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Sugar and diabetes: What you should know

It is estimated that 3.7 million Canadians, live with diabetes, a serious condition that is too often taken lightly.

Sugar and diabetes: What you should know

Although numerous people have heard of the disease diabetes, it can be a rather abstract concern for many. Diabetes is often put down to genetics, seen as inevitable, or simply viewed as an illness that only affects the elderly and overweight people. But all that is very far from the truth.

We spoke with Dr. Jean-Marie Ekoé, endocrinologist, epidemiologist and President of the Diabetes Québec Professional Council, to better understand how this disease develops and what we can do to avoid or control it.

Type 1. Type 2. Which is which?

The two main types of diabetes are types 1 and 2. “Essentially, type 1 is an autoimmune disease, while type 2 is highly associated with genetics and lifestyle,” Dr. Ekoé explained. “The difference is to do with insulin, a hormone produced by the pancreas that takes sugar from the blood and stores it as glucose in the liver, muscles and fat cells.”

Type 1 diabetes generally affects the young and accounts for about 5 to 10% of diabetics. In type 1, the pancreas is unable to produce insulin. However, type 2 is a disease caused by a resistance to insulin. There is too much insulin in the body to begin with. However, these high levels of insulin do not result in a reduction of the diabetic’s high blood sugar levels (glycaemia). Eventually, the patient will not only exhibit a resistance to insulin, but his or her pancreas will be unable to produce any more insulin. So, type 2 diabetes involves two defects: a resistance to insulin and the inability to produce enough insulin to bring blood sugar down to normal levels.

“Type 2 diabetes is much more common than type 1, and is usually diagnosed in adults 40 and over,” explained Dr. Ekoé. “Having said that, we have been seeing diagnoses in childhood and adolescence over the past few years, mainly because of its association with obesity, which is due to sedentary lifestyles and overeating.”

Feeding the disease

When our diets are rich in refined carbohydrates, we are basically filling our blood with sugar, as these foods quickly decompose into sugar inside the body. The body responds by producing insulin, which reduces the level of sugar in the blood by storing it. When our cells, especially fat cells, are bombarded with insulin day after day, we gain weight (obesity), and the cells become desensitized, or resistant, to the presence of insulin. As a result, our blood sugar levels remain constantly high.

Too much sugar in the blood

Chronically high blood sugar can cause devastating and irreversible damage to the kidneys, heart, nerves and eyes. It is among the causes of cardiovascular disease, obesity, osteoporosis, autoimmune diseases, cancer and even accelerated ageing.

According to Dr. Ekoé, “For type 1 and type 2 diabetics, a blood sugar level that is too high over several years, unfortunately, leads to well-known complications, such as blindness (of which diabetes is the primary cause) or renal failure, which requires dialysis.”

Can anyone develop diabetes?

According to our expert, yes. Anyone who has an unbalanced diet that is too high in sugar and/or refined carbohydrates and who is not physically active is at risk of developing the condition. “There is a long list of risk factors for diabetes,” Dr. Ekoé explained. “The main ones are family history; excess weight and obesity; age; a sedentary lifestyle; prediabetes; gestational diabetes; and African, Asian, Hispanic or Aboriginal ancestry.”

It is estimated that 3.7 million Canadians, live with diabetes, a serious condition that is too often taken lightly. Without treatment, it can lead to serious and sometimes fatal complications.

Prevention

“You can reduce your risk of diabetes by attacking its risk factors,” said Dr. Ekoé. “Maintaining a healthy weight and getting physical exercise are the basic elements of diabetes prevention.”

Good news for fans of Pokémon Go! British researchers at the Leicester Diabetes Centre, which specializes in international diabetes research, see this mobile application as a powerful weapon against sedentary lifestyles and obesity by encouraging people to get up and walk around. One of the main recommendations for preventing and controlling diabetes is to get at least two and a half hours of regular physical exercise per week.

How can diabetics control their condition?

Our expert was adamant: “Regular physical activity and a healthy diet are the foundations of any treatment for diabetes with the goal of better controlling sugar levels,” he explained. “In many instances, these two measures must be accompanied by medication taken orally, or by insulin injections.”

“Every diabetic is unique, and his or her treatment must be personalized,” Dr. Ekoé added. “Diabetes treatment involves the combination of several different medications, with or without insulin injections. Now is a good time for diabetics, as new medications that are effective and sufficiently safe for the heart and blood vessels are becoming available.”

What role can healthcare professionals and relatives play?

Living with diabetes can cause huge emotional, physical and financial stress for patients and their relatives. Luckily, there are resources available to all to help with the impact of the disease.

“The patient plays a primary role, and it is crucial that he or she understands quickly the nature of diabetes and the characteristics of his or her disease,” commented Dr. Eoké. “In understanding his or her own disease, the patient acquires a first weapon to help control it. The existence of a structured support organization like Diabetes Canada is essential for diabetics. It is an excellent meeting place and an endless source of information on everything related to diabetes. They help discouraged patients find answers to almost any question.”

Unfortunately, the road to type 2 diabetes is paved with delicious temptations. Although prevention may not seem as sweet, the reassuring fact is that this potentially fatal illness is neither inevitable nor irreversible. If you begin taking care of your body today, you will be better off down the line. You’ll even start feeling better right away. Everyone loves instant gratification!

It is estimated that 3.7 million Canadians, live with diabetes, a serious condition that is too often taken lightly. Without treatment, it can lead to serious and sometimes fatal complications.

The Raise Your Hand for Diabetes initiative was established to raise awareness about this important issue in Canada. This one-of-a-kind campaign aims to foster an engaged community, to give diabetics a voice and to unite everyone who wishes to further the conversation for all Canadians affected by the illness.

If you’re diabetic, a friend or family member of a diabetic or a healthcare professional, we encourage you to visit raiseyourhandfordiabetes.ca where you will find practical information on diabetes management and available resources. Don’t forget to share your story with an image or quotation. Give diabetes a voice!

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