what is diabetes?
Basic information about Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes.
There’s been a lot of talk on our Facebook page about how diabetes affects the whole family. Especially after this guest article about how Diabetes destroyed my relationship with my mother. Today, we have the other side of the story to tell – a mother’s story of parenting a child with diabetes.
The World Cup Soccer was upon us! The atmosphere was abuzz with all the excitement and schools were closing for holidays. My girls were gearing up for a slumber party to celebrate Kirsten’s 16th birthday, great excitement filled the house as friends arrived present laden and ready for a night of storytelling and fun after an evening at the fan walk.
I asked her not to sleep near two girls who had a cold as it was a long holiday and I didn’t want her to get sick. The party came and went and Kirsten got the dreaded cold. She left two days later to go and spend time in Elgin with a few close friends and when she arrived home with bronchitis was put on antibiotics. She was looking very pale and her loss of weight was almost shocking. The doctor seemed concerned at the time but said we could go away and to see him on our return.
Langebaan was like a breath of fresh air compared to the madness in Cape Town and we were looking forward to a couple of days rest with good friends. Kirsten crawled into bed and did not move. We spent days trying to get her to eat to no avail and then she started vomiting: something was wrong and we could all see it. The chemist said there was a bad virus going around and she stuck to fluids for a couple of days: Energade, Powerade and naartjies were her only input.
The scariest day of my life
I could see that there was something drastically wrong on the Sunday night – it was as if she was not registering my presence, her knees had swollen to the size of rugby balls, her movement was staggered and she looked like a skeleton with skin on. I could not sleep worrying about what was happening to my beautiful daughter, was it what I had feared the most?
The morning came and with it came the scariest day of my life. I went down to check on her and she was semi-comatose. We threw everything into the back of the car and got back to the doctor in Cape Town in record time with her passing in and out of consciousness. I ran into the doctor and I said what I had been dreading to say: “I think she has diabetes!” Tests were run and confirmation came through two hours later: Kirsten was a Type 1 diabetic, her HBA1C registered as her being one for at least 3 months prior to diagnosis and she was immediately started on insulin. A new chapter in our lives had begun.
Let me just add here that on my husband’s side of the family diabetes was prevalent and I had always had a fear that my children would one day be diagnosed. I had constantly had them checked throughout their childhood. I thought by now they were all safe from this terrible burden.
Days filled with diabetes
Our days were filled with diabetes: from doctors to specialists to diabetic educators and reps, it was like a neverending story and a huge overload of information. Could the doctors be wrong? What if it was the energy drinks and naartjies we had given her that had sent her sugars over the top? Could she wake up next week and be fine? “No” was the answer to all our questions and we had to resolve ourselves to the fact that all of our lives were forever going to revolve around diabetes.
Kirsten would have to inject herself three times a day at mealtimes and once before bedtime for the rest of her life. Our days of running into the shops turned into hours reading every label and checking the carb count. All temptations were banished from the house, no more fast foods, as we started our new journey.
Unfortunately for Kirsten, things just did not seem to want to come right. She had lost 11 kilograms and had no muscle on her at all, her BMI was only 16. She could only manage to grab a millimeter of skin to inject but her blood sugar levels were fantastic and her endocrinologist was very impressed with her management thereof. Despite her levels being fine, she kept getting recurring lameness in her legs (from walking the one moment to waking up lame the next), as well as severe neck pains and constant chest infections. We had to forbid anyone near her who was even remotely sick.
At the beginning of December we were thrown into shock as she woke up with a mass of glands on either side of her groin, she was scanned and the glands were in excess of 3cm each so it looked like a bunch of grapes. We anxiously waited as they ruled out lymphoma, but praise be to God, it was not so, and she was blasted with antibiotics to reduce the glands.
Complications of diabetes
Our annual holiday to Plett arrived and everyone was so eager and happy to get there, days filled with friends and relaxation and just time to forget about the negatives of the past six months. We enjoyed the first week without a hitch and then once again Kirsten fell ill: she could not eat anything which was most frustrating as diabetics have to eat, and we landed up in the hospital where they could not find anything wrong. Two days later she could not even drink without crying and when her breathing became difficult we once again packed up everything and raced back to the doctors who knew her history in Cape Town.
