerve damage, it’s important to keep your blood sugar within a healthy range with medication, diet, and exercise.
Diet and exercise
Diet and exercise are a crucial part of diabetes management. With diabetes, it’s generally a good rule to stick to foods that are low on the glycemic index (GI). On the GI, foods are ranked based on how many carbohydrates they have. Foods low on the GI take longer to digest, keep you full longer, and typically don’t cause dangerous blood sugar spikes. To see where a food ranks on the GI, click here. While strict diet restriction can be hard to maintain, diets that encourage low-carbohydrates consumption like keto and paleo are sometimes recommended for those with diabetes.
Exercise is also an important part of diabetes management because it directly affects your blood sugar levels. For example, going for a short walk after dinner can help lower your blood sugar almost immediately. Tracking exercise can help you see long-term trends of how different types of exercise make you feel and how they affect your blood sugar.
As always, consult with your doctor before beginning a diet or exercise regimen.