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When my grandfather was diagnosed with diabetes at the age of 80, he insisted that it “wasn’t the real diabetes” because it was type 2. I was confused by that statement: how could he think there was such a thing as real and fake diabetes? At that point, I didn’t even know there were different types of diabetes and what each one meant. If you’re fuzzy on the details like I was, here’s a helpful guide to let you know exactly what the difference is between type 1 and type 2 (and even gestational) diabetes.
Understanding the difference starts with insulin. While you’ve probably heard of this term, do you actually know what it is and why the body needs it? Insulin is a hormone that is responsible for helping your cells get most of their energy. It works like this: Insulin is made in your pancreas (which is behind your stomach). After you eat, your body breaks down the food you ate, specifically carbohydrates, and turns it into glucose. Glucose is a fancy word for sugar and once it’s in your bloodstream, it’s time for insulin to get to work. Insulin tells certain cells that they should absorb glucose, and once the sugar is inside the cells it gets converted into energy (or stored for later). You need insulin to survive and help your body function properly.
Diabetes can develop when there is an insulin issue in your body. In type 1 diabetes your pancreas has problems producing insulin. In type 2 diabetes your body is unable to properly use insulin. Let’s take a deeper dive.
Type 1 Diabetes
According to MayoClinic, type 1 diabetes “is a chronic condition in which the pancreas produces little or no insulin.” Since your pancreas is unable to produce insulin effectively you need to give yourself insulin multiple times a day, through an injection or insulin pump, to help your body function properly.
The cause of type 1 is unknown but it seems to be impacted by genetics and environmental exposures. It can be diagnosed through a blood test. Those with type 1 also have to be super vigilant when it comes to monitoring their blood sugar levels. Sugar levels that are too high or too low can cause issues such as confusion, headaches, fatigue, and even severe sickness or death. Managing type 1 diabetes consists of checking your blood sugar several times a day, insulin therapy, and monitoring when you eat and what you eat. Regular doctor’s appointments will also be necessary to monitor your treatment and address any concerns you might have.
Type 2 Diabetes
Type 2 diabetes means your body can’t properly use insulin. MayoClinic says that if you have type 2 your body “either resists the effects of insulin...or doesn't produce enough insulin to maintain normal glucose levels.” The effects of this can be extremely damaging over time. If ignored or left untreated you can damage your heart, kidneys, nerves, and more (this can also occur in type 1).
While genetics and family history may be an indicator of developing type 2 diabetes, one of the biggest risk factors is being overweight or obese — although not everybody who is overweight or obese develops type 2 diabetes and not everybody with type 2 diabetes is overweight or obese. It’s important after you’re diagnosed to maintain a healthy weight through regular exercise, a healthy diet, and limiting activities that cause you to be sedentary most of the day.
Some symptoms to pay attention to, as listed by VeryWell Health, are frequent urinating, fatigue, constant and excessive hunger, and numbness. Another concerning symptom is vision changes. If you are experiencing any of these symptoms you should consult with your doctor. This type of diabetes is also diagnosed by a blood test. If you are on insulin, it’s also important with type 2 to consistently monitor your blood sugar. Low blood sugar can result from overtreatment in both types of diabetes and can cause fatigue and confusion.
Gestational diabetes is developing diabetes specifically during your pregnancy. This means that a pregnant woman’s blood sugar was normal and then at some point during pregnancy, her body stopped being able to produce insulin at the rate her body needs it. It is diagnosed during a routine gynecologist check-up.
It’s important to know if you have gestational diabetes because while it produces little to no symptoms, it can lead to complications such as the baby growing too large or the baby developing certain health conditions later in life. Additionally, women who develop gestational diabetes have a 50 percent chance of developing type 2 diabetes later in life, reports the CDC.
Risk factors for developing gestational diabetes, listed by MayoClinic, include being pregnant after the age of 25, family history of either gestational or type 2 diabetes, and being overweight. Women of color are also more likely to develop it. While there are certain things that are out of an expecting mother’s control, making sure to get exercise and eat healthy can help reduce risk during pregnancy.