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What is Diabetes?

By David Mendosa

Last Update: July 28, 2001

Having diabetes means that your body doesn't do a good job of using the food you eat because of a disturbance of carbohydrate metabolism. Most of what you eat needs to be broken down into a simple sugar called glucose, the body's main fuel source.

Different causes, same results.

But for that glucose to get into your cells, it needs insulin, which is a hormone that the beta cells in your pancreas produce. The pancreases of people who have diabetes produce little or no insulin, or the body does not respond to the insulin that is produced. So glucose builds up in the blood and is wasted. Even worse, all that glucose running around in your bloodstream is responsible for the typical complications of diabetes—diseases of the heart, eye, kidneys, nerves, and other organs.

The type of diabetes in which your pancreas produces little or no insulin is called type 1. To stay alive, people with type 1 diabetes must take daily insulin shots, which Dr. Frederick Banting discovered how to extract from animal pancreases in 1921.

Type 1 diabetes was formerly called juvenile-onset diabetes, because it mostly attacks young people, although it can develop at any age. It accounts for just 5 or 10 percent of the diagnosed diabetes. It symptoms include increased thirst and urination, constant hunger, weight loss, blurred vision, and extreme tiredness.

By far the most common form of diabetes is called type 2. About 90 to 95 percent of people with diabetes have it. This form of diabetes usually develops in adults over the age of 40 and is most common among adults over age 55. About 80 percent of them are overweight.

When people have type 2 diabetes, their pancreases usually produce some insulin, but for some reason the body cannot use the insulin effectively, a condition called insulin resistance. While it has a different cause than type 1 diabetes, the end result is the same—that unhealthy buildup of glucose in the blood.

The symptoms of type 2 diabetes develop gradually and are not as noticeable as for type 1. The symptoms include feeling tired or ill, frequent urination (especially at night), unusual thirst, weight loss, blurred vision, frequent infections and slow healing of sores. Many people without any of these symptoms, however, are surprised when their doctors diagnose that they have diabetes.

A third type of the disease is called gestational diabetes. It develops—or is discovered—during pregnancy. While it usually disappears when the pregnancy is over, women who have had gestational diabetes have a greater risk of developing type 2 diabetes later. 

This article originally appeared on on November 10, 2000. It is a slightly revised version of an article that I wrote for The Dallas Morning News, December 7, 1998, on-line here at

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