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Diabetes: Symptoms, Treatments, Prevention, and More

By Anastasia Climan, RDN, CD-N

Medically Reviewed by Natalie Olsen, MS, RDN, LD, ACSM-EP

Published on April 11, 2022

Diabetes is a common health issue with serious consequences. Fortunately, there are several ways to keep diabetes under control. A combination of lifestyle changes and medical treatment will give you the best chances of protecting your health from the damaging effects of diabetes.

Written by
Anastasia Climan, RDN, CD-N
Registered Dietitian Nutritionist
Anastasia Climan is a registered dietitian whose career progressed into public health, corporate wellness, and private practice roles. She earned a Bachelor of Science from the University of Connecticut's Coordinated Undergraduate Dietetics Program in 2011. She's led wellness initiatives on HIV/AIDS, children's health, and diabetes.
Medically Reviewed by
Natalie Olsen, MS, RDN, LD, ACSM-EP
Registered Dietitian, Certified Exercise Physiologist
Natalie is a registered dietitian, functional medicine practitioner and certified exercise physiologist with over 15 years experience in the health and wellness industry and holds a Master's degree in Human Nutrition and Functional Medicine through a collaborative program provided by the University of Western States and the Institute of Functional Medicine.
Diabetes: Symptoms, Treatments, Prevention, and More
Photo credit: iStock.com/BakiBG

According to the CDC, around 11% of people in the US have diabetes. And more than triple this number is affected by prediabetes (38%). (1)

Routine bloodwork at your annual physical can spot early signs of diabetes.

If you find out you’re at risk, making changes sooner than later may reduce diabetes’ hazardous effects — including blindness, amputations, or heart disease.

For some people, diabetes can be prevented through exercise, nutrition, and other healthy lifestyle habits. But others will also require medical treatment.

Understanding your risk factors and checking in with your healthcare team are proactive ways to stay ahead of diabetes.

What Causes Diabetes?

Diabetes is a problem related to blood sugar.

The hormone that’s supposed to regulate blood sugar is insulin. A small organ near the abdomen called the pancreas is responsible for making insulin.

There are a couple primary types of diabetes — type 1 and type 2 diabetes.

Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune disorder where the immune system attacks the insulin-producing cells of the pancreas. (2)

As a result, people with type 1 diabetes can’t make insulin, and their blood sugar gets out of control quickly. They require insulin to be given with shots or an insulin pump in order to manage blood sugar and stay alive and healthy. (3)

Usually, in type 2 diabetes, the pancreas still produces insulin. However, cells in the rest of the body become resistant to it, meaning insulin isn’t as effective at doing its job — lowering blood sugar.

That’s why insulin resistance leads to high blood sugars. Over time, elevated blood sugar causes damage throughout the body. (4)

The exact causes are unknown, but experts think type 1 diabetes is caused by a combination of genetics and environmental factors. (2)

Type 2 diabetes may also be linked to genetics, but lifestyle can significantly affect who gets it and how severe the condition is.

Some of the risk factors for type 2 diabetes include:

  • Age 45 or older
  • Being overweight or obese
  • Family history of diabetes
  • History of heart disease, stroke, or depression
  • Low HDL (“good cholesterol”), high triglycerides, or high blood pressure
  • Sedentary (inactive) lifestyle

If you were pregnant in the past and experienced gestational diabetes or gave birth to a baby who was over nine pounds, you’re at higher risk of developing type 2 diabetes later in life. (5)

Some medications and hormonal health conditions — like hyperthyroidism — can also increase the risk of diabetes. (2)

Additionally, certain racial groups have an increased chance of type 2 diabetes — including African Americans, Alaskan Natives, American Indians, Asian Americans, Latino, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islanders. (5)

Summary 

Some causes of diabetes are avoidable, while others aren’t.

Type 1 diabetes usually develops in childhood. However, type 2 diabetes may be preventable or reversed if caught early.

People with known risk factors for diabetes should be especially mindful about screening.

