Call it the epidemic of the 21st Century: one in three Americans has either diabetes or its precursor, prediabetes. The full-blown disease, also known as diabetes mellitus, occurs when the body ahs either a deficiency or a malfunction in the action of insulin. This hormone, which is produced by the pancreas, helps cells convert sugar into energy. As a result, people with diabetes struggle with maintaining healthy blood sugar levels.

There are two major types of diabetes: type 1 and type 2. Type 1 diabetes, previously called juvenile diabetes, makes up about 5 to 10 percent of cases. It’s usually diagnosed in children or young adults, although it can occur at any age. In type 1, the body stops synthesizing insulin or makes only a small amount due to autoimmune destruction of the cells that product it. Because the body requires insulin to survive, people with this disease need to monitor their blood sugar levels constantly and must give themselves daily injections of insulin. Without this insulin supplement, the body breaks down fat for energy. As a result, ketones – acidic by-products of fat breakdown – flood the bloodstream, resulting in a dangerous condition called ketoacidosis. This blood imbalance causes nausea and rapid breathing; if it’s not treated promptly, a coma or even death can occur.

In type 2 diabetes, the body doesn’t produce enough insulin or is unable to utilize the insulin properly. (The latter condition is called insulin resistance). As a result, the sugar from foods builds up in the bloodstream instead of fueling the cells. Studies show that uncontrolled diabetes raises the risk of Alzheimer’s disease, heart disease, nerve and kidney damage, and eye problems.

For those with type 2 diabetes, losing weight, exercising regularly, and eating a diet high in fiber and protein can lower blood sugar levels. Physicians also prescribe medication that helps reduce blood sugar levels by stimulating insulin release and improving insulin action. Patients with type 2 diabetes very rarely develop ketoacidosis.

1. Insulin was first discovered in 1921.

2. About 5 percent of women who don’t have diabetes develop the disease during pregnancy, in which case it’s called gestational diabetes. Although the condition usually goes away after childbirth, these new moms are at greater risk for developing type 2 diabetes later in life.

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