Type 2 diabetes mellitus is one of the most common chronic health conditions among adults in the United States.
The hallmark of this disease is resistance to insulin. Insulin is a hormone produced by specialized cells in the pancreas, a solid organ located in the abdomen. These little insulin factories, also known as beta islet cells, respond to changes in the sugar level in the blood in order to keep this level within a tightly regulated normal range.
When sugar levels begin to rise, such as after a meal, insulin enters the bloodstream, where it interacts with other cells in the body. The job of insulin is to assist the entry of sugar into the cells, where the sugar acts as fuel for the work of the cell.
However, for persons with Type 2 diabetes mellitus, the cells resist the effects of insulin to varying degrees. As a result, two important problems occur. First, sugar does not properly enter the cells and is therefore not available as fuel. Second, sugar accumulates in the blood, resulting in an elevated blood sugar level.
As blood sugar levels rise, sugar begins to act as a toxin on certain tissues in the body. The elevated sugar levels can damage blood vessels, increasing the risk of cardiovascular disease. Over time, this can lead to heart attack, stroke and poor circulation. Elevated blood sugar levels can also damage the tiny filters in the kidney, which can ultimately lead to kidney failure.
Damage to the lens and retina of the eye can affect vision. Finally, elevated blood sugar levels can damage nerves, leading to problems ranging from poor sensation to alterations in digestion.
The bad effects of elevated blood sugar accumulate over time. For this reason, early recognition and treatment of diabetes is important.
The good news is that much is known about diabetes, and there are many effective treatments.
The foundation of treatment for people with Type 2 diabetes mellitus is a healthy lifestyle. Weight control, regular physical activity and good nutrition can significantly improve blood sugar levels.
Many people with diabetes have not been diagnosed, even though testing for the disease is now quite simple.
There are many symptoms associated with elevated blood sugars that can serve as clues to the presence of the disease. Elevated sugar levels cause increased frequency of urination, increased thirst and increased appetite.
Because sugar is unavailable as fuel, a common symptom of diabetes is tiredness or a sense of fatigue. The effects of elevated blood sugar on the lens of the eye can also lead to vision disturbance.
Elevated sugar levels impair immune system function and promote the growth of certain micro-organisms. This can lead to an increased frequency of infections.
People with symptoms of diabetes should seek medical care, since early diagnosis and treatment can improve both short- and long-term health.
Dr. Matthew A. Clark is a board-certified physician in internal medicine and pediatrics practicing at the Ute Mountain Ute Health Center in Towaoc.