Diabetes Symptoms and Diagnosis

The symptoms of type 1 and type 2 diabetes are similar, but type 1 diabetes tends to happen suddenly and earlier in life. Type 2 diabetes is typically a more gradual process. (6)

Signs that you may have blood sugar problems include:

  • Blurry vision
  • Fatigue
  • Frequent urination
  • Persistent thirst and hunger

Type 1 diabetes can cause unexplained weight loss because the body isn’t absorbing and processing sugar properly.

With type 2 diabetes, high blood sugar levels lead to circulation problems that may feel like numbness or tingling in the feet and hands. (6)

Type 2 diabetes usually starts with prediabetes. But unfortunately, many people with prediabetes don’t realize they have it.

A blood test called the hemoglobin A1c test (HgA1c) measures blood sugar control over the past three months. HgA1c reflects the percentage of blood cells attached to sugar — or glucose molecules — in the bloodstream.

A result of 6.5% or higher means you have diabetes. Levels between 5.7% and 6.4% indicate prediabetes. (7)

Doctors usually recommend a glucose tolerance test to check for gestational diabetes during pregnancy.

If your healthcare provider suspects that you have diabetes, they may ask you to check your glucose levels first thing in the morning or throughout the day to understand your blood sugar control better.

You can check your blood sugar using a simple finger prick and a handheld device called a glucose meter. (8)

Summary 

It’s not always possible to tell when you have diabetes based on how you feel, but the signs of type 1 diabetes are usually more apparent than type 2.

You can do tests at your doctor’s office and at home to determine if you have diabetes.

Your healthcare provider will help you interpret your test results for an official diagnosis and diabetes management plan.

How Is Diabetes Treated?

Today, management of type 1 diabetes requires medication. Since the pancreas can’t make insulin, insulin needs to be injected or provided through a continuous insulin pump. (3)

Nonetheless, medical advancements are paving the way for changes in how type 1 diabetes is viewed and treated. One area of research looking at stem cells has shown early promise for a functional cure. (9)

The treatment for type 2 diabetes varies depending on how severe the condition is when you’re diagnosed.

For prediabetes, lifestyle changes — like eating healthier and exercising more — may be sufficient to get your blood sugar under control.

However, if you’ve had diabetes for a long time or have other complications — such as kidney disease or infections that won’t heal — you may need more aggressive treatments.

Some medications for type 2 diabetes work by reducing insulin resistance or enhancing what’s known as insulin sensitivity. By making your cells more responsive to insulin, blood sugar naturally improves.

The most common example is a medication called metformin. (10)

Other times, insulin is prescribed for the management of type 2 diabetes. But before taking this step, it’s essential to make lifestyle changes to help control your blood sugars.

There are a few key guidelines for managing life with type 2 diabetes.

Embarking on a weight-loss program to reduce body weight by 5% to 7% is recommended for people with prediabetes and type 2. (11)

If you’ve been discouraged by weight-loss attempts in the past, remember, it’s okay to have small goals. For example, if you currently weigh 200 pounds, a 5% weight loss equals 10 pounds.

Giving yourself time to work towards this goal and seeking the support of a registered dietitian or diabetes support group can improve your chances of success.

Experts also recommend 150 minutes per week of physical activity. (11)

While this guideline is beneficial for diabetes, it also applies to the general population.

You may think that 150 minutes is too much, but any progress towards this number is a step in the right direction.

For example, taking 30-minute walks five days per week is one way to reach this milestone — even if you start slow.

Because blood sugar levels are directly linked to diet, it’s a good idea to start a food diary to get a clearer picture of what you’re eating.

You can use online apps or write down your meals and snacks on paper. Post a list on your refrigerator or set a reminder on your phone to help you stay accountable and remember to keep track.

Don’t forget that drinks count. Sweet coffee drinks, sugar in tea, soda, and juice can all be concentrated sources of sugar that lead to blood sugar spikes.

By becoming mindful of your intake, you can start to connect the dots on how your body responds after consuming different foods and beverages.

Summary 

Diabetes is a treatable condition. Some people need medication, while others can control diabetes through lifestyle changes alone.

Getting a handle on diabetes is essential because damage accumulates when blood sugars stay high over the long term.

Related: Top Best Diet Habits for Weight Loss

Can You Prevent Diabetes?

