Strap in as we bust some of the myths surrounding diabetes and share some lesser-known facts about the disease.
It is Australia’s fastest growing health condition, with over 1.8 million Australians currently diagnosed. But with some people under the misapprehension that it’s the sole burden of the overweight and overindulgent, diabetes is often reduced to a punchline. But the disease is anything but a joke, it is in fact a dangerous and potentially deadly illness, and it affects people of all shapes and sizes, yes, even the skinny ones.
Myth – Diabetes is not a serious condition
This is one of the most dangerous myths surrounding diabetes. Diabetes is the seventh leading cause of death in Australia. You can’t have a “bit” of diabetes, it is a serious and complex condition which can require daily self-care and, if complications develop, lead to severe illness. Not only does diabetes more than double a person’s chances of developing heart disease, with two out of three people with diabetes dying from cardiovascular-related episodes, such as a heart attack or stroke. But it is also the leading cause of preventable blindness in Australia and the direct cause of as many as 4,400 amputations every year.
Myth – All types of diabetes are the same
Yeah, nah! There are several incarnations of diabetes: type 1, type 2 and gestational diabetes being the most common. All types of diabetes are complex and serious, but each has different causes. While type 1 and type 2 diabetes are chronic diseases, gestational diabetes is a type of diabetes that can develop during pregnancy.
Both type 1 and type 2 diabetes share the problem of high levels of blood sugar but are very different diseases and are also managed differently. Type 1 is an autoimmune disease that is more often diagnosed in childhood while type 2 has multifactorial causes, often relating to lifestyle factors, genetics and, generally (but not always) is typically diagnosed in people over the age of 40.
In type 1 diabetes the pancreas cannot produce insulin, leading to a potentially devastating build-up of sugar in the blood that can lead to nerve and organ damage. People with type 1 diabetes must replace the insulin in their body, generally via injection or an insulin pump.
While they may suffer similar complications, people with type 2 diabetes still produce insulin but their bodies become less reactive to it. Type 2 diabetes can be managed through a healthy lifestyle as well as via non-injectable medications. However, as the disease progresses some people will need insulin injections.
Gestational diabetes usually goes away on its own after delivery, but it does significantly increase a person’s risk of developing type 2 diabetes later so lifestyle precautions should be put in place to minimise risk.
Myth: The symptoms are not THAT bad
Think again. While most people are aware that people with diabetes can suffer excessive thirst or hunger, dizziness, tiredness or lethargy, and that they can suffer unexplained weight loss (for type 1) or weight gain (for type 2), these are just the tip of a rather unpleasant iceberg of symptoms.
For starters people with diabetes often need to pee, a lot, especially at night. Numb or tingling hands or feet are another common side effect, as is dry and itchy skin, with many women with diabetes also reporting embarrassing chronic itchiness in their nether regions, often related to chronic yeast infections: another gift of a diabetically impaired immune system. Diabetic ketoacidosis is another lesser known, and potentially dangerous, symptom of diabetes and sometimes presents as fruity breath and a dry mouth.
Blurry vision is an unfortunately common symptom of both type 1 and type 2 diabetes and can lead to preventable blindness. Diabetics can also find they have often trouble with slow healing wounds. Diabetic foot ulcers are another severe symptom and are associated with lower limb amputation. Those patients with type 1 can also add nausea, vomiting, or stomach pains to the list of symptoms.
Myth – I don’t have a family history of diabetes, so I won’t get it
Bad news! While having a family history of type 2 diabetes certainly can increase your risk of developing diabetes, it’s not the only factor. Regardless of family history, risks increase with age and is higher in people with high blood pressure, heart disease, or who suffer from obesity. Mothers who have delivered babies weighing more than 4kg also have a 20% higher chance of developing diabetes, regardless of whether they suffered from gestational diabetes during pregnancy.
Myth – Diabetes only afflicts overweight people
Sorry skinny folk, this one’s a bust! This would have to be one of the biggest myths surrounding diabetes. Type 1 diabetes is an unpreventable disease that is in no way associated with weight. While being overweight can be a risk factor for developing type 2 diabetes, diabetes is a complex metabolic disorder caused by a lack of insulin hormone. The condition that results can be due to a range of factors, and you can be diagnosed no matter how thin you are.
Myth – Diabetes just means you can’t eat sweets
Nope, wrong again! Look, sugar isn’t our friend and for people with diabetes, too much of it can lead to kidney damage. But that doesn’t mean they can’t include some sweets and desserts in their diet if they’re part of a healthy eating plan and are not overindulged, just like people without diabetes.
Myth – People with diabetes shouldn’t eat carbohydrates
#Notallcarbs. Look, carbs get a bad rap, and while refined grains are fairly devoid of nutrition and can lead to cause insulin resistance, good carbs are an important building block of nutrition. Fruits, vegetables, and whole grains should be included in any healthy diet, but for those people with a diabetic illness, it’s advisable to seek the advice of a nutritionist or doctor to work out how much and how to include healthy carbs in your diet.
Myth – Prediabetes is no big deal
It kinda is. You see, prediabetes means that you have elevated blood sugar level, but that it’s not quite high enough to be considered type 2 diabetes. Yet! While prediabetes is reversible with simple, proven lifestyle changes. Ergo if you ignore it, a diagnosis of type 2 diabetes is probably in the post.
Myth – Diabetes can be prevented
Yes, but also no. This one is both fiction and fact. Some, but not all types of diabetes, are preventable. As an autoimmune condition, the cause of which still remains unknown, Type 1 diabetes cannot be prevented and sadly has no cure.
When it comes to type 2 diabetes, hereditary factors aside, evidence suggests that lifestyle changes and diabetes prevention programs to manage established risk factors can help prevent type 2 diabetes in many, but not all, cases.
Myth – I have early symptoms but there’s no hurry to get a diagnosis
Get. To. Your. Doctor. Now! Early detection is absolutely vital as beginning management and treatment at an early stage can help prevent permanent damage to organs and eyesight.
This article provides general information only, and does not constitute mental health or medical advice. If you have concerns regarding your mental health, seek appropriate medical care or contact Lifeline on 131114.