She can’t recall at all how she got back home, she had lost all the weight we had painfully tried to put onto her and she was admitted for an esophagogastroduodenoscopy showing she had picked up a viral infection which had left her with hundreds of ulcers from the mouth down into her stomach, another complication of diabetes. Once again, loads of meds and a struggle to get her to put on the weight which she desperately needed to gain her strength.
Friends were understanding and eager to learn how to deal with her should her levels drop and were a constant by her side throughout. My frustration was immense, I was so mad at the world, at my Creator, for allowing this to happen to my once super-healthy and fit daughter who had the world at her feet. How could this be happening and why could I not fix it?
I battled every day to put on a smiling face so that she could not see my worry, I would spend hours sitting in her room at the dead of night praying and watching her just to make sure she did not slip into a coma, I had prayer circles going all over the world for my girl and yet no answers were coming. I realized that God had placed my son (who has Aspergers) in our care because he thought that we could deal with it. He had now obviously decided that we did that job well as Kirsten’s sickness had to be dealt with by us too.
I felt that somehow, somewhere, I had to find the inner strength to show Kirsten that she was still the beautiful daughter I always had, except now she was more special as now it meant that we would have to care for her daily, in all walks of her life. I prayed for the strength to guide me to help her in every way that I could: my shoulders are broad and would surely bear the load.
Not a day goes by that I don’t wonder what her levels are, what she is eating or how she is feeling, if she is not with me it takes everything in my being not to reach for the phone to check. The expense of the last years has been immense, but being her constant carer and companion throughout this ordeal has changed me for the better.
Diabetes brought us closer
We are aware of everything that we eat. This is usually the stage in a teenager’s life that they tend to drift away from the parents, but we have become more united. I still allow her freedom but help by providing pre-packed meals knowing that she can enjoy herself without having to worry about where her next meal is coming from. As a family, we have always been close but this disease has brought us closer. We are always on the lookout and we stand together and work through it so that she feels that she is never alone in this lifetime fight with diabetes. We take a small step each day learning and knowing more. Her smile is constant even through all her worries and ill health and this keeps us going.
My daily thoughts revolve around Kirsten and my prayer is for a cure for diabetes to help, not only my daughter, but the millions of people living with diabetes all over the world.
PS: Kirsten is now a successful mountain climber and blogger – follow her adventures on Instagram: cape_town_adventurer
There are some questions that only diabetics know how to ask – and answer… This is your space to ask any diabetes questions you like – and give answers to the rest of the community. After all, we’re all in this diabetes journey together!
Share your experience, your tips and advice, and your challenges with diabetes on this page.
Please bear in mind that any information shared here is from the diabetic community, and has not been supplied by a medical doctor. Don’t make any changes to your medication without first consulting a medical professional. That said, diabetes is a social condition, and we can all learn from each other as we strive towards better control.
Have a question?
Write an email, attach a photo (if you want to) and we’ll publish it here! Give as much information as you can about the issue and we’ll work through it together!
Diabetes question (an example!)
Subject: Eating curry sends my blood sugar up
Email: Every time I eat curry my blood sugar goes through the roof… Has anyone else experienced this? I’m eating chicken curry with naan and taking what I think is the right amount of insulin. By Joe Blog (www.yourwebsite.com)
Pics: If you want to add photos to your post, simply add them as an attachment in the email and we’ll put them up as part of your blog post.
Once your blog post is live, we’ll invite the rest of the community (particularly from Facebook) to join us in sharing advice.
Have a diabetes question? Let’s answer it!
From our community blog:
I am new to this site.
Last night I was at the casualty section of Wilgeheuwel Hospital in Joburg because my 2 year-8-month year old son has been very listless and vomited and I thought he probably had gastro. He was diagnosed about 2 hours ago with Type 1 diabetes and was taken straight to ICU to be stabilised and to have tests done.
This was an overwhelming, terrifying moment for me — I know very little about Type 1 Diabetes and my OCD thinking went into a tailspin about “what if he is in a situation one day where there is no insulin available and and and…”
Forgive me for sounding so panicked, but I am utterly at sea and trying to come to grips with the news. I am writing in the hope that someone can tell me everything’s going to be okay – that the ‘episodes’ or emergency situations will be able to be handled with confidence and success, and that (bar all the huge adaptations we’ll make to our lives), he will be okay.
I’d really appreciate any comfort anyone can give to this totally inexperienced, upset mom.
