What is Diabetes?

What is Diabetes?

Diabetes is taking a serious toll on our nation. More than 37 million Americans suffer from the life-threatening disease. With diabetes, the body can no longer make enough insulin or use the insulin it does make to control blood sugar (blood glucose).

The majority of diabetics (about 95 percent) have Type 2 diabetes. With Type 2, the body makes insulin, but doesn’t respond to insulin the way it should. The other five percent have Type 1 diabetes, which keeps their bodies from making insulin.

About one in five people don’t even know they have diabetes.

The Dangers of Diabetes

Some of us may have an “ignorance is bliss” attitude when it comes to our health. But ignoring your risk for diabetes is dangerous because it can damage your internal organs.

High blood sugar increases inflammation in your arteries. When this happens, your organs don’t get the blood they need to stay healthy and function properly. With diabetes you have a greater risk for stroke, heart attack, kidney failure, blindness and advanced memory loss.

Diabetes also makes it difficult for wounds to heal, often allowing gangrene to develop. In some cases, poor circulation can lead to gangrene and even amputation of extremities.

Know These Warning Signs

So, with so many people unaware they have diabetes, how can you know if you are one of them? Diabetes doesn’t always give a clear warning. Signs may be mild or go unnoticed. But common symptoms include:

  • Frequent urination
  • Greater thirst
  • Excessive irritability
  • Extreme hunger and weight loss (Type 1)
  • Weight gain (Type 2)
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Loss of strength
  • Fatigue
  • Tingling or numbness in hands or feet
  • Wounds that don’t heal
  • Gum or bladder infections
  • Blurry eyesight
Diagnosing Diabetes

Simple blood tests can offer answers. For a fasting blood sugar test, a sample of blood is drawn the morning after an overnight fast to measure the body’s blood sugar level.

  • Less than 100 milligrams per deciliter (mg/dL) is considered normal
  • 100 to 125 mg/dL is considered insulin resistant or prediabetes
  • 126 mg/dL or higher on two separate tests is considered diabetes

More often, blood is drawn for a hemoglobin A1C test. The test is repeated once a month for three months to measure the body’s blood sugar level.

  • Normal – less than 5.7%
  • Prediabetes (insulin resistance) - 5.7% to 6.4%
  • Diabetes – 6.5% or higher

Once you have diabetes, even if you get it under control with insulin or medication, you still have to deal with its long-term effects on your organs. You will always be considered diabetic, even if you don’t require medication.

A Chance to Turn Things Around

Insulin resistance presents a small window for a course correction.

By making some healthy changes, people who are insulin resistant can return their blood glucose levels to normal ranges and prevent insulin resistance from becoming Type 2 diabetes.

Lose the extra pounds.

While weight loss can seem daunting, every pound you lose can improve your health. Studies show that even a modest weight loss of just seven to 10 percent of your body weight—combined with regular exercise—can reduce the risk of developing diabetes by nearly 60 percent.

Get moving and keep moving.

There are so many good reasons to exercise. Besides helping you maintain a healthy weight, physical activity lowers your blood sugar and boosts your sensitivity to insulin, which helps keep your blood sugar within a normal range.

Eat good food.

In a time when frozen foods and fast food make it far too easy to choose convenience over nutrition, we’ve moved away from what our bodies really want and need—fresh, healthy foods that aren’t loaded with hidden sugars and fats.

Talk with your doctor.

Be proactive and schedule your annual physical exam. Ask your doctor if you should be screened for diabetes and discuss steps you can take to prevent it.

Find more in-depth information about diabetes monitoring and treatment in our series of easy-to-understand videos.

Sources: Diabetes Fast Facts, leaving site icon The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2023; Blood Sugar and Insulin at Work, leaving site icon Prediabetes, leaving site icon American Diabetes Association, 2022.

Originally published 1/13/2016; Revised 2019, 2022