Living with diabetes blog

Take time to understand diabetes and your risk

By Sara J. Carlson, R.N., C.D.E. September 29, 2016

To understand diabetes, it's helpful to understand how glucose and insulin work together in the body.

Insulin is a hormone produced by the pancreas which works like a key. The insulin key attaches itself to an insulin receptor on the surface of the cell which opens a channel for glucose to move from the bloodstream into the cell. If this mechanism is working properly, the glucose level in the blood stays low while the cells get the energy (in the form of glucose) that they need to function.

Type 1 diabetes develops when, for reasons that aren't clear, the body gets rid of the insulin-producing cells of the pancreas. Sometimes this happens in people with a family history of type 1 diabetes. Also at higher risk for type 1 diabetes are people with autoimmune diseases.

Type 2 diabetes, which is far more common than type 1, develops from low insulin production and/or insulin resistance. Low insulin production simply means that the pancreas isn't producing enough insulin to meet the body's needs.

Insulin resistance is a condition in which the insulin receptors on the surface of the cells won't allow the insulin to attach and thus the channel for glucose to move from the bloodstream into the cells remains closed.

Type 2 diabetes may happen in people who have a family history of diabetes. In addition, conditions which increase the body's need for insulin raise the chances of developing diabetes. These include:

  • Extra weight.
  • A large waist.
  • Inactivity.
  • The risk goes up as you get older, especially after age 45.
  • Although it's not clear why, people of certain races — including African-Americans, Hispanics, American Indians, Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders — are more likely to develop diabetes than other groups.
  • If you had gestational diabetes when you were pregnant, your risk of developing diabetes later goes up. If you gave birth to a baby who weighed more than 9 pounds, you also are at a higher risk of diabetes.
  • For women, having polycystic ovary syndrome raises the risk of diabetes.
  • Sleep problems.
  • Smoking.

Some of these risk factors, such as family history, age and race, can't be modified. Changing the modifiable risk factors isn't easy, but it can be done. Whether you have diabetes or are at risk for developing diabetes, talk to your health care provider about ways to improve your chance of living a long and healthy life.

Sept. 29, 2016