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Diabetes Basics

Understanding the basics of diabetes is the first step in gaining control of your health. Let’s look at what causes diabetes, some of the common symptoms, the benefits of healthy living, and what to do if you’ve just been diagnosed.

What is diabetes?

Diabetes is a chronic disease. Your blood glucose levels are controlled by insulin, a hormone produced by your pancreas. When you eat, food gets broken down and glucose enters your bloodstream. Insulin takes the glucose out of your bloodstream and allows it to enter your cells where it is broken down and turned into energy. If you have diabetes, either you don’t have enough insulin or the insulin you do have doesn’t work to get the glucose out of your blood and into your cells. This is how your blood glucose ends up going higher than it should (hyperglycaemia).1

3 main types of diabetes

  1. With type 1 diabetes, your pancreas doesn’t make insulin at all.
  2. With type 2 diabetes, your pancreas doesn’t make enough insulin, or the insulin doesn’t work correctly.
  3. Gestational diabetes is a temporary condition, when a woman’s insulin is less effective during pregnancy.

Common symptoms of diabetes

The onset of type 1 diabetes usually happens fast, and symptoms may be intense. Symptoms of type 2 diabetes are usually mild (or even not there at all), and appear over time. Common symptoms of either type include:2

  • Frequent urination
  • Excessive thirst
  • Increased hunger
  • Unexplained weight loss (type 1)
  • Feeling tired and lethargic
  • Lack of interest and concentration
  • A tingling sensation or numbness in the hands or feet
  • Blurred vision
  • Frequent infections
  • Headaches/feeling dizzy
  • Slow-healing wounds
  • Vomiting and stomach pain, often mistaken as the flu (However, it is very common to get the flu before being diagnosed, as diabetes is an auto-immune disease.)

If you haven’t been diagnosed with diabetes and show any of these symptoms, talk to your healthcare professional for advice.

How does low blood glucose happen?

Low blood glucose (hypoglycaemia) generally occurs when your blood glucose level drops to 3.9 mmol/L or below. It happens when there is too much insulin or diabetes medication in your body, if you need to eat, if you are extremely active, or if you drink too much alcohol. Everyone reacts differently to low blood glucose, but common symptoms include:3

  • Shakiness, weakness, or chills
  • Irritability or confusion
  • Hunger
  • Dizziness or nausea
  • Blurred vision or headaches
  • Slurred speech
  • Seizures or unconsciousness

If you have low blood glucose, treat it according to your healthcare provider’s instructions. In general, though, try to eat 15 grams of fast acting carbohydrates (eg 6-7 Jellybeans or half a glass of regular soft drink (not diet) or fruit juice), recheck your blood glucose after 15 minutes, and if you’re still low, repeat. Once your blood glucose has risen above 4 mmol/L eat a snack with longer acting carbohydrates such as a slice of bread or a glass of milk.

Newly diagnosed? Here’s what to do now.

It’s never easy to be handed a diabetes diagnosis. You may wonder, “Why is this happening?” and may fear the unknown. It’s common to blame yourself and worry about what others will think of you. What’s most important is that you acknowledge all of your emotions as they come and go, resolve to deal with them, and understand that you are not alone. The first step in taking control of your health after a diagnosis is making an appointment with your primary healthcare provider (or endocrinologist, or diabetes nurse, etc.), and finding out everything you can about your diabetes. To start, you should find out:

  • If you are type 1 or type 2
  • How to monitor your own blood glucose
  • How to operate a blood glucose meter
  • How to understand your blood glucose results
  • How to manage your diabetes
  • What kind of exercise is right for you
  • What changes to make to your diet
  • Other health issues you have that affect your diabetes treatment
  • Who else you can see for information

Create an entire treatment plan with your doctor, and make a follow-up appointment.

Eating and drinking

Thinking about the food you eat and making healthier choices is one of the most important ways you can manage your blood glucose. Eating healthy fats (monounsaturated, polyunsaturated, or omega-3) and getting enough protein and fiber are the keys to a healthy diabetes diet. Don’t forget to factor in your drinks when managing your blood glucose. Water, unsweetened tea or coffee, or low-calorie drinks are best. Avoid fruit juice or sugary sodas (unless you’re treating a bout of low blood glucose).

Why monitoring your own blood glucose is important

Monitoring your blood glucose levels shows you, and your healthcare team, how food, exercise, or other factors like stress are affecting your blood glucose. If you monitor in a structured manner, you’ll begin to see patterns – highs and lows – and with consultation of your healthcare professional you will be able to make changes to your daily routine that may improve your condition over time. Maintaining optimum blood glucose control may help reduce the chances of developing complications from diabetes.
This information is of a general nature and should not be substituted for medical advice or used to alter medical therapy. Please consult your healthcare professional for medical advice.

  1. Australian Department of health - Diabetes Accessed 11 July 2016
  2. Diabetes Australia – What is Diabetes Accessed 11 July 2016
  3. Diabetes Australia – Hypoglycaemia


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Insulin and diabetes?

Without diabetes: Your pancreas makes insulin > You eat > Food enters your bloodstream > Insulin takes the glucose into your cells > Glucose is broken down and turned into energy. With diabetes: Your pancreas doesn’t make insulin, or the insulin it makes doesn’t work > You eat > Glucose can’t be turned into energy in your cells > Your blood glucose goes too high.