Diabetes is a chronic health issue that occurs when a person’s blood sugar levels become too high. This increase in blood sugar can result from a variety of different mechanisms within the body, but it always prevents the cells from utilizing food to make energy. As such, when left untreated, diabetes can result in severe complications and trigger other health concerns.
As recently as the early 1920s, a diabetes diagnosis was as good as a death sentence. Fortunately, today we can recognize early signs and symptoms and begin diabetes treatment much earlier. Early treatment reduces the risk of severe complications and allows most individuals the opportunity to live a normal life.
Types of Diabetes
It is important to note that diabetes is a blanket term for a collection of diseases that stem from the body’s improper relationship with insulin. In some instances, the body doesn’t make enough insulin to convert sugar (glucose) into energy, while in other instances, the body creates more than it needs. For some individuals, diabetes is a mix of both, and the body has stopped responding to regular insulin production as it should.
In all these cases, your body is unable to draw glucose out of the bloodstream and distribute it to the cells at a normal level. This prevents the cells from creating energy as they should and leaves elevated levels of glucose within the bloodstream. Both effects can lead to complications.1
Type 1 Diabetes
This type of diabetes comprises up to 10% of all diabetes cases.7 Type 1 diabetes is often referred to as an autoimmune disorder, meaning that the immune system routinely attacks cells produced by the body. With Type 1 diabetes, these cells are responsible for producing insulin. There is no way to reverse this condition, and researchers are still discovering what prompts the immune system to act this way. Many individuals with Type 1 were born with the condition, and it is commonly identified in children and teenagers.
However, researchers believe Type 1 diabetes can arise from both genetic and environmental factors. There is still much research that needs to be done about this type of diabetes, and while the 1921 discovery of insulin allows people with Type 1 diabetes to survive and thrive for a normal lifespan, they will need to continue taking insulin for the rest of their lives.
Type 2 Diabetes
Type 2 diabetes is a more common form of the disease, making up over 90% of all diabetes cases.7 With type 2 diabetes, the body is unable to use the insulin it naturally produces. Subsequently, the pancreas creates more insulin because it senses a lack of glucose in its cells. When it fails to keep up, the insulin-producing cells experience impairment and can no longer create adequate amounts of insulin.
Anyone can develop Type 2 diabetes, although age, medical conditions like polycystic ovary syndrome, race, and ethnicity appear to play a role. However, other risk factors involve self-care choices and correspond with high body weight and a sedentary lifestyle. Thus, type 2 diabetes can be managed, and in some cases eradicated, by proper medication, diet, and exercise routine. This largely depends on early detection as well as a commitment to making lifestyle changes if necessary.
This type of diabetes occurs during pregnancy when blood sugar levels get too high due to placental hormones that increase glucose storage in the blood. Subsequently, the pancreas is unable to mitigate this glucose spike with enough insulin to manage blood sugar. Often, the body is unable to effectively utilize the insulin produced. Gestational diabetes usually develops between the 24th and 28th weeks of pregnancy. For many expectant mothers, the problem goes away once the baby is born but can still lead to a higher risk of both mother and child developing type 2 diabetes later in life. Other mothers quickly transition to type 2 diabetes after giving birth. This is especially the case for mothers with diabetes risk factors, including a high body weight or a sedentary lifestyle.
What Are the Early Signs of Diabetes?
While type 1 diabetes and type 2 diabetes have different root causes and present at different age ranges, their symptoms can present similarly. These symptoms can appear gradually and may seem mild during the initial stages. However, it is beneficial to understand the early signs to prevent your or your child’s diabetes from going untreated. So, what are the most common symptoms of undiagnosed diabetes? The earliest signs range in severity—often, one sign or symptom will lead to another due to the way higher blood sugar levels impact your body. Changes in the way your body functions—thus impacting the way you eat, drink, and move about your day—are the most common. Review these early signs of diabetes.4
If you find yourself experiencing the urge to urinate more frequently, especially at night, you may be noticing an early sign of diabetes. When your blood sugar is high, your kidneys go into overdrive to try to filter the excess sugar out of your system through urination. This symptom is also known as polyuria.
This sign goes hand in hand with frequent urination. With frequent urination, the body loses more water than it normally would. This can lead to dehydration which will make you feel thirsty more often than before. Polyuria and dehydration can initiate a vicious cycle as you start to drink more water to try to quench your thirst—this increase can cause you to urinate more often.
