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What is Diabetes?

Patients asking What is Diabetes?

Diabetes Mellitus is a chronic disease in which your body does not make enough insulin or it is not able to use the insulin it has correctly. It results in high blood sugar levels. If left untreated, high blood sugars over time can cause diabetes complications, such as problems with eyes, kidneys, nerves, and the heart.

How do we get energy from food?

Energy intake overview

How does insulin work?

To understand what goes wrong in diabetes, you first need to understand what insulin does. Sugar in your blood needs to go into cells so that it can be used for energy. The cells are normally tightly locked and the only thing that opens them is insulin. When a cell needs energy, insulin acts as a key to unlock the cell. this opens the cell so sugar can enter and be used for energy.

How insulin works

What goes wrong in diabetes?

Without the help of Insulin to get the sugar into the body cells, the blood sugar builds up causing high blood sugar. Think of other liquids high in sugar, like honey or syrup. They are thick and sticky. When your blood sugar is high, your blood is also thick and sticky. This causes a bunch of stuff to happen:

  • Your body tries to thin out the blood by drinking a lot (increased thirst)
  • Your body tries to get rid of the extra sugar by going to the bathroom a lot (increases urination)
  • You are not able to use the food you are eating for energy so sometimes you lose weight (mostly Type 1). 
  • Your blood is too thick to reach all the small delicate areas of your body so some body parts start to suffer from not getting enough nutrients. Common body parts affected are the eyes, kidneys, tips of fingers and toes, stomach and heart.

There are two main types of diabetes: type 1 diabetes and type 2 diabetes. See the pictures below for a description of each.

Type 1 Diabetes No Insulin


Type 2 Diabetes

High and low blood sugars

When you have Diabetes, you may need the help of some lifestyle changes and medications to either replace the insulin or help it to work better so that you have:
Not too HIGH blood sugar ... (>180)
Not too LOW blood sugar... (<70)
But a blood sugar JUST RIGHT!  (70-130)

  • Eating right: pay attention to the carbohydrates you are eating to get them in the right amounts for just what your body needs and not a lot of extra.
  • Exercise: activity helps your body use the insulin better and helps you burn off extra sugar in your blood faster because you need that energy for exercise.
  • Oral Medications: these pills help the insulin you have already, work better.
  • Insulin: sometimes your body just needs extra of this hormone to help it out (Type 1 definitely, and often in Type 2).  This is the best way to bring down blood sugars quickly. 

Once you have diabetes, you will always have diabetes.  The treatment may change over time. The good news is, with a little hard work and careful attention your diabetes can be managed well.  So that it does not have to interfere with your ability to have a great, fun, and fulfilling life!

Words to Know:

Carbohydrates: The part of food that changes to glucose in your body; your body's main source of energy

Glucose: Also called "sugar," which is energy for your body - just like gas for your car

Insulin: A hormone that is naturally produced by your pancreas and helps glucose get into cells for energy

Last modified: Sep 28, 2018
Living with Diabetes

Learn more about managing your diabetes through healthy eating and physical activity.