My son is also a diabetic. He was diagnosed at age 12, nearly 6 years ago. I just wanted to say: hang in there. Your child will be okay. He will one day be able to cope with this all. Just remember that this is not your fault. Nothing could have prevented this. Do join our group on Facebook: Kids powered by insulin. This group has helped me through some tough times.
Remember there is light at the end of the tunnel. Keep the faith. It will get better, that I promise.
All will be okay as long as you take care of it and treat it accordingly.
Keep monitoring your son’s diabetes and it will be fine!
Oh my, I know the feeling of absolute devastation! I was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes three years ago at an oldish age, and I live alone, and thought the world had come to an end. Obviously for such a little one it is very difficult… I’m very aware of what I eat. Living with diabetes is difficult, but doable.
Bridget McNulty finds out what reflexology is all about, and if there’s any chance it can help those with diabetes.
Before I went for a reflexology session, I didn’t know much about it. I knew it was more than a foot massage, but didn’t really see how pressing a few points on my feet could affect my health and wellness.
Reflexology, it turns out, is a therapy that uses specific finger, thumb and hand pressure techniques on the different reflex areas, or zones of the feet, to correlate with different organs of the body. A reflexologist can tell you a lot about your body by feeling for congestion and imbalances in the feet, which show up as tightness, sensitivity or grainy areas. They can also ‘read’ the feet: the shape of the feet, the valleys and peaks, and how they respond to pressure.
The South African Reflexology Society has been recognized by the medical profession, and all reflexologists have to register with the Allied Health Professions Council. But what does a reflexology session actually feel like? Well, at first it is a little uncomfortable. The therapist looks for areas of tension or imbalance, and these are rubbed or pressed until they loosen. It’s like having a really firm massage: not painful, but not necessarily soothing. It is deeply relaxing, though, an hour of having your feet worked on feels like a few hours of sleep, and Lulu Beyers, the therapist I went to, says she has a lot of insomniacs as patients!
Reflexology, like most alternative therapies, has to be given on a regular basis to really see the results and changes in the body – the changes are slow but can be very positive, especially when it comes to treating complications of diabetes, like numbness in the feet. There have been a number of studies done on diabetes and reflexology (including self-reflexology, like the example below). The studies are mainly in Korea and China, as reflexology is an accepted form of healing in the East. (It began in 2330BC in Egypt, then spread to India, and from there to China and Japan.) Many of these studies show that reflexology is helpful in improving peripheral neuropathy, especially tingling sensation and pain, as well as slightly lowering blood sugar – perhaps due to a reduction in stress from the relaxing nature of the treatments – and an improvement in fatigue and mood.
Whether this is because of the nurturing nature of the treatments, an improvement in blood circulation from the massaging movements of reflexology or because of the endocrine system (especially the pancreas) being activated through pressure points is still to be discovered. But there is certainly no harm in having reflexology as part of your diabetes programme. Think of it as putting your feet up on the diabetic table, made up of the right medication, a healthy diet and regular exercise.
Try out this simple self-reflexology at home:
Press on each of these glands of the endocrine system (pictured below) with the base of a ball point pen for a few minutes at least once a week.
Ask the expert: Andy Blecher, podiatrist
“In my opinion, having time out to put your feet up and have them massaged can be good for your overall wellbeing – and if there’s some evidence that it helps with circulation and peripheral neuropathy in diabetics then patients should give it a try.”
Sweet Life editor and Type 1 diabetic Bridget McNulty shares her pregnancy story – and what she wishes she’d known before she fell pregnant.
How long have you been diabetic?
I was diagnosed in October 2007… It was a very dramatic diagnosis: I was admitted to ICU for five days and was apparently only three days away from a diabetic coma because my blood sugar was so high.
Did you have to prepare to fall pregnant?
I told my endocrinologist ahead of time that my husband Mark and I were thinking of having a baby, and he gave me the go-ahead because my blood sugar was already well-controlled: my HbA1c results were 7.0 and below for the year before I fell pregnant. I also mentally prepared for the pregnancy, because I knew it would require a lot of discipline and that my diabetes would become even more of a full-time job than it already was!
How did having diabetes affect your pregnancy?
I had to be in extremely tight control throughout – HbA1c results of 6 and below (which I didn’t think was possible before I fell pregnant!) and blood glucose results of 7.8mmol/l or below an hour after eating… Where possible. I also had to test even more frequently than usual (up to 8 times a day). I had HbA1c tests every month and saw my endocrinologist every month, and I couldn’t indulge in pregnancy cravings like eating a whole tub of ice-cream! I had to be very strict with my diet. But it’s amazing how much easier it is to do when your motivation is the health of your baby.
