Can High Blood Sugar Lead to Diabetes?

Can High Blood Sugar Lead to Diabetes?

Tom Hanks is the most recent celebrity – following in the footsteps of Halle Berry, Paula Dean and Randy Jackson -- to reveal that he has type 2 diabetes. Appearing on Late Show with David Letterman in early October, he told the talk show host that after a long history of high blood sugar numbers, his doctor told him he’d “graduated” to full-blown diabetes. Hanks said that controlling his weight is one way he’s battling the disease.

What Is Diabetes?
Diabetes occurs when your body can no longer handle glucose the way it’s supposed to do. Glucose is a simple sugar that is the basic fuel of the body. Foods that supply glucose include fruits, vegetables and carbohydrates. The body’s digestive system converts these nutrients into glucose, which is absorbed into the blood stream and transported to the body’s cells. But to get the glucose into your body’s cells, you need insulin.  Unfortunately, sometimes the body either stops producing insulin (type 1 diabetes) or can’t produce enough (type 2 diabetes). The result? Not enough insulin, so glucose stays in your bloodstream, without getting into the cells where it can function.

Is Diabetes Bad?
When blood sugar is high, it causes other systems to malfunction. Diabetes doubles your risk of heart disease and heart attack; you’re also apt to experience complications following a heart attack (heart failure, angina). There’s also an increased risk of stroke, neuropathy (painful nerve dysfunction), vision changes and even erectile dysfunction.

Why Do People Get Type 2 Diabetes?
The disease is caused when your body becomes “resistant” to insulin, so it has to produce more and more -- and eventually, it’s unable to produce enough. The most common causes of this are genetics, obesity and level of activity. For instance, a sedentary person who has a BMI (Body Mass Index) greater than 25 has over a 50% chance of developing type 2 diabetes. Contrast that to someone sedentary with a BMI less than 24 -- their chance is around 12%.

What Should You Do If You’ve Been Diagnosed with Type 2 Diabetes?
Often, my patients view this as a health “sentence” -- their parents had it, they’re going to have it. Not so! Unlike type 1 diabetes, for which we have no “cure” (people with type 1 diabetes have to take insulin their entire lives), research has shown that changing your lifestyle can significantly impact your diabetes -- even to the point that you can stop taking diabetes medication altogether. Two main ways to beat diabetes are:

Weight Loss: If you’re overweight, not only does shedding extra pounds reduce your risk of diabetes, it also impacts cholesterol, high blood pressure and your overall risk of heart disease. The key is to be realistic -- don’t try to drop 30 pounds immediately! In one study, a weight loss of just 7% of body weight reduced the rate of diabetes onset by 58%.

Exercise: If you’re more couch potato than gym rat, consider becoming more active to find a happy medium. A combination of both cardio and strength training (those little bursts of high intensity seem to be especially beneficial) has been shown to reduce blood glucose levels. The key? Exercise should be at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise per week to see the greatest benefit. What’s moderate intensity? You’re working hard enough that you can talk, but not sing, during your aerobic workout, which could be as simple as brisk walking if you’re just starting out.

How Can I Prevent Diabetes?
The same treatments that can treat it (diet, exercise) can prevent diabetes in the first place. In one study of diabetes prevention, researchers had to stop the study early, since prediabetic patients that modified their lifestyle (through diet changes and reaching a 7% weight loss goal) cut their risk of developing diabetes in half. 

Diabetes is one area in which we know that weight loss, diet and exercise changes make a difference.  Don’t view diabetes as inevitable, or a death sentence -- as I tell every one of my patients that seems resigned to the diagnosis -- we can change this diagnosis. So, take charge, and let’s give diabetes the boot.

Medically reviewed in October 2018.

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