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Recent data from the International Diabetes Federation (IDF) estimates that 3.85 million South Africans (about 7% of the population) between the age of 21 and 79 may already have been diagnosed and living with diabetes. It is estimated that another 5 million have pre-diabetes (when your glucose level is higher than normal, but not high enough to be considered diabetes). Statistics have also indicated that between 2010 and 2016 there has been a 155% increase in adults living with diabetes. This begs the question; what can we do to take better care of ourselves?

What is diabetes?

The hormone insulin, produced by the pancreas, is responsible for controlling the amount of glucose in the blood. There are two types of diabetes:

Type 1 – Insulin dependency

A chronic condition in which the pancreas produces little or no insulin, and is often a complication of pancreatitus (when the pancreas has an infection). Individuals diagnosed with type 1 diabetes will need to regulate their blood glucose levels with regular insulin injections to keep these glucose levels normal.

Type 1 diabetes can be considered hereditary (genetic), but it can also be triggered by environmental factors, surgical complications and infections. If you have a close relative with type 1 diabetes you have a 6% chance of developing the condition.

Type 2 – Lifestyle diabetes

A condition that develops over time where the body might not produce enough insulin or the body becomes insulin resistant, which leads to cells not being able to use insulin efficiently. This causes a build-up of insulin as the body can’t absorb glucose normally, the body is therefore unable to use insulin, usually because of an unhealthy lifestyle. According to Health24, the majority of diabetics in South Africa have type 2 diabetes. However, many cases go undiagnosed as there are very few symptoms initially. The fact remains, many diabetes patients only get help when they already have complications, when 80% of type 2 diabetes could have been avoided by following a healthy eating plan and engaging in regular exercise.

Symptoms of diabetes

Symptoms can include fatigue, excessive thirst and urination, slow wound healing ands skin infections, blurred vision and regular bouts of thrush.

Possible complications associated with diabetes can include long-term health problems. The most common being vision loss and blindness in people of working age. Diabetes is one of the many causes of kidney failure and limb amputation and individuals living with diabetes are five times more likely to have a cardiovascular disease such as a stroke. In most cases these complications could have been avoided entirely by early diagnosis and proper treatment.

Prevention is always better than cure

Diabetes prevention is as basic as eating healthier, becoming more physically active and losing a few extra kilograms. It’s never too late to start. Making a few simple changes to your lifestyle now may help you avoid serious health complications down the road, such as nerve, kidney and heart damage. According to the American Diabetes Association there are a few ways to ensure that you can minimise your chances of being diagnosed with diabetes:

Physical activity

  • Regular exercise helps boost your sensitivity to insulin – which keeps your blood sugar within normal range.
  • Research shows that aerobic exercise and resistance training can help control diabetes. The greatest benefit comes from a fitness program that includes both.

Healthy diet

  • Choose whole grain foods over highly processed carbohydrates.
  • Skip the sugary drinks and choose water or healthier alternatives.
  • Choose good fats instead of bad fats – good fats are those found in liquid vegetable oils, nuts and seeds; bad fats are found in margarine, packaged baked goods and fried foods.
  • Limit red meat and avoid processed meat; choose nuts, whole grains, poultry or fish and foods with a low glycemic index (GI) instead.

Lose any excess weight

  • One of the biggest causes of type 2 diabetes is excess weight.
  • Being obese makes you 20 to 40 times more likely to develop diabetes.

Sleep well

  • Sleep deprivation and poor quality of sleep increases the risk of diabetes and obesity.

Keep medical appointments

  • Regular check-ups can help with early detection and can prevent any future complications.

When should I be tested for diabetes?

The American Diabetes Association recommends getting regular tests done every 3 years for any person aged 45 years or older, especially if you are overweight. If you are younger than 45 and overweight with one or more of the additional risk factors such as a sedentary lifestyle or family history of diabetes you should also get tested. Other additional risk factors include:

  • Being overweight or obese
  • Having a close family relative with diabetes
  • Having high blood pressure, measuring 140/90 or higher
  • Having abnormal cholesterol levels, with HDL (good) cholesterol at 35 mg/dL or lower, or a triglyceride level of 250 mg/dL or higher
  • Being physically inactive – exercising less than three times a week

Living with diabetes

While there is currently no cure for diabetes, you can live an enjoyable life by learning about the condition and managing it effectively. It is possible to control the symptoms to minimise your risk of developing any further complications. This means eating a healthy diet, excercising regularly and losing weight if you are overweight or maintaining a healthy weight . Alcohol intake should always be in moderation and if you stop smoking it can also aid in living a healthy life.

We always say ‘Tomorrow is another day’ or ‘I will start tomorrow’, but what if tomorrow is the day that the doctor informs you that you have been diagnosed with diabetes? Once you have been diagnosed it is all about regulating, there is no going back. So, take care of yourself today.