The Full Diabetes Lowdown

Understanding Diabetes-main photo

Understanding Diabetes

Diabetes (medically known as diabetes mellitus) is a common, chronic disorder marked by elevated levels of blood glucose, or sugar. It occurs when your cells don’t respond appropriately to insulin (a hormone secreted by the pancreas), and when your pancreas can’t produce enough insulin. Diabetes usually can’t be cured. Left untreated—or poorly managed—it can lead to serious long-term complications, including kidney failure and blindness. Moreover, having diabetes increases your risk for cardiovascular disease, including heart attack and stroke.

Diabetes usually can’t be cured. Left untreated—or poorly managed—it can lead to serious long-term complications, including kidney failure and blindness. Moreover, having diabetes increases your risk for cardiovascular disease, including heart attack and stroke.

To understand diabetes, it’s helpful to understand the basics of how your body metabolizes (breaks down) sugar. Most of the cells in your body need sugar as a source of energy. When you eat carbohydrates, such as a bowl of pasta or some vegetables, your digestive system breaks the carbohydrates down into simple sugars such as glucose, which travel into and through your bloodstream to nourish and energize cells.

The pancreas, an elongated gland behind your stomach and liver, plays two key roles in sugar metabolism. First, it produces enzymes that flow into the small intestine to help break down the nutrients in your food—proteins, carbohydrates, and fats—to provide sources of energy and building material for the body’s cells. Second, it makes hormones that regulate the entry of nutrients, including sugars, into your body’s cells. The islets of Langerhans, tiny clusters of cells found throughout the pancreas, are responsible for producing these hormones. The islets are composed of alpha cells, which produce the hormone glucagon, and beta cells, which secrete insulin. These hormones generally have opposite actions, but both are important in regulating your body’s use of sugar, fat, and protein.

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