When our bodies are humming along smoothly, we rarely think about all the complex processes that are going on. But when we don't feel well and we're unable to perform our usual activities, we want to know what's causing the problem and how it can be fixed.
Causes of Type 1 Diabetes
Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune disease. Something triggers the body to mount an immune system attack against itself, in the same way the immune system normally attacks harmful bacteria and viruses. In type 1 diabetes, the immune system produces antibodies that attack and destroy the insulin-secreting beta cells in the pancreas. As the number of beta cells decreases, the amount of insulin that is produced decreases as well. Since the pancreas can't make new beta cells, eventually only a small number of beta cells remain and little or no insulin is produced.
Fortunately, the immune system attack doesn't affect the body's ability to respond to insulin. That's why people with type 1 diabetes can compensate for the lack of insulin production by taking insulin injections.
Causes of Type 2 Diabetes
Type 2 diabetes is caused by a combination of insulin resistance (reduced sensitivity of the body's tissues, primarily the liver and muscles, to the action of insulin) and inadequate amounts of insulin. If you have insulin resistance, your pancreas must increase its production of insulin, because your body needs more insulin to accomplish the job of moving glucose into your cells. For example, the pancreas of a healthy person might produce 30 units of insulin a day. If that person develops insulin resistance, more insulin is required, because those same 30 units will no longer be sufficient to clear glucose from the bloodstream. Eventually, the pancreas can no longer keep up with the increasing demand for extra insulin, and glucose accumulates in the bloodstream. At that point, the person has type 2 diabetes.
Obesity is the major contributing factor to insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes. That's why obese people who have early signs of type 2 diabetes are told by their doctors to make dietary changes, lose weight, and exercise. If these lifestyle measures are not sufficient to control their blood glucose, the next step is oral diabetes medications. About 40 percent of people with type 2 diabetes eventually need insulin injections to keep their blood glucose at a safe level.
It turns out that lack of sleep can affect your body's ability to respond to insulin, eventually leading to insulin resistance - a precursor to diabetes. A recent study found that in people who slept 4.5 hours per night, the body's ability to respond to insulin was 30 percent lower than it was in those who normally slept 8.5 hours. A simple solution: Add an extra 15 minutes of sleep each night until you reach 8.5 hours.
Written by: Christopher D. Saudek, M.D.; Simeon Margolis, M.D., Ph.D. Updated by Remedy Health Media, Healthcommunities' sister publication Diabetes Focus Spring 2013