Deciphering diabetes

DIABETES is a chronic condition. This means that it lasts for a long time, often for someone's whole life. For our bodies to work properly we need to convert glucose (sugar) from our food into energy.

A hormone called insulin is essential for this conversion.

In people with diabetes, insulin is no longer produced or not in sufficient amounts by the body, so when they eat glucose, which is in everyday foods such as breads, cereals, fruit and starchy vegetables, legumes, milk, yoghurt and sweets, it can't be converted into energy.

Instead, the glucose stays in the blood. Your blood glucose level is called glycemia.

Having too much sugar in the blood (known as hyperglycemia) can cause serious health problems if it's not treated.

It can damage the vessels that supply blood to vital organs and this can increase the risk of heart disease and stroke, kidney disease, vision problems and nerve problems.

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In type 1 diabetes the pancreas, a large gland behind the stomach, stops making insulin.

Without insulin, the body's cells cannot turn glucose (sugar) into energy and it burns its own fats as a substitute.

Unless treated with daily injections of insulin, people with type 1 diabetes accumulate dangerous chemical substances in their blood from the burning of fat.

This is potentially life threatening if not treated.

To stay alive, people with type 1 diabetes depend on up to four insulin injections every day.

The onset of type 1 diabetes typically occurs in people under 30 years, but can occur at any age. About 10-15% of all cases of diabetes are type 1.

Cause of Type 1

The exact cause of type 1 diabetes is not known, but we do know it has a strong family link and cannot be prevented.

We also know that it has nothing to do with lifestyle, although maintaining a healthy lifestyle is very important in helping to manage type 1 diabetes.

Symptoms of Type 1

  • Being excessively thirsty
  • Passing more urine
  • Feeling tired and lethargic
  • Always feeling hungry
  • Having cuts that heal slowly
  • Itching, skin infections
  • Blurred vision
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Mood swings
  • Headaches
  • Feeling dizzy
  • Leg cramps



Type 2 is the most common form of diabetes, affecting 85-90% of all people with diabetes.

While it usually affects older adults, more and more younger people, even children are getting type 2 diabetes.

In type 2, the pancreas makes some insulin but it is not produced in the amount your body needs and it does not work effectively.

Type 2 diabetes results from a combination of genetic and environmental factors.

Although there is a strong genetic predisposition, the risk is greatly increased when associated with lifestyle factors such as high blood pressure, overweight or obesity, insufficient physical activity, poor diet and the classic apple shape body - extra weight around the waist.

Initially Type 2 diabetes can often be managed with healthy eating and regular physical activity.

However, over time most people with type 2 diabetes will also need tablets and many will also need insulin.

Cause of Type 2

While there is no single cause of type 2 diabetes, there are risk factors.

Some of these can be changed and some cannot.

You are at a higher risk of getting type 2 diabetes if you:

  • have a family history of diabetes
  • are older (over 55 years of age ) - the risk increases as we age
  • are over 45 years of age and are overweight and/or have high blood pressure
  • are over 35 years of age and are from an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander background or are from Pacific Island, Indian subcontinent or Chinese cultural background
  • are a woman who has given birth to a child over 4.5kg, or had gestational diabetes when pregnant, or had a polycystic ovarian syndrome.

Type 2 symptoms

In type 2 diabetes, many people have no symptoms at all, while other signs are dismissed as a part of getting older.

By the time type 2 is diagnosed, the complications may already be present. Type 2 symptoms can be the same as for type 1, with the added symptom of gradual weight gain.

Preventing Type 2

Up to 60% of type 2 cases can be prevented. People at risk of type 2 can delay and even prevent it by following a healthy lifestyle.

This includes:

  • Maintaining a healthy weight
  • Regular physical activity
  • Making healthy food choices
  • Managing blood pressure
  • Managing cholesterol levels
  • Not smoking.



  • People with diabetes are up to twice as likely to develop heart disease and stroke.
  • Diabetic retinopathy causes 17% of all blindness and vision impairment and is the most common form of blindness in adults 20-74 years.
  • Lower limb amputation is 15 times more common in people with diabetes.
  • Diabetes is the leading cause of kidney failure. In people with diabetes kidney damage develops at three times the rate of those without diabetes.
  • People with diabetes are at similar risk of death to smokers.
  • People with diabetes are twice as likely to die in any five-year period.

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