Living with diabetes
Diabetes increases your risk of coronary heart disease. Doireann Maddock finds out what it’s like to live with, and how to manage the condition.
Lyn Rodney became aware she had type 2 diabetes in 2009. She is one of about three million people in the UK diagnosed with the condition. Lyn, then 49, had some of the symptoms typically associated with diabetes, as she explains: “I’d lost a lot of weight in a very short space of time and I was drinking a lot of water, I was really thirsty.”
Other signs can include extreme tiredness, slow healing of cuts and wounds, and blurred vision.
At first, Lyn was unaware that what she was experiencing could be a sign of diabetes. A chance conversation with a friend who has the condition prompted the pair to check Lyn’s blood sugar level.
Seeing the results, Lyn’s friend took her to hospital. “The doctor said my blood sugar readings were really high. I was in shock,” says Lyn. “This wasn’t something I was expecting to hear at all. I’d heard of diabetes, but never related it to myself.”
Diabetes is easy to miss. The symptoms can come on gradually and there are thought to be about 850,000 people in the UK with the condition who don’t know they have it.
Type 1 and type 2 explained
Lyn has type 2 diabetes, the most common form of diabetes (about 90 per cent of people with diabetes have type 2 compared with 10 per cent who have type 1). In type 2 diabetes, your body is initially unable to use the insulin that is produced effectively (insulin resistance), usually because key organs (in particular the liver) are full of fat, which impedes their normal response to insulin.
I want to do everything within my power to prevent Daniyel from developing it
Naveed Sattar, Professor of Metabolic Medicine at the University of Glasgow, explains: “Insulin is important because it works as a chemical messenger that helps your body use the glucose (sugar) in your blood to give you energy. So if there is a problem with the way your body reacts to it, glucose levels in the blood become too high, causing diabetes.
“Type 2 diabetes often occurs when too much fat is stored around your middle (and in key organs such as the liver) and it’s more common in people over the age of 40, although the numbers of younger people affected are increasing. It’s also more common in people of South Asian and African-Caribbean descent.”
In type 1 diabetes, the body is unable to produce insulin, although why this happens isn’t well understood. It usually develops in childhood and you can’t do anything to reduce the risk.
What lifestyle behaviours contribute to diabetes
A poor lifestyle can, however, increase your risk of type 2 diabetes. Junk food had been a problem for Lyn and her son Daniyel, 10. “Pizza, chips – all those sorts of things became a regular thing,” says Lyn.
“I was about 17 stone, and definitely overweight. People say you should have willpower, but when you are pressured, it’s easier to go for the quickest and simplest option. Junk food is always advertised, it’s always there. Daniyel also started putting on weight because these foods had become part of our lifestyle.”
Being overweight or obese is a major risk factor for type 2 diabetes. However, it’s not as simple as saying everyone who carries too much weight has the same risk. Professor Sattar explains: “Men have a higher risk of diabetes than women because men have a tendency to store fat around their middle, but aside from waist size, risk is also influenced by ethnicity, and having a family history of diabetes.
“All these factors, in turn, dictate the weight at which your body starts to place excess fat into organs such as the liver, and thus increase your risk of diabetes.”
Lifestyle changes are an essential part of treatment for all people with type 2 diabetes. This can include management of weight, diet and increasing your levels of physical activity. Medication may also be required to help control blood sugar levels.
Looking after myself has become a priority
In Lyn’s case, lifestyle changes and the support of hospital staff were all that were needed to help her get back on track. She says: “I had a lovely diabetes specialist nurse, who told me all about different food types and portion size, and I even started to use smaller plates for my main meal because psychologically that really works. Looking after myself has become a priority and I’ve lost over two and a half stone.”
Lyn also shops for food differently now. “When we go to the supermarket, we look at the nutritional information,” she says. “We are also careful about our portion sizes and make sure we have our five fruit and veg a day. Daniyel has become very aware about eating healthily and has also lost weight.”
Physical activity has become an important part of life for Lyn, who was advised to walk for at least 20 minutes every day. She says: “That has been really vital. I often go to a local park and Daniyel sometimes comes with me on his bike. We’ve also started to do badminton together and have recently joined a boxercise class. Eating healthily and keeping active is vital in helping me manage my diabetes.”
Having diabetes also puts you at risk of long-term complications such as coronary heart disease (CHD). Stephen Wheatcroft, a consultant cardiologist in Leeds, explains: “Diabetes is a powerful risk factor for CHD but the links between diabetes and CHD are complex.
“There is a large overlap between diabetes and ‘classical’ risk factors such as obesity and high blood pressure and cholesterol levels, and changes in the body that happen because of high blood sugar levels can lead to damage in the blood vessels.
“In addition, insulin resistance that underpins type 2 diabetes is associated with important changes in blood vessel structure and function that can predispose you to developing CHD.”
Lyn sometimes worries about the future. Her dad also developed diabetes in adulthood and she doesn’t want that happening to her son (pictured). She explains: “The hereditary aspect of diabetes bothers me. Daniyel had a scare the other day but his blood tests came back normal, which was a relief. I want to do everything within my power to prevent him from developing it.”