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What Is Diabetes? Symptoms, Diagnosis, and Treatment

20th September, 2019 | Published by Saltzer Health


Diabetes is a condition that affects how the body processes insulin. Insulin is a hormone produced by the pancreas. Your body uses insulin to convert glucose (sugar) into energy, and your cells use insulin to store and metabolize glucose. Insulin is like the key that unlocks the cell door for glucose to get in and do its work.

If you have diabetes, your body has trouble producing or accepting insulin. Type 1 diabetes (often called “juvenile diabetes”) causes your pancreas to malfunction when it’s trying to produce insulin. Type 2 diabetes (diabetes mellitus, or high blood glucose) causes your cells to develop insulin resistance and malfunction when they’re trying to use insulin to turn glucose into energy.

Diabetes is very common and it puts people at risk of a number of life-threatening problems, such as diabetic coma, heart disease, and stroke. “Diabetes is the most common thing that I see,” said Saltzer Health’s Dr. Erik Richardson. Dr. Richardson, a Family Practice physician, discussed diabetes and its relationship with obesity in a podcast on July 9, 2019. Richardson continued, “I see at least 6-8 patients a day with Diabetes.” According to Dr. Richardson, there’s a strong link between diabetes and obesity.

Nationwide, around 30.3 million people — or 9.4% of the population — have diabetes. Type 2 diabetes — which may be preventable — accounts for 90% to 95% of cases.   


Type 2 Diabetes Causes and Symptoms

Since 1990, researchers have observed a genetic predisposition to insulin resistance.  People who develop type 2 diabetes are more likely to have diabetic parents. However, there’s also a strong association between obesity during pregnancy and insulin resistance in young, otherwise healthy offspring. 

Environmental factors are a powerful contributor to diabetes. Children with unhealthy diets, who are insulin-resistant and sedentary, can develop diabetes at an early age. However, it’s more common for them to develop type 2 diabetes in adulthood. 


Risk Factors and Causes

The risk factors and causes of type 2 diabetes include:

    • Obesity: Dr. Richardson estimates that in the cases he sees, a chronic condition like diabetes is directly linked to obesity 70% to 75% of the time.
    • An unhealthy diet high in sugar: Dr. Richardson notes that “The more we’re having white flour breads and pastas and all these kind of things, we’re just flogging our body with sugar, which makes insulin go up and up and up.”
    • Genes: “Certainly, there are genetic components and some people who aren’t overweight still have diabetes,” says Dr. Richardson. “But that is still the minority.”
    • Sedentary lifestyle: A lack of exercise significantly elevates the risk of obesity and type 2 diabetes. 
    • High blood pressure: Although researchers have not been able to prove hypertension causes diabetes, the two are linked. A study showed that people with high blood pressure are 70% more likely to develop diabetes.  
    • Native American, Alaska Native, African-American, Asian/Pacific Islander, or Hispanic American descent: Prevalence varies, but individuals in these race/ethnic groups are more prone to diabetes. 
    • Gestational diabetes: Gestational diabetes is a type of diabetes that some women develop during pregnancy. If it’s not checked, the mother may give birth to an overweight baby who will be more likely to develop diabetes later in life. 
    • Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS): PCOS occurs in women who have a reproductive hormone imbalance, which causes them to gain weight and may increase the chances of developing diabetes. 


Many of these risk factors contribute to each other — an unhealthy diet high in  processed carbs and a sedentary lifestyle contribute to high blood pressure and obesity, which are linked to diabetes.



About 7.2 million people, or nearly 24% of those with diabetes, are undiagnosed. If you’re undiagnosed and experiencing symptoms, seek immediate medical attention. The symptoms of type 2 diabetes include:

  • Frequent and excessive urination;
  • Excessive hunger and thirst;
  • Excessive fatigue;
  • Excessive weight gain or weight loss;
  • Blurry vision;
  • Delay in the ability of wounds to heal;
  • Poor circulation, resulting in frequent tingling, numbness, and pain in your hands and feet;
  • Dark skin spots on armpits, neck, or groin
  • Frequent infections, including yeast infections;      


People who are at risk of developing type 2 diabetes may be able to catch it during the prediabetes phase. 



The risk factors for prediabetes are the same as those for type 2 diabetes, with one addition: if you’re over 45 years of age, you’re more likely to develop prediabetes. 

Like diabetes mellitus, prediabetes is marked by an excessive blood glucose level. About 90% of people with prediabetes don’t know they have it. Symptoms are hard to spot, and the prediabetic typically catches their condition when they have their blood glucose level checked. If you have prediabetes, your blood glucose level is between 100 and 125 milligrams per deciliter. If you have prediabetes, you stand a 50% chance of developing type 2 diabetes in 5 to 10 years. 

It’s a good idea to take tests regularly to determine whether you have prediabetes after you turn 45. You may not need medication: exercise and a healthy diet can help your body process insulin, effectively lowering your blood glucose levels and lessening your chances of becoming diabetic. 


Type 2 Diabetes Treatment      

As previously mentioned, 24% of diabetics are undiagnosed and at risk of serious health complications that may be fatal. Research shows that proper diagnosis and treatment of diabetes can significantly reduce your discomfort due to symptoms. Most importantly, an effective treatment regimen may help you live a longer life. 

Look at the risk factors and causes of type 2 diabetes, and realize you don’t have to be obese to be at risk. Then, see a doctor to pursue the optimum treatment course. 

“If nothing else, get out and walk,” said Dr. Richardson. “Studies show about 30 minutes [of walking] a day for five days a week is a good standard.” Richardson also recommends a plant-based diet, or at least a diet high in fruits and vegetables and low in processed carbohydrates and added sugars. It’s a good idea to cut the junk out altogether, and that junk includes white pasta, white bread, and white rice, as well as sugary drinks . “Focus on eating right. Focus on exercising,” Richardson said.    

Richardson had a 70-year-old patient who suffered a stroke. He had high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and diabetes. Richardson recommended a plant-based diet and a book to go with it. The patient completely changed his lifestyle and lost a great deal of weight. He was able to go off his medication and his blood work revealed everything was normal. “And he’s never been happier and healthier in his life,” Richardson said. 

“If someone is able to make healthy lifestyle changes and to reduce the amount of sugar intake, can they can no longer have diabetes? Absolutely,” Richardson said. “You’re still going to be predisposed to having it. You’re always going to have that insulin resistance. But can you control it through your lifestyle? Absolutely.” 


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