How was the birth experience?
As smooth as I could have hoped for. I chose to have an elective C-section: it was either that or an induction, as all babies born to diabetic moms have to be born at 38 weeks. In the week before the birth my blood pressure started creeping up, and I was retaining a lot of water. Because diabetics are at greater risk of pre-eclampsia, my gynecologist decided to bring the birth forward two days, from the Monday to the Saturday. It was hugely exciting, and hugely nerve-wracking. Arthur, my baby boy, was born totally healthy and weighed in at a (very) healthy 4.5kg. We fell in love with him instantly.
What was it like having a young baby, with diabetes?
It was a real challenge in the early days. Breastfeeding plays havoc with blood sugar control, and causes really persistent lows. Sleep deprivation is tough to deal with, and it’s so overwhelming having a new baby and trying to learn how to be a parent that my diabetes kind of took a back seat for a while. I remembered to inject and test, but that was about it.
What do you think the biggest challenge of a diabetic pregnancy is?
Although 9 months doesn’t seem like that long at first, it feels like a really long time to be non-stop super-disciplined.
What advice would you offer to diabetics who are struggling?
You will feel so much better if you get your blood sugar under control. It is so worth it in terms of health and energy and general happiness to do what it takes to get good control. I know how hard it can be, but the reward is a healthy, happy life with diabetes – and that’s about as good as it gets.
What makes your life sweet?
My two sweet children, my wonderful husband, my awesome family and friends and the sweet life I’m living!
Bridget McNulty goes for a reiki session to see what it can do for diabetics.
At first glance, reiki seems a little odd. How can it possibly help to have someone wave their hands over your body? What could this do for diabetes, really? But if you put your doubts aside for a minute, the effects of reiki can be quite profound.
To understand what reiki is, think back to the last time you stood in line at the bank, and someone came up behind you. Even though you couldn’t see the person, you could sense that they were in your space. This space is your energy field, and just like your body, the energy field becomes blocked from physical, emotional and mental experiences. These blockages can cause you to feel ill, or tired, or depressed – they literally block the flow of energy in your body. Reiki helps to unblock the energy field, which in turn unblocks the body.
So what does it feel like? Deeply relaxing. A reiki session generally begins with a conversation about whatever is bothering you, and then moves to the treatment, where you lie down and the healer moves their hands over your body. You’re fully clothed at all times, and while there may be some light pressing of the hands, it’s not a massage. Some people feel heat coming from the healer’s hands, others just feel relaxed and sometimes even sleepy. It is completely non-intrusive and actually very pleasant.
But what can it do for diabetes? That’s what I asked Debbie Caknis, the reiki healer I visited. “Reiki can help people with diabetes as historically it has been known to heal on the physical, emotional and mental levels of the personality,” she explained. “Therefore disease (or dis-ease, because the body is not at ease) is addressed on many different levels.” It’s not only a physical healing – emotionally you can begin healing stuck energy, and mentally you can learn how to cope with the management of the condition in a more positive way. “Reiki helps people to get to know their bodies and be able to respond to ailments in a conscious manner,” says Debbie.
What’s interesting here is the focus not just on the physical side of the condition, but also on the emotional and mental side. As all diabetics know, there’s a lot more to managing diabetes than just taking your medication, eating right and exercise. Reiki helped me to see my emotions around diabetes in a clearer way, and understand why I react the way I do to high and low blood sugar. It also took away a lot of stress, and we all know how badly stress affects blood sugar.
I left the session feeling calmer, more on top of my condition, and with a burst of fresh energy. In short, I was quite amazed what healing hands can do.
Want to give it a try? Go for a reiki session, or do a once-off course that enables you to do your own treatments at home.
Ask the expert: Ruth Scott, psychologist
“While it is easy to feel overwhelmed by all the treatment options out there claiming to ‘heal’ you, many forms of alternative therapy can really help to calm the mind and therefore relax the body. How you feel about your treatment is almost as important as the treatment itself.”
Type 1 diabetes used to be diagnosed in the young; Type 2, mostly in older people. But the picture is changing. Why? And what can we do about it? Carine Visagie asks the experts.
