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Understanding The Causes And Symptoms Of Diabetes

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Written by Shaista Zainul, RN CDE, Diabetes Outreach Coordinator, William Osler Health System

Eleven million Canadians are living with diabetes or pre-diabetes and the number of people affected by this illness continues to grow each day. In fact, according to the Canadian Diabetes Association, diabetes is estimated to rise by 44 per cent from 2015 to 2025 in Canada. This is a very challenging disease for patients, caregivers and loved ones, and can touch anyone. Without proper management, the illness can seriously affect major organ systems in the body, and the quality of life of anyone living with the disease.

As we collectively work towards helping lessen the prevalence of diabetes and living healthier lives, it is vital for people to have the knowledge at hand to understand and help prevent or effectively manage it.

So, what is diabetes? In order for glucose (sugar) to be used as energy by the body, it needs a hormone called insulin, which is produced by the pancreas. Individuals are diagnosed with diabetes when the pancreas is not able to produce enough insulin and glucose remains in the blood stream, causing high blood sugar.

The different types of diabetes are:

  • Type 1 - occurs when the pancreas does not produce any, or very little insulin. Type 1 diabetes usually develops in childhood and requires insulin to regulate blood sugar levels.
  • Type 2 - occurs when the pancreas does not produce enough insulin; or the insulin being produced doesn't work effectively. Approximately 90% of people living with diabetes have Type 2 diabetes.
  • Gestational diabetes - this can occur during pregnancy when hormones cause the body's insulin not to work well, resulting in high blood sugar. A woman who has had gestational diabetes is at an increased risk of developing Type 2 diabetes later in life.

Some signs and symptoms of high blood sugar include excessive fatigue, unusual thirst,
excessive urination, increased hunger, cuts that take longer to heal, blurred vision, numbness or tingling in the hands or feet, weight change and frequent or recurring infections. However, it is important to note that one can have high blood sugar without experiencing any of these symptoms. This is why it is important to have regular checkups with your family physician.

Typically, individuals who are at greater risk of Type 2 diabetes include those who have a biological family member with diabetes, are overweight, have high blood pressure or high cholesterol, and/or are of Aboriginal, Hispanic, South Asian or African descent.

Pre-diabetes is also a diagnosis that should not be taken lightly. It refers to blood glucose levels that are higher than normal, but not high enough to be diagnosed with diabetes. If this condition is ignored, the individual may be at risk of developing Type 2 diabetes. This is a critical period, as although a diagnosis of diabetes may not be preventable for some, for others, being aware of risk factors and implementing healthy lifestyle practices can help decrease the risk or delay onset of the disease. Should you have pre-diabetes, we encourage you to consult with your local diabetes education centre to learn about self-management skills which you can apply to your daily routine.

Some of the healthy lifestyle practices recommended by the Canadian Diabetes Association include increasing physical activity, maintaining a healthy weight and establishing a daily healthy eating routine. Adopting these practices can help effectively manage blood sugar levels, preserve organ function and prevent serious complications such as a heart attack, stroke, blindness, amputation or kidney failure.

For the past 26 years, William Osler Health System's (Osler) Diabetes Education Centre has been dedicated to supporting patients with diabetes and pre-diabetes in the community. It provides education on things like monitoring blood sugar levels, medication administration, physical activity and detailed nutritional counselling. The centre, which has been accredited by the Canadian Diabetes Association five times, provides personalized care to patients and equips them with the knowledge and skills needed to cope with this illness. Honoured to be part of their circle of care, Osler's diabetes educators work with patients to set goals tailored to their lifestyle and monitor progress through follow up appointments to successfully manage their diabetes.

If you think you might be at risk for developing diabetes, we recommend that you complete the Canadian Diabetes Risk Questionnaire (CANRISK), and speak to your doctor regarding screening.

Shaista Zainul is a Registered Nurse and Certified Diabetes Educator. As the Coordinator of the Diabetes Outreach Program at William Osler Health System, she and her team of educators conduct monthly clinics and presentations at various community locations. She is passionate about helping our communities implement healthy lifestyle measures to lower diabetes in the region.

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