Currently, scientists don’t have an easy solution for preventing type 1 diabetes. Until experts better understand the cause of type 1 diabetes, the only option is to manage the condition after it’s been diagnosed.

While some people are genetically predisposed to type 2 diabetes, many people can prevent it — or at least help keep it under control — by developing healthy habits. (12)

If you’re overweight, losing excess body fat can prevent or delay type 2 diabetes. A high-fiber, antioxidant-packed dietary pattern based on fruits and vegetables may protect against diabetes. (12)

According to a recent review, following a Mediterranean diet is associated with a lower risk of type 2 diabetes. (13)

The Mediterranean diet focuses on healthier fat sources — including olive oil and nuts — instead of butter or mayonnaise.

It also emphasizes mindful eating by preparing and sharing meals with others and consuming enough fiber, omega-3 fatty acids, and anti-inflammatory compounds found in fruits, vegetables, seafood, and beans.

Additionally, living a sedentary lifestyle is associated with the development of type 2 diabetes.

And short-term studies show that exercise temporarily reduces insulin resistance, suggesting that the benefits of physical activity start to happen right away. (12)

Making an effort to move more and sit less can improve the way your body processes sugar and responds to insulin.

If your work requires you to sit at a desk, consider scheduling 10-minute movement breaks to stand up, stretch, or go up and down the stairs.

Look for opportunities to add physical activity to your life by inviting a friend for a hike or riding a stationary bike while you watch television.

Even if you’re not able to prevent diabetes, finding it early can make all the difference in how much it affects your life.

Keeping up with your annual physicals and reaching out to your healthcare provider if you notice usual symptoms will help you stay informed shortly after warning signs appear.

Summary

There’s no way to prevent type 1 diabetes, as science is still trying to figure out what causes it.

However, you may be able to prevent type 2 diabetes or even reverse it after you’ve been diagnosed.

Living a healthy and active lifestyle is your best defense against developing diabetes.

The Bottom Line

Getting diagnosed with diabetes may seem overwhelming, but it’s more common than many people realize.

Although the symptoms can be scary, you can gain control over diabetes once you understand what’s going on inside your body.

Emerging therapies and treatment options for type 1 diabetes aim to make living with the condition less of a burden.

For example, you now have a choice of different ways to administer insulin that fit best with your lifestyle. (3)

And it’s possible that stem cell research will progress to the point of a cure for type 1 diabetes. (9)

Anyone can be at risk for type 2 diabetes. But learning how food, physical activity, and other choices impact blood sugar helps bring actionable steps into focus.

A prediabetes or diabetes diagnosis shouldn’t leave you feeling helpless. You can do a lot to make a difference in how the condition affects your long-term well-being and quality of life.

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    https://www.cdc.gov/diabetes/data/statistics-report/index.html
  2. Symptoms & Causes of Diabetes | NIDDK:
    https://www.niddk.nih.gov/health-information/diabetes/overview/symptoms-causes
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    https://www.uptodate.com/contents/type-1-diabetes-insulin-treatment-beyond-the-basics
  4. Insulin Resistance and Diabetes | CDC:
    https://www.cdc.gov/diabetes/basics/insulin-resistance.html#:~:text=A%20lot%20of%20blood%20sugar,try%20to%20make%20cells%20respond.
  5. Risk Factors for Type 2 Diabetes | NIDDK:
    https://www.niddk.nih.gov/health-information/diabetes/overview/risk-factors-type-2-diabetes
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    https://www.diabetes.org/diabetes/type-1/symptoms
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    https://www.diabetes.org/diabetes/a1c/diagnosis
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  9. A new therapy for treating Type 1 diabetes | Harvard Stem Cell Institute (HSCI):
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  10. Metformin: MedlinePlus Drug Information:
    https://medlineplus.gov/druginfo/meds/a696005.html
  11. Diabetes Self-Management: Facilitating Lifestyle Change - American Family Physician:
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  12. Nutrients | Free Full-Text | Prevention of Type 2 Diabetes by Lifestyle Changes: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis | HTML:
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  13. Mediterranean Diet Effects on Type 2 Diabetes Prevention, Disease Progression, and Related Mechanisms. A Review - PMC:
    https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7468821/