Since the 1980s, diabetes has rapidly increased – so much so that the global prevalence has nearly doubled since 1980, rising from 4.7% to 8.5% in adults. Over the past decade, Type 2 diabetes has become a massive problem in low- and middle-income countries and, for the first time in history, it’s a significant problem among the world’s children. What’s more, Type 1 diabetes is also on the increase.
It’s estimated that about 1.396 million of South Africans with diabetes remain undiagnosed, which makes it hard to judge the scale of the problem here. “But diabetes certainly is on the increase here, too,” says Johannesburg-based paediatric endocrinologist Prof. David Segal.
While the worldwide increase in Type 2 diabetes can be explained by unhealthy, modern lifestyles, rapid urbanisation (linked to inactivity and unhealthy eating patterns), a wider spread of the genes linked to the disease, and an ageing population, the reason for the increase in Type 1 diabetes is less clear.
To complicate matters, an increasing number of adults are presenting with latent autoimmune diabetes (LADA) – a form of Type 1 diabetes in which the progression of the disease is slow. As such, many adults with LADA are misdiagnosed as having Type 2 diabetes.
Type 1 diabetes in adults and the very young
At the start of the 20th century, diabetes was rare in children. By the end of the century, it increased substantially in many parts of the world and, right now, many countries are documenting higher numbers of Type 1 diabetes than ever before. Plus, the profile of patients is changing.
Across the world, this autoimmune disorder now often strikes at a younger age. And while similar research hasn’t been done locally, research shows that 50% of people newly diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes in the United Kingdom are over 30. This turns the long-held belief that Type 1 diabetes develops only in childhood on its head.
It’s long been known that both environmental and genetic factors contribute to Type 1 diabetes, but the exact triggers remain unknown. One of the theories, according to Johannesburg-based endocrinologist Dr Zaheer Bayat, is the hygiene hypothesis, which suggests that exposure to a variety of pathogens during early childhood might protect against Type 1 diabetes. A second theory suggests that certain viruses may initiate the autoimmune process involved. Another is that vitamin D deficiency plays a role. And a link between Type 1 diabetes and early exposure to cow’s milk is being explored.
According to Segal, being overweight or following the lifestyle of an obese person (being inactive and following an unhealthy diet) may also be a trigger. The “accelerator hypothesis” argues that Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes are in fact the same condition, distinguished only by the rate at which the beta cells in the pancreas are destroyed, and the triggers (or “accelerators”) responsible.
Type 2 diabetes still on the increase
In South Africa, Type 2 diabetes remains a massive health problem that accounts for more than 90% of diabetes cases. This condition, in which the pancreas either doesn’t produce enough insulin or the body doesn’t use it effectively, still predominantly occurs in adults. “But, for the first time, we’re also seeing young adults and adolescents with Type 2 diabetes,” says Bayat.
Ethnicity, family history and gestational diabetes combine with increased age, overweight/obesity and smoking to increase a person’s risk. In this country, the high incidence of Type 2 diabetes is also closely linked to the rapid cultural and social changes we’ve experienced over the last 20 to 30 years. With them came physical inactivity and unhealthy eating – both important risk factors.
According to Fiona Prins, diabetes specialist nurse practitioner, researchers are also currently investigating how, genetically, some of us store fat differently – a factor that could play a role in diabetes risk and management. “Some people may have ‘thrifty genes’, which would allow them to cope better on meals that are eight hours apart,” she says. “But this goes against all our messaging of eating three meals a day (or six, in the case of diabetics).”
Part of the problem, adds Segal, is that many of us don’t quite know what obesity is – we think we’re just overweight when, in fact, we’re obese. His advice is clear: “You have to lose weight to halt the progression to diabetes. It’s the only way.”
Jenny Russell, support group expert, adds: “Go and see a dietician who specialises in this field. They can do a thorough history and advise on an eating plan that suits you. Then simply get moving – every bit of exercise counts.”
If you’re diabetic, you probably know all about testing your blood sugar… But are you doing it the right way? Here are some top tips.
- The goal is always to keep your blood sugar in a healthy range: not too high and not too low.
- Checking your blood sugar often makes it easier to understand the relationship between blood sugar levels and exercise, food, medication and things like travel, stress and illness.
- Blood sugar readings also give your doctor, diabetes nurse educator or clinic sister information to help you adjust medication and food, if your numbers are often too high or too low.
