Diabetes: Is lifestyle a factor?

There are over 3.5 million people in the UK living with diabetes, with numbers almost doubling over the past twenty years.  And with so many cases going undiagnosed, it’s believed that numbers are actually much higher than what statistics seem to suggest.  It’s little wonder then that many are calling it the hidden health epidemic of our times.

But what exactly is diabetes, and why are numbers on the increase?

Simply put, diabetes is a health condition which happens as a result of high levels of glucose (a type of sugar) in the blood.  Almost all carbohydrates are turned into glucose by the body, to be used for energy. In a healthy person, these levels of glucose are maintained at a constant, balanced level through the release of a hormone called insulin which is managed by the pancreas. Insulin helps to open up the cells to allow glucose to enter them, providing energy and nourishment to the body.

In diabetics however, this process is interrupted - either not enough insulin is produced, or the body isn’t able to utilise it in the way it should. This causes glucose to build-up in the bloodstream causing a range of uncomfortable symptoms, such as ongoing fatigue, nausea and the increased propensity to get ill.

Diabetics are also at risk of developing heart disease. This is due to their body being less efficient at processing blood fats, such as cholesterol and triglycerides. Diabetes also tends to lower the "good" cholesterol HDL. 

What are the different types of diabetes?

Type 1

Type 1 diabetes normally develops in childhood, and is considered an autoimmune disease. Type 1 diabetes happens when the body’s own immune system attacks the insulin-producing cells in the pancreas. This means that not enough insulin gets produced - and in some cases, none at all. As with all autoimmune conditions, finding the root cause of type 1 diabetes is often a challenge. However, it’s believed that genetic and environmental factors (viruses, bacterial infections etc.) are normally to blame for causing the onset of type 1 diabetes.

Type 2

Type 2 diabetes is the more common of the two, accounting for up to 95% of all cases. Type 2 diabetes happens when the body becomes resistant to insulin. This means that there’s either too little insulin being produced, or the body isn’t able to use it as it should. Whilst type 2 diabetes used to be associated more with over 40s, the disease is becoming increasingly widespread amongst young people too. In contrast to type 1, type 2 diabetes is now considered to be a condition related to lifestyle as much as genetics. In fact, many have drawn a direct correlation between type 2 diabetes and growing obesity rates.

How do I know if I'm at risk?

There’s no doubt that genetics play a significant role in determining the likelihood of developing the condition. If a parent or sibling is diabetic, the probability of developing it will always be greatly increased. Similarly, anyone suffering from an autoimmune condition such as Celiac disease, Hashimotos or Addisons disease is more likely to be diagnosed with type 1 diabetes. Women suffering from Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS) have also shown a higher propensity to develop insulin resistance which is associated with type 2.

That said, many people are waking up to the realisation that type 2 diabetes is as much a condition caused by lifestyle as it is genetics. In fact, being overweight is now considered to be the number one cause of type 2 diabetes. Likewise, a lack of exercise, bad diet and low levels of HDL (good) cholesterol and out of range triglycerides all contribute as very real risk factors.

There is a blood test that you can do that screens for type 2 diabetes; HbA1c. By testing for HbA1c you are getting a three month average of your blood sugar levels, this gives you an overview of where you are in terms of the reference range with 42 mmol/mol indicating a pre-diabetic stage.  

Are there any steps I can take to prevent diabetes?

Getting clued up on the risk factors associated with type 2 diabetes and making the necessary lifestyle changes can go a long way towards decreasing your chance of developing the condition. As with any new health plan, the best course of action is to make small, realistic changes to daily life that you can to stick to long-term. These include:

Steering clear of sugar binges - overindulging in sugary foods and drinks causes glucose levels to rise high very quickly. Focusing on a low carb diet - such as the Ketogenic diet - can help improve blood glucose control and ensure you’re getting all the necessary micronutrients to better support the body.

Maintaining a healthy weight - being overweight has been shown to increase insulin resistance. Eating healthily and lowering the amount of saturated fat, salt and sugar in your diet can lower the risk of developing diabetes.

Exercising regularly - studies have shown that regular exercise helps to lower blood glucose levels and also increase insulin sensitivity.

Managing stress levels - prolonged periods of stress can cause disruptive changes in the body increasing blood pressure and blood sugar levels whilst also aggravating the immune system. Taking up yoga or meditation can help naturally lower stress levels and remove any undue stress from the body.

Drinking less alcohol - alcohol is well-known for reaping havoc on blood sugar levels when consumed in excess. However, drinking in moderation (one to two drinks a day) has been shown to have minimal effects on blood sugar levels. Choosing drinks that contain less calories and carbs are usually best, such as: red wine, dry white wine, champagne, light beer or distilled spirits. Lowering the amount of alcohol you drink and making the right choices can help support healthy blood sugar levels.

Of course, there are some things in life we simply can’t control.  No lifestyle or health plan, however devoted, can make any absolute guarantees when it comes to health.  But one thing’s for sure - getting proactive and taking back control of your health makes a good starting point.

This post was written by Jessy Wrigley, Jessy is a health and wellness writer and digital nomad who delights in travelling the world and drawing upon her experiences to find meaning and fulfilment in everyday life. With a background in working for a worldwide mindfulness/tech company, Jessy's passion lies in exploring what it means to live a healthy, balanced lifestyle in today's changing world.