Diabetes: Symptoms, Causes & Treatment

What is Diabetes?

Diabetes is one of the most common diseases to plague the developed world. It is a serious disease but it is manageable. Diabetes is considered a disability, specifically because the endocrine system has limited function (x). It affects about 30 million people in the United States. Interestingly, about 25 percent of these patients are unaware of the condition (x). There are several types of diabetes, including diabetes mellitus, diabetes insipidus and gestational diabetes.

Diabetes Mellitus

Diabetes mellitus occurs when blood glucose levels get too high. Glucose is the most common carbohydrate and it is a monosaccharide, a simple carbohydrate (x). While the body needs blood glucose, too much of it becomes a major health concern. Blood glucose, or blood sugar, becomes too high when the body doesn’t make or use insulin properly. Within this category, there are different types. The most common are type 1 and type 2.

Type 1 Diabetes

In type 1 diabetes, the pancreas does not make enough insulin and patients must take insulin daily (x). Researchers do not categorize it as an autoimmune disorder, but something does trigger an autoimmune response. The body destroys the cells that produce insulin, mistaking them as dangerous or toxic (x).

Type 2 Diabetes

This is the most common type. The pancreas still makes insulin, but it either doesn’t make enough or the body does not use it properly. It can develop at any age, but it is most common in adults middle-aged or older (x). It carries much higher risks for the patient’s health as they age (x).

Diabetes Insipidus

As opposed to diabetes mellitus, diabetes insipidus is a rare condition that occurs when the kidneys fail to hoard water as they filter blood. Unlike diabetes mellitus, it is not caused by inadequate insulin secretion or regulation. Instead, it occurs when the pituitary gland doesn’t make enough of the antidiuretic hormone (ADH). The body needs ADH to control its water levels and individuals with this condition often lose excess water in excess. Therefore, diabetes insipidus can be life threatening without treatment (x). Doctors often mistake diabetes insipidus with diabetes mellitus because they both share the same chief symptom—frequent and excessive urination (polyuria).

Gestational Diabetes

A rare condition, gestational diabetes insipidus occurs in pregnancy and normally goes away after birth (x). Gestational insipidus diabetes occurs if the placenta produces an enzyme that destroys ADH. The patient can also develop gestational mellitus diabetes if hormones affect insulin production.

Signs of Diabetes

Diabetes can present itself in a number of different ways. Early detection is very important to avoid long term complications. The most common symptoms include frequent urination, excessive thirst, extreme fatigue, pain, unexplained weight loss and tingling or numbness in the hands or feet (x).

Frequent Urination

Excessive thirst and frequent urination go hand in hand. When blood glucose levels are high, the kidneys work harder to filter the sugar, but when there is so much extra sugar that the kidneys cannot keep up, the body secretes it through urine and brings extra fluids with it. Continuing to urinate so frequently can lead to dehydration and excessive thirst. However, drinking more water leads to more urination and then dehydration (x).

Other Signs

Autonomic neuropathy can cause gastrointestinal distress such as stomach pain and diarrhea as well as dizziness or vertigo (x). Uncontrolled diabetes can lead to problems with the eyes, kidneys, feet, heart, brain and nerves. It can cause blurred vision and even vision loss. If it affects the kidneys the patient’s hands, feet and face may swell and they may have unexplained weight gain, itching or drowsiness. It can cause nerve damage in the feet that causes pain and numbness that may even require amputation. The condition may cause heart attack symptoms such as shortness of breath, dizziness, sweating, nausea and chest pain. It can also affect the brain, causing paralysis or numbness (x).

Causes of Diabetes

Type 1

In some people, the immune system mistakenly attacks healthy beta cells in the pancreas that produce insulin, resulting in type 1 diabetes. Researchers have not discovered the exact cause, but most likely it is a combination of genetic factors and environmental factors, such as a virus (x).

Type 2

Insulin Resistance

Insulin resistance is when the muscle, liver and fat cells do not use insulin efficiently. The body needs more insulin to absorb glucose, which causes the pancreas to work harder. However, the pancreas cannot keep up blood glucose accumulates in the blood (x).

Risk Factors

Patients may also develop this type from genetic factors. However, unlike type 1 diabetes, it does not develop because of environmental factors, but lifestyle behaviors, such as weight, obesity and excess belly fat, which research links to insulin resistance (x).


Gestational diabetes develops because the pancreas produces hormones that trigger insulin resistance. Patients who are overweight or obese are at a higher risk of developing it. Other risk factors include age, medical history and the baby’s weight. Patients over 25 may be at a higher risk, as well as those with a history of prediabetes or gestational diabetes. In addition, if the patient’s baby weighs more than 9 lbs., that can increase the risk (x).

Other causes of gestational, mellitus or insipidus diabetes can include (x):

  • Family history/genetics
  • Hormonal diseases
  • Damage to the pancreas
  • Medications
Causes of Diabetes

Managing Diabetes

Fortunately, patients can manage diabetes in a variety of ways including following a healthy diet, maintaining a healthy weight and regular exercise. Patients can also take oral medications and insulin injections.

Diabetes Mellitus

Type 1 requires patients to inject insulin either with a syringe or an insulin pump. There are researchers working to develop a cure for type 1 diabetes, but there is not enough research to understand how to stop the immune system from attacking the cells responsible for insulin production (x).

Oral medications for type 2 diabetes work to lower blood glucose levels. In most cases, doctors prescribe metformin (glucophage) first. Unfortunately, it is not possible to completely reverse diabetes. However, patients can put the condition in “remission” and lower blood sugar levels so that they may avoid being dependent on medication. Patients can manage it with lifestyle and dietary changes and weight loss (x).

Diabetes Insipidus

Doctors treat diabetes insipidus with a medication called desmopressin acetate (DDAVP), which functions similarly to ADH (x). DDAVP is available as a nasal spray, a rhinal tube solution or pills.

Gestational Diabetes

Because gestational diabetes increases a woman’s chances of developing type 2 in the future, it is important to try to avoid it in the first place. Maintaining a healthy weight, exercising regularly and eating a healthy diet during pregnancy can help reduce the risk (x).

Gestational diabetes can cause complications to the baby, including macrosomia which causes the baby to grow too large during pregnancy. If the baby’s weight increases to 9 lbs. or higher, it can cause injury during birth. This complication may require an emergency C-section. The baby may be born prematurely before the lungs are fully developed, which can cause respiratory distress. The mother’s high blood glucose level can cause the baby to make too much insulin, resulting in low blood sugar levels. Additionally, without treatment, gestational diabetes can also cause miscarriage (x).

Dietary Changes

Weight and overall health contributes to diabetes, including dietary choices. There is a significant relationship between diabetes management and diet and understanding how different foods affect blood glucose is essential for patients living with diabetes.

Whole Grains

Diabetics can eat grains in moderation, but opt for healthier whole grains as opposed to white, flour-based foods. Look for products like brown or wild rice, whole wheat flour, whole oats, buckwheat or quinoa. Stay away from products that say the item is “made with” whole grains or “contains” whole grains. The product should list whole grain as the first ingredient (x).


Type 1 diabetics may also be at risk for celiac disease and may require a gluten-free diet. According to research, approximately 10 percent of type 1 diabetics also have celiac disease (x). Focusing on fruits, vegetables and dairy will help patients reach calorie counts, but diabetics still need healthy carbohydrates. There are still many gluten-free options out there, such as beans, corn, millet, flax, potatoes, rice, soy and quinoa (x).

Long-Term Complications

Diabetes can affect the entire body. Years of high blood glucose levels can lead to a host of other health problems and complications. For example, diabetes may cause vision problems such as glaucoma, cataracts, diabetic retinopathy and diabetic macular edema (x). It may also cause heart disease and a heart attack or stroke.

Diabetic Neuropathy

Neuropathy, or nerve damage, is a common long-term complication that can develop from diabetes. In fact, the risk increases the longer the patient has the condition. Symptoms include loss of sensation in the feet or burning pain in the legs (x).

Supplements for Diabetes

Bitter Melon 

Bitter melon is a vegetable-fruit that commonly grows in South America, Asia and Africa, where it is used for medicinal purposes. It may work similarly to insulin to lower blood glucose levels. The recommended dosage for bitter melon extract powder is 750 mg once a day. It has a bitter taste, but patients may disguise it by mixing the supplement with a beverage.

Ginger Root

Ginger root is typically used for its anti-inflammatory properties, but it also has the potential to lower blood sugar. As a dietary supplement, take ginger root extract powder once a day in 1,000 mg doses.

Berberine HCL 

According to research, berberine HCL may be able to regulate blood glucose levels (x). Take berberine HCL powder twice a day in 500 mg doses. Only use it for up to three months, unless a doctor instructs otherwise.

African Mango 

The seeds from the African mango tree may help manage blood glucose and assist with weight loss. Additionally, they are high in fiber, which may help increase satiety and aid in digestion. The recommended dosage for African mango seed extract powder is 1,200 mg per day with at least 8 oz. of water.

Alpha Lipoic Acid 

Alpha lipoic acid is a powerful antioxidant with the potential to lower blood glucose levels. Take 600 mg of alpha lipoic acid powder one to two times per day. But do not take too much at once because it may throw off normal ALA levels in the body.

The Bottom Line

There are several different types of diabetes. Diabetes mellitus is the most common type, but diabetes insipidus is much more rare. Diabetes insipidus is a condition characterized by polyuria and the complications it creates—extreme thirst and dehydration. Deficiencies in ADH, a hormone that directs the kidneys to retain water, causes this condition. Diabetes mellitus develops because of the body’s inability to make or use insulin properly. As a result, blood sugar accumulates in the body and can cause complications. Gestational diabetes develops during pregnancy because of hormonal changes that may interfere with insulin production.

There is no cure for diabetes, but by managing it properly, patients can lead full and healthy lives. There are medications available to help control it and doctors also recommend dietary and lifestyle changes. Patients may also take natural supplements to help regulate the condition, but they are not a cure for this condition or any other. Consult a doctor before adding supplements to a dietary regimen.

Author: Ryan Quigley
Graduate of Longwood University in Virginia. Part-time sports journalist covering the Vegas Golden Knights.