- Modern blood sugar meters only take 5 seconds and need just a tiny drop of blood.
- Pricking the tip of the finger is the easiest place to get the drop of blood.
- Before you test, it’s important to wash your hands with soap and water and dry them properly.
- Type 1 diabetics should test before every meal, to decide how much insulin to take.
- Before a meal, blood sugar readings should be 4 to 7mmol/l*.
- Two hours after a meal, blood sugar readings should be 5 to 10 mmol/l*.
- Keeping a blood sugar log is a very helpful tool for all diabetics. Write down your blood sugar test results, along with the date, time and what food you ate. This can make it easier to see if there are patterns in your blood sugar readings.
From Facebook (Diabetic South Africans):
What advice would you give a newly diagnosed diabetic?
Get as much info as you can. Prepare to make lifestyle change. Respect the illness and it won’t control you
Don’t think you are any different from any other human. Carry on and enjoy yourself: everything in moderation. Exercise a lot and eat well – no problem!
Vat een dag op ‘n slag. eet gesond en doen oefeninge. en als wat ‘n nie-diabeet doen kan diabete ook doen!
Cut out anything white (sugar, flour, bread, chips, etc) and start an exercise program.
Don’t dwell on it too much. My Type 1 diabetic son of 8 understands his illness yet just gets on with life. He is a happy child and a true inspiration to the people around him.
Relax – it’s not the end of the world. It can be so overwhelming at first, but remember you have a manageable condition (note, not disease) God bless you!
We all know that more and more people are now living with Type 2 diabetes. It used to be seen as a condition for the wealthy, but today it’s increasingly common in every community – rich and poor. Nicole McCreedy takes a look.
Diabetes in South Africa is often associated with the Indian community among whom – compared with other cultures – it is more widespread. According to a study by the Human Sciences Research Council and Medical Research Council, 61% of South African Indians over the age of 45 have pre-diabetes, and are more likely, with age, to develop Type 2 diabetes.
But the Indian community is no longer the only group facing the diabetes challenge. It is now being reported as one of the leading causes of death in areas where diabetes was once unheard of.
The rapid rise in diabetes
There are a number of factors that put a person at risk for developing Type 2 diabetes. A family history of the condition, your lifestyle – what you eat, whether you smoke and how often you exercise – as well as your environment all play a role.
In the past, the Indian and white population in South Africa were more likely to be urbanised and wealthier, while Africans lived in the rural areas. Living in an urban environment often means longer hours at work, commuting and easy access to cheap fast foods. This type of lifestyle is linked to higher levels of overweight and obesity, and in turn diabetes. A study from 2005 found South African Indians ticked all the boxes: a diet low in fibre and high in unhealthy fats, physical inactivity, and insulin resistance.
However, in recent decades, South Africa has undergone both political and economic change. As a result, many people living in rural areas, especially Africans, have moved to cities for work and better opportunities. Being less physically active and eating a more Western diet (high in carbs and fats) is contributing to the growing diabetes burden in the African and coloured communities.
South Africans are fat
The relationship between overweight/obesity and Type 2 diabetes is critical. An unhealthy diet and not enough exercise can lead to being overweight or obese. Carrying extra weight, especially belly fat, is bad for your health, specifically leading to insulin resistance, high cholesterol and high blood pressure. All of which are damaging to long-term health.
What’s scary is that in South Africa, 7 out of 10 women and 4 out of 10 men have significantly more body fat than is healthy. The issue of overweight and obesity is emerging as a particular health concern among black women living in urban areas where there is a high rate of HIV. Weight gain, especially among black women, has always been seen as a sign of wealth, health and success in traditional African society, while being thin is associated with being HIV-infected. But overweight and obesity is also linked to diabetes. In a study on body perception among urban-dwelling black women, as many as 90% were overweight and obese, while almost three-quarters had diabetes.
The next generation
Your lifestyle not only affects your own health; it can also impact the health of your children. High blood sugar levels in pregnancy impact the unborn baby’s genes, making them more vulnerable to Type 2 diabetes later in life. Babies exposed to high blood sugar in the womb may have a higher birth weight and this can continue into adulthood with serious effects on their long-term health. Among South African Indians, where high blood sugar has been a problem for much longer, diabetes is now showing up at a much younger age than ten years ago – as early as between 25 to 45 years old.
Ignoring the problem
For many individuals, diabetes is a problem they don’t want to acknowledge. “A big concern is that people with diabetes are not taking their condition seriously enough,” says Jenny Russell from Diabetes South Africa’s Durban branch. “They want to swallow their tablets and carry on their unhealthy lifestyles.” According to Jenny, “in the Indian community, it is almost accepted as ‘normal’ that if you have diabetes, you will have diabetes-related complications: limb amputation, blindness or needing kidney dialysis.”
Others struggle with feelings of guilt. But whatever your culture, as Jeannie Berg, a pharmacist and diabetes educator in Mpumalanga, says:
“Diabetes is the same for everyone. Don’t let it define your life: it is not who you are, it is a part of your life you need to manage.”
The day that you are diagnosed with diabetes is a day that is hard to describe. The world stops but at the same time a neverending rollercoaster ride starts: one you never asked to get on in the first place.
I remember sitting in the doctor’s office and a funny thing happened: he said the test results came back and you’re a Type 1 diabetic. After that I was in shock. The funny thing is I knew that he was talking because his lips were moving, but honestly I have no idea what he said. It was all a blur to me. All I remember thinking is: how can this happen? I never ate much sugar and now I’m going to die. But at least I have an answer to why I’ve been feeling so sick the last few months.
After the shock set in, I remember going to the book shop to basically buy any book that had been printed that mentioned the word diabetes, and then reading them all and being more confused than ever as they all contradicted each other. After the initial diagnosis, the doctor suggested that I go and see an endocrinologist.
Well, I saw a few of them and what they were all good at was sitting me down and telling me the negative side of the disease. How you can lose your eyesight and your feet and how if you get wounds there is a good chance they won’t heal well. Then in the next breath, they explain that now you will need to go on a strict diet and inject for everything you eat ever. They seem to wonder why you look so depressed and have an attitude of, what’s the point to life any more?
At some point during the initial diagnosis, it seems we all go on a sort of autopilot. We inject when needed and ask every question we can think of, and blindly trust what our doctors say, because they’re the professionals and know what they’re talking about, right?
What we don’t realise then is that diabetes is a common condition but it’s also very individually based. What makes my levels go up can have no effect on a friend’s levels. The other thing we learn on our journey is that at some point all diabetics and carers become doctors, dietitians and endocrinologists. The only difference between us and the real doctors is that they have diplomas and we don’t, but we have the life experience and they don’t.
What I have learned the most in my love-hate relationship with diabetes is that while I hate the constant management and daily injections, being diabetic has made me a stronger person and taught me to stand up for myself. In a weird way, it has given my life a kind of warped purpose. So I guess I will always love to hate being diabetic. You know what? That’s actually okay and totally healthy.
Do you know what brittle diabetes is? We asked one of our readers, Rencia, to share her story of living with brittle diabetes with us.
I was diagnosed as a juvenile diabetic at the tender age of 5 and a half. This was in 1987, when medicine was not as advanced as it is today.
Upon diagnosis, my parents were told that I would have to take insulin twice a day for the rest of my life and refrain from eating sweets, cakes and all the good things. At that point in my life I couldn’t grasp the enormity of being diabetic. I adhered to the diets and adapted quickly to the injections and glucose testing methods. I would often hear my parents discussing how doctors had advised them that I needed to be told that due to my diabetes I would never conceive children.
The strict control became non-existent when my parents got divorced. I guess as a teenager I didn’t understand the repercussions my teenage years would have on my life.
At the age of 19, I began to notice that my vision was being halved. I went to an ophthalmologist who had me undergo all kinds of tests to determine what the problem was. I was suffering from diabetes retinopathy: when the retina detaches from the back of the eye. If not treated as soon as possible, this leads to permanent blindness. I underwent my first eye operation to reattach the retina in my right eye and had to wait four months with sight only in my left eye. During the 4 months, I lost the vision in my left eye too and for the remainder of those months I had no proper vision, just distorted images in my right eye.
After the operation to my left eye, I became critically ill with hyperglycaemia (high blood glucose levels). I was in a coma for a few days. At this point I was being treated by my current specialist. He changed my insulin and put me on four insulin injections a day, as well as four blood tests a day. I had a new lease on life it seemed and I would take hold of it with both hands. I began to keep away from all forbidden items and all seemed well.
In mid 2007, I began having frequent lows and highs. Maintaining my blood sugