What is diabetes?

By Veronica Kocovska

What is diabetes

Simply put, diabetes mellitus is a disease which occurs when there is a buildup of glucose (aka sugar) in your bloodstream because your body cannot use it properly. Glucose is the main energy source your body uses, and this comes from food – namely, carbohydrates.

Insulin – a hormone produced by your pancreas – aids in shipping glucose from food into your body’s cells, thus providing energy for movement and bodily functions. If there is a problem with glucose reaching your cells and staying in your bloodstream, such as your body not producing enough or any insulin, this leads to health problems including stroke, blindness, neuropathy, heart disease and kidney failure.

Whilst we hear about diabetes a lot and with more and more cases being diagnosed every year, we may be tempted to brush it aside thinking “that doesn’t apply to me”, but the reality is it can affect anyone. As our population continues to age and with obesity constantly on the rise it’s little wonder that more people are being diagnosed with this disease every year.

The different types of diabetes:

1. Type 1 diabetes:

Your body doesn’t create insulin because your immune system targets and destroys pancreatic cells responsible for creating insulin, therefore you have to take insulin every day via an injection. Whilst type 1 diabetes can be diagnosed at any age, it is normally diagnosed during childhood.

2. Type 2 diabetes:

Your body either doesn’t make or utilise insulin well, and is most often linked with being overweight.

3. Gestational diabetes:

Arising during pregnancy, it can occur in the second or third trimester because the body cannot produce enough insulin to meet the extra demands of pregnancy. If detected during the first trimester, this usually indicates that the condition already existed before the pregnancy. Women who are overweight or obese are more predisposed to gestational diabetes, and there is a 30% risk of developing type 2 diabetes after gestational diabetes.

How common is diabetes?

In 2019, 4.7 million people in the UK were confirmed as having diabetes. 10% of all diabetes cases are type 1, and approximately 90% are type 2.

The UK is facing a huge rise in the number of people with the condition. Since 1996 the number of people diagnosed with diabetes has increased from 1.4 million to 4.7 million. By 2030 it is estimated that over five million people will have diabetes. The majority of cases will be Type 2 diabetes, due to the ageing population and sharply increasing numbers of overweight and obese people. Two thirds of the British population are now overweight or obese1. The figures are alarming and support the fact that diabetes is one of the biggest health challenges facing the UK today. If we are to constrain this growing health crisis and bring down the number of people dying from diabetes and its complications, we need to increase awareness of the risks, educate and advocate for changes in lifestyle habits, improve self-management among people with diabetes and promote access to integrated diabetes care services.

Diabetes symptoms and impact

General symptoms and signs of diabetes include increased hunger and thirst, weight loss, extreme fatigue, blurred vision, and frequent urination. For women, this can also be accompanied by urinary tract infections (UTIs) and dry, itchy skin, whilst for men, additional symptoms include poor muscle tone, a decreased sex drive and erectile dysfunction.

Good management can reduce the risk of complications but when not well managed, diabetes can lead to myriad serious health conditions. Neuropathy, cardiovascular disease (CVD), kidney failure, eye disease, depression, dental disease, sexual dysfunction, and complications in pregnancy are just some of these problems. Most alarmingly, through leading to nerve damage and foot problems, diabetes can ultimately result in amputation. It is the most common cause of lower limb amputations, and the fifth most common cause of death in the world.

Not to mention the financial cost this has on the healthcare sector in the UK, 10% of the NHS’ budget goes towards diabetes every year2. People with diabetes are twice as likely to be admitted to hospital, and they also stay in hospital longer than non-diabetics, contributing to 80,000 bed days per year.

Prevention, diagnosis and management

Diabetes prevention can come in the form of achieving and maintaining a healthy body weight by keeping active and improving dietary habits. Avoiding tobacco use is also of benefit as smoking increases the risk of diabetes and CVD.

Early diagnosis is key and can be achieved through testing blood sugar levels via a simple and inexpensive blood test, and it can also be detected through screening and treatment of retinopathy3.

Managing symptoms are similar to the steps taken for prevention, such as tight blood glucose control, maintaining a healthy body weight, and physical exercise. Monitoring and analysing symptoms is also crucial, and will be made easier through non-invasive wearable devices which measure your vitals for you in real-time without you having to give it a second thought.

Whilst cases of diabetes are on the rise – not just in the UK but worldwide – it is possible to prevent this disease and indeed manage it.


  1. NHS Digital
  2. Diabetes UK
  3. WHO