Glucose is a simple sugar that is created when the digestive system breaks down food. Our bodies use this glucose as fuel. However, diabetes prevents the body from getting enough energy from food, as insulin issues alter the way the body’s cells take in glucose. This can lead to increased feelings of hunger, even after a meal. This symptom is also referred to as polyphagia.
Weight loss can be a sign of several different conditions, including diabetes. If you are losing weight unintentionally, this could be a sign that the body’s normal process of breaking down and utilizing glucose as fuel isn’t working as it should. Weight loss can happen even when eating more to try to satisfy increased hunger.
Doctors aren’t sure exactly why, but many individuals with diabetes experience dry mouth. It is believed that it could be related to high blood sugar (hyperglycemia) from diabetes. Symptoms include a dry feeling in the mouth and trouble with chewing, swallowing, or speaking. Other
symptoms include dry, cracked lips, sores or infections, and dry tongue. This symptom could cause you to drink more water, which could trigger increased urination.
Having too much sugar in your blood can damage the blood vessels in your eyes. This can cause blurry vision in one or both eyes. This effect on your vision can come and go, but with no treatment, there is an increased risk of blurred vision becoming severe and even permanent. Severe cases could lead to conditions such as diabetic retinopathy or even blindness.
Feelings of Exhaustion
Diabetes can impact energy levels, leading to feelings of fatigue and exhaustion. This is due to insufficient sugar moving from the bloodstream into the cells of the body for use as fuel. Several factors can cause a person to feel exhausted, so it is helpful to consider co-occurring symptoms or if there are outside factors that could be affecting your energy levels, like stress or life events.
Extended Healing Times
When blood sugar levels are high for an extended period, they can damage the body’s nerves and blood vessels. This can impair blood circulation. When blood is unable to properly circulate, small cuts and wounds could take weeks or months to heal. This slow healing can increase the risk of infection, leading to further complications and the need for surgery to repair the damage.
Numbness in the Extremities
Known as neuropathy, a person can experience pain, tingling, and even numbness in the hands and feet due to poor circulation. This condition can worsen over time and lead to significant complications if left untreated. When your feet are numb, you may cause injuries that you won’t feel. If left untreated, these injuries could lead to infections and subsequent issues that may necessitate amputation.
Patches of Discolored Skin
Known as acanthosis nigricans, diabetes can cause patches of skin to darken and feel different. These patches are usually soft and velvety to the touch and can thicken over time. Areas of acanthosis nigricans are commonly found in the creases of the neck, armpit, or groin area. This symptom is most common in people with type 2 diabetes.
Itching and Infections
An increase of bacterial, fungal, or yeast infections is often associated with diabetes. Yeast is harbored more readily when there is excess sugar in the blood and urine. Over time, this increase in yeast can lead to a yeast infection occurring on warm, moist areas of the skin such as the mouth, genital areas, and armpits.
Other types of infections can include urinary tract infections and even gum or skin infections. The risk of bacterial infections is also significantly larger in individuals with diabetes. These infections can include styes, boils, hair follicle infections, and infections around the nails. Itching is a common response to these infections, but individuals also experience burning, redness, and soreness.
Not all signs and symptoms of diabetes are physical. Symptoms of diabetes can also impact your mental health. Mood changes increased worry, and anxiety often appears with other signs and can be caused by fluctuations in blood sugar. If you find yourself dealing with unexpected mood swings, a general feeling of sluggishness, or reacting in ways that wouldn’t normally fit your personality, you may be experiencing undiagnosed diabetes.
Risk Factors to Consider
Technically, anyone can develop diabetes at any point in their lives. However, as mentioned, there are a few common risk factors that increase the likelihood of diabetes.
These risk factors include:
- Increased age (45 or older)
- Living a sedentary lifestyle
- Being overweight or obese
- Eating unhealthy foods
- Having a family history of diabetes
- Having polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS)
- Medical history of gestational diabetes, heart disease, or stroke
- Having prediabetes (increased blood sugar not yet at the threshold of type 2 diabetes)
Fortunately, many of these risk factors can be mitigated by making healthy life decisions like eating a healthy diet, getting enough exercise, and avoiding certain foods.
Why Are Diabetes Symptoms Important?
It can be easy to explain away many of the early symptoms of diabetes. Many of these symptoms can result from other conditions. However, multiple symptoms together mean it is important to investigate undesired or unexpected changes to your body to determine whether you have diabetes. According to the American Diabetes Association, there are around 34.2 million American adults 6 who live with diagnosed type 2 diabetes.
There are also 7.2 million Americans who have undiagnosed diabetes. In addition to this staggering number, there are 84.1 million Americans who have prediabetes 7. The Center for Disease Control found that 70% of those who are prediabetic will eventually develop type 2 diabetes. The dangers of undiagnosed diabetes vary, but when left untreated, diabetes can lead to serious risks to your health and life.
Systems at Risk
Insulin issues impact a wide variety of organs within your body. Your body relies on its ability to properly produce and use insulin. When your body is producing too much or too little insulin, damage to your organs can occur over time from the resulting increase in blood glucose. This damage can impact your heart and blood vessels, eyes, kidneys, nerves, and other important systems.
Diabetes can increase your risk of cardiovascular disease, heart attack, stroke, or a narrowing of the arteries. Undiagnosed diabetes can also lead to nerve damage over time, usually beginning in the fingers and toes and often manifesting itself as pain, tingles, or numbness. If left undiagnosed, diabetes nerve damage could spread up the limbs. For men, it could also result in erectile dysfunction.
Diabetes can also damage blood vessel clusters in the kidneys, causing kidney disease and kidney failure. Kidney failure can lead to the need for a kidney transplant. Eye damage is also common, and when untreated, could lead to total, irreversible blindness. Gastroparesis is another condition that can be caused by diabetes. With this condition, the stomach slows or stops the movement of food to the intestines. This causes nausea, vomiting, and stomach pain.
How Can I Check If I Have Diabetes?
Determining whether you have diabetes is a fairly straightforward process. If you feel you may be experiencing early warning signs, it is best to schedule a simple blood sugar test. You’ll receive your results fairly quickly, and a professional can help you determine the cause of any blood sugar issues as well as potential treatments. Diabetes is a manageable condition, especially when it is detected early.
The best preventive measure is making lifestyle changes related to your diet and exercise. By eating healthy, staying hydrated, getting enough sleep, and committing to regular exercise, you can help manage diabetes. In addition, supplements may help to lower blood sugar alongside regular medications.
Understanding the Early Warning Signs of Diabetes
Diabetes can be a serious, life-threatening condition. It can also be managed and treated so that you can continue with your life. The key difference between these two scenarios is understanding the importance of early detection. By understanding the early warning signs of diabetes, you’ll be better equipped to take action to prevent the disease’s chronic effects.
If you exhibit the early warning signs of diabetes, take the time to examine whether addressing your diet—including healthy foods, vitamin regimens, and supplements—could combat the onset of diabetes in addition to a healthy lifestyle.
- 3 Most Common Symptoms of Undiagnosed Diabetes – https://ucfhealth.com/our-services/endocrinology/3-most-common-symptoms-of-undiagnosed-diabetes/
- Type 2 Diabetes – https://www.healthline.com/health/diabetes/early-warning-signs-type-2-diabetes
- Early signs of type 2 diabetes? – https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/323185#early-signs-and-symptoms
- Early Signs and Symptoms of Diabetes –https://www.webmd.com/diabetes/guide/understanding-diabetes-symptoms
- Undiagnosed Diabetes – https://www.pinnaclecare.com/highlights/blog/undiagnosed-diabetes/
- Statistics About Diabetes – https://www.diabetes.org/resources/statistics/statistics-about-diabetes
- Diabetes Fast Facts – https://www.cdc.gov/diabetes/basics/quick-facts.html
Chief Operating Officer, The Compounding Pharmacy of America
Matthew Poteet, Pharm.D. graduated with Honors from Lee University with a Bachelors of Science in Biological Science. After his undergraduate training, he completed the Doctor of Pharmacy program at Mercer University Southern School of Pharmacy, graduating in 2004. Dr. Poteet has spent much of his pharmacy career on staff at two of the most prestigious academic teaching hospitals in the Southeast; Emory University in Atlanta and Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville. At these institutions he received extensive experience and training in sterile products compounding.
He returned home to East Tennessee in 2010, where he has held the position of Pharmacy Director at two sterile products pharmacies in Knoxville. Matthew lives in Knoxville with his wife, Chris. Dr. Poteet is Tennessee’s first Board Certified Anti-Aging Pharmacist by the American Academy of Anti-Aging Medicine.