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Diabetes: know the facts

Did you know that diabetes is called the silent killer' because sufferers only display mild symptoms and many cases are not diagnosed by doctors? Left untreated diabetes can cause heart attacks, strokes and even kidney disease... and these are just the start of a long list of life-threatening complications.

As frightening as the condition might sound, the good news is that Type 2 diabetes, the most common form of the disease, is preventable. Yes, by making the right lifestyle choices, from exercise to diet, you can keep the silent killer at bay. With World Diabetes Day observed on the 14 November we answer your questions about diabetes. Remember, knowledge is power!

What is diabetes?
Diabetes occurs when the body stops producing sufficient insulin to process the sugar in our diets, resulting in dangerously high blood glucose levels. There are two types of diabetes. In Type 1 diabetes, an autoimmune disease, the pancreas simply stops producing insulin. In Type 2 diabetes your body either doesn't produce enough insulin to process sugars, or doesn't use the insulin it does produce effectively, usually because of lifestyle factors like obesity or a lack of exercise. This article will focus on Type 2 diabetes for more information on Type 1 diabetes visit the Diabetes South Africa website

Am I at risk of contracting Type 2 diabetes?
The following factors put you at higher risk of contracting Type 2 diabetes:

  • Being over 35 years old
  • Being overweight, especially if your weight is carried around your middle
  • Not exercising
  • Having a family history of diabetes
  • Having given birth to a baby that weighed over 4kg or having had gestational diabetes while you were pregnant
  • Having high cholesterol or other fats in your blood
  • Having high blood pressure or heart disease

So what are the symptoms of diabetes?
It's important to remember that you may have Type 2 diabetes with no symptoms at all. This is why blood glucose screenings are such an important part of your regular annual medical check-up.

However, you should see a doctor to discuss the possibility of diabetes if you experience any of the symptoms listed below:

  • Unusual thirst
  • Frequent urination
  • Unusual weight loss
  • Extreme fatigue or lack of energy
  • Blurred vision
  • Frequent or recurring infections, especially, in women, yeast infections like thrush
  • Cuts  and bruises that are slow to heal, boils and itching skin
  • Tingling and numbness in the hands and feet 

I am a high-risk candidate. How can I protect myself against diabetes?
The answer lies in taking good care of body and mind:

  • Eat healthily. Stick to a low-GI diet that is high in fruit and vegetables, and low in refined carbohydrates. Here are some guidelines  from Diabetes South Africa
  •  Keep your weight under control, and if you are overweight, enroll in some kind of weight loss programme under the guidance of a dietician. A guideline for a healthy body mass index is that you should be between 17 and 25. You can calculate your BMI here
  • Exercise regularly. You should identify an exercise routine that suits you, but even just taking a 20-minute brisk walk five times a week is enough to improve your health
  • Find ways to manage your stress levels
  • Don't smoke
  • Avoid getting less than six hours and more than nine hours of sleep a night

I am concerned that I might be diabetic. How is the disease treated?
If you or your doctor suspect that you may have diabetes, you will be sent for a fasting glucose test or an oral glucose tolerance test. If you receive a positive result, your doctor will discuss a management plan for you.

If you have Type 1 diabetes, you will need to start injecting yourself with insulin immediately and for the rest of your life. If you have Type 2, depending on the severity, your doctor may advise a weight loss, diet and exercise regimen to reverse the disease, or will start you on insulin tablets.

Final word
If diagnosed early, taken seriously and treated with care, diabetes need not be debilitating or life threatening. This is why it's so important to educate yourself about your risks and go for frequent medical check-ups.

For more information about diabetes, your risks, the symptoms or how to manage the disease, visit Diabetes SA or the International Diabetes Federation.

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