By Chris Woolston, M.S.
What is type 1 diabetes?
If you have type 1 diabetes, also called insulin-dependent diabetes, your body produces little or no insulin. This vital hormone helps move sugar from your bloodstream into your cells. If you don't have enough insulin, the sugar builds up in your bloodstream while your cells starve for energy. (People with type 2 diabetes, in contrast, still make plenty of insulin, but the hormone doesn't work as efficiently as it should.) If not treated, type 1 diabetes can lead to heart disease, kidney damage, chronic infections, and other life-threatening conditions. Fortunately, it can be controlled with proper treatment.
What causes it?
Type I diabetes is caused by damage to the pancreas, the organ that is supposed to produce insulin. In many cases, the trouble starts when the immune system targets the insulin factories in the pancreas. Unlike type 2 diabetes, which is largely caused by lifestyle, type 1 diabetes is often inherited and usually starts during childhood. Most people with type 1 diabetes have a parent or sibling who also has the disease. It's estimated that up to 2 million Americans are currently living with the condition.
What are the symptoms?
Type 1 diabetes often appears suddenly. Some of the earliest signs are unusual thirst and frequent urination (which may show up as bed-wetting in children). These things happen because the kidneys are using extra water to try to dilute the sugar in the blood stream. And because the cells end up starving for energy, people with type 1 diabetes are often hungry and have trouble keeping up their weight. They may also be weak, irritable, tired, and troubled by an upset stomach.
What are my treatment options?
Type 1 diabetes is a life-long condition. Unless doctors can somehow discover a way to restore the insulin-producing cells of the pancreas, there will be no cure. However, you can work with your doctor and nutritionist to manage your blood sugar and reduce the the symptoms and complications of diabetes. Many people with type 1 diabetes lead very active, healthy, and long lives.
Because your body can't produce insulin on its own, you'll need to get it from elsewhere. You'll either have to inject insulin yourself or use an attachable insulin pump.
Here are some other things you can do to keep diabetes under control:
- Watch what you eat. People with type 1 diabetes should follow the same basic approach to healthy eating as everyone else. You should go easy on fat and sugar while getting a good balance of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, cereals, breads, dairy products, fish, meat, and beans. Your nutritionist or diabetes counselor can help you fine-tune a diet that's right for you. Unlike people without diabetes, you'll have to time your meals, insulin, and exercise to make sure that your blood sugar levels stay steady.
- Watch your sugar intake, too. People with diabetes can still eat sugar, but only in moderation. If you have a chocolate bar or a regular soda, you'll have to cut back on other sources of carbohydrates for the rest of the day. If you have a sweet tooth, it will be easier to meet your diet goals if you stick with diet sodas and other products with artificial sweeteners.
- Get regular exercise. Exercise is healthy for anyone, including people with type 1 diabetes. A good workout encourages your cells to use the sugar in your blood stream. But you'll have to take steps to make sure your blood sugar doesn't get too low as you exercise. It's wise to test your blood sugar before a strenuous workout. Your doctor can help you learn how to use insulin and your diet to keep blood sugar under control before, during, and after your exercise.
- Test your blood-sugar level. People with type 1 diabetes have to test their blood sugar often -- generally several times a day -- to make sure they are in control. With modern glucose meters, you can get an accurate from just a tiny drop of blood.
- Control your cholesterol and blood pressure. Because type 1 diabetes raises the risk of heart disease, you'll want to do what you can to protect your heart -- and that means watching your cholesterol and blood pressure. According to the American Diabetes Association (ADA), people with diabetes should keep their LDL cholesterol below 100 milligrams per deciliter (mg/dl), their HDL cholesterol above 40 mg/dl (for men) to 50 mg/dl (for women), their triglycerides below 150 mg/dl, and their blood pressure below 130/80. Talk to your doctor about the best ways to achieve these goals.
- Get regular exams. Talk to your doctor about the exams that you'll need to stay on top of your disease and its possible complications. He or she will likely recommend a yearly eye exam and regular blood and urine tests and foot exams.
Mayo Clinic. Type 1 diabetes. 2009.
National Institutes of Health. Fact sheet: Type 1 diabetes. 2010.
American Academy of Family Physicians. Type 1 diabetes. 2009.
U. S. Food and Drug Administration. FDA Approves First Ever Inhaled Insulin Combination Product for Treatment of Diabetes. January 2006.
American Diabetes Association. Taking Care of Your Heart.