Your Top Diabetes Questions, Answered

Understand the basics about type 2 diabetes, including what causes it, how to treat it, and how to lower your risk of getting it.

A man tests his blood with a finger prick, as he learns how to control and treat his type 2 diabetes with diet and exercise.

Diabetes occurs when your body can no longer handle glucose the way it’s supposed to. Glucose is a simple sugar that is the basic fuel of the body. Foods that supply glucose include fruits, vegetables, and other carbohydrates. The body’s digestive system converts these carbohydrates into glucose, which is then absorbed into the bloodstream and transported to the body’s cells. 

To get the glucose into your body’s cells, you need a hormone called insulin. Sometimes the body either stops producing insulin (as in the case of type 1 diabetes) or can’t produce enough (type 2 diabetes). The result is that glucose stays in your bloodstream rather than moving into the cells where it can provide energy for the body's functions. 

How do you get type 2 diabetes? 

The disease is caused when your body becomes “resistant” to insulin. As a result, the pancrease has to produce more and more insulin. Eventually, it’s unable to produce enough. Some of the most common risk factors for insulin resistance are genetics, obesity, and having a sedentary lifestyle. 

What are some of the consequences of uncontrolled type 2 diabetes? 

When blood glucose levels are high, it causes other systems to malfunction. Diabetes doubles your risk of dying from heart disease. You're also more likely to experience complications following a heart attack, such as heart failure or angina. There’s an increased risk of stroke, neuropathy (painful nerve dysfunction), vision changes, and erectile dysfunction, as well. 

What should you do if you’ve been diagnosed with type 2 diabetes? 

Many patients view type 2 diabetes as inevitable due to their family history. They might assume that if their parents had it, they’re going to get it, as well.

There is no cure for type 1 diabetes and people with the condition must take insulin their entire lives. But having a family history of type 2 diabetes does not mean you'll get it. Research has shown that patients can significantly affect the course of type 2 diabetes by making certain lifestyle changes. When patients stick to these changes and have success them, they may be able to stop taking diabetes medication altogether. 

Two of the key ways to mange diabetes—and possibly even reverse it—are: 

Lose weight. If you’re overweight, not only does shedding extra pounds reduce your risk of diabetes, it also affects cholesterol levels, blood pressure, and your overall risk of heart disease. The key is to be realistic. That means setting attainable goals and not expecting to drop 30 pounds immediately, for example.

Participants in the United States government’s Diabetes Prevention Program’s Lifestyle Change Program found that losing just 7 percent of their total body weight reduced the incidence of diabetes by 58 percent after three years. The well-known 2002 study was published in the New England Journal of Medicine.   

Get regular exercise. If you spend most of your daily hours sitting, look for ways to become more physically active. A combination of cardiovascular exercise and strength training been shown to reduce blood glucose levels. Set a goal to get at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise per week to see the greatest benefit. Moderate intensity means you're exercising hard enough that you can talk, but not sing, during your aerobic workout. Some exercises to try include brisk walking, light jogging, hiking, and swimming. 

How can I prevent type 2 diabetes? 

A healthy diet and plenty of physical activity won’t just treat type 2 diabetes—they can help prevent it in the first place. Case in point: Researchers had to stop the Diabetes Prevention Program early because prediabetic patients who modified their lifestyle cut their risk of developing diabetes in half. (Prediabetes means you don't quite have diabetes but you have many of the risk factors and early indicators of the disease.)

Diabetes is one area in which we know that weight loss, diet, and exercise changes make a difference. So, don’t view diabetes as inevitable. When you take charge of your health, you can manage, stop, or even reverse the condition.

Article sources open article sources

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “What is Diabetes?” Reviewed June 11, 2020. Accessed August 3, 2020.
Erika F. Brutsaert. “Diabetes Mellitus (DM).” Merck Manual Consumer Version. Last review May 2019. Accessed August 3, 2020.
National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. “Diabetes, Heart Disease, and Stroke.” February 2017. Accessed August 3, 2020.
Kaiser Permanente. “Common questions about diabetes medicines.” Reviewed January 3, 2019. Accessed August 3, 2020.
WC Knowler, E Barrett-Connor, et al. “Reduction in the incidence of type 2 diabetes with lifestyle intervention or metformin.” New England Journal of Medicine. 2002;346(6):393-403. 
National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. “Diabetes Prevention Program (DPP).”
American Heart Association. “American Heart Association Recommendations for Physical Activity in Adults and Kids.” Reviewed April 18, 2018. Accessed August 3, 2020. 

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