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When the calendar flips to November, many of our thoughts turn to Thanksgiving and the upcoming holiday season.

But November is also National Diabetes Month, making it an excellent time to learn more about protecting yourself and your loved ones against this serious chronic disease. 

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Dr. Christi Witherspoon

Diabetes is when your body’s blood sugar level — also called your blood glucose level — is too high. Blood sugar comes naturally from the food we eat and gives the cells in our bodies the energy they need. Normally, our bodies use a hormone called insulin to get glucose from our blood into cells. Diabetes results when our bodies either don’t make or don’t use insulin well enough, leading to high blood glucose levels.

Over time, too much sugar in your bloodstream can lead to heart disease, kidney disease, eye problems (including vision loss), nerve damage and other severe health problems. But the good news is that there’s a lot we can do to treat diabetes and steps we can take to prevent it. 

The different types of diabetes

It’s important to understand that there are several different types of diabetes.       

  • Prediabetes is when your blood glucose is higher than normal but not high enough to be considered diabetes. It can greatly raise the chance of developing type 2 diabetes. More than 34% of U.S. adults— about 88 million people — have prediabetes, and many don’t even know it.
  • Type 2 diabetes is the most common type of diabetes in the U.S. and occurs when your body has trouble using the insulin it makes. 
  • Type 1 diabetes is much less common, only making up about 5% of U.S. diabetes cases. Doctors think that family history and other factors may cause it, but the exact cause is still unknown. With type 1 diabetes, your body doesn’t make insulin the way it should so you have to take insulin to manage it.

Warning signs to watch for

Some of the signs that you might have prediabetes or diabetes are subtle. Others are more obvious. For example, starting to urinate a lot and frequently feeling thirsty are two potential signs of diabetes. Many times, people get blurry vision caused by swelling in their eyes. A few less obvious symptoms include unusual skin infections or sores that don’t heal quickly. 

In general, people are more likely to develop type 2 diabetes as they age. Being older than 45 is a risk factor. You’re also at higher risk if you have prediabetes or if you developed diabetes while pregnant. Other risk factors include being overweight, having high blood pressure, having family members with diabetes, or being of Hispanic, Black or Native American heritage. While there is nothing you can do about your age, ancestry or family history, there is a lot you can do to lower your risk through healthier lifestyle choices. 

Tips to help prevent diabetes

Some exciting new research shows that people might be able to get rid of prediabetes  — or at least prevent it from becoming type 2 diabetes — if they take steps early enough. Eating better and exercising more top the list of things to do to prevent prediabetes and manage diabetes. Here are a few ways to take control of your diabetes risk: 

  • Know your numbers. In addition to the A1c blood test, there are several other tests your doctor can do to measure your blood sugar. So, ask your doctor what your test level is, what it means, and what level is ideal. For example, it’s best to keep A1c under 5.7%, so make that your goal! You can do the same thing to track your progress toward better blood pressure, weight and other measurable goals. 
  • Set a meal plan. Eating healthy meals is a great way to reduce diabetes risk, but you don’t need to become a gourmet cook. Even small steps count. Let’s say you’re used to drinking two sugary sodas or sweet teas everyday. Instead, try switching to sugar-free beverages or tea with lemon for a healthier alternative. At dinner, try filling half your plate with veggies, a quarter of it with protein, and the rest with a starch like rice or potatoes. There are tons of great nutritious recipes online.The idea is to come up with realistic ways to make wise food choices.
  • Understand nutrition labels. How do you know a wise food choice from an unwise one? In addition to following your doctor’s menu advice, learn how to spot helpful information on nutrition labels. Watch out for sugars, salts and fats, as well as highly processed snacks. Dieticians at local doctors’ offices, community centers and even grocery stores sometimes teach workshops to help people learn how to read often-confusing nutrition labels.
  • Move more. Exercise is an essential way to reduce diabetes risk, and you don’t have to sign up for high-intensity workouts. If your doctor says it’s OK, just try going for a 15- to 20-minute walk every day, with a goal of working up to 150 minutes of exercise per week. With your doctor’s permission, more is even better! 
  • Follow your treatment plan. Your doctor may prescribe medications to take alongside your meal and exercise plan. Do your best to stay on track, and don’t be afraid to talk with your doctor if you’re having trouble managing your medications or other treatments.

It’s OK if your diabetes prevention plan isn’t perfect. But if you work together with your doctor, you have the power to enjoy a healthier life and reduce your risks from this serious disease. 

Some fast facts:

The hemoglobin A1c test is commonly used to identify and check an average blood sugar level over the most recent 90-day period. Here are what the results indicate:

  • less than 5.7% — normal  
  • 5.7% to 6.4% — prediabetes
  • 6.5% or higher — diabetes

A few other facts that show why diabetes awareness and prevention are so important: 

  • More than 34 million people in the U.S. have diabetes. That’s 10.5% of the U.S. population.
  • About 1.5 million new cases of diabetes are diagnosed in the U.S. every year.
  • The number of adults diagnosed with diabetes has more than doubled in the last 20 years.
  • Diabetes affects nearly 27% of people age 65 and older — more than 14 million seniors.
  • More than 7 million of those with diabetes are undiagnosed. In other words, more than 21% of people with diabetes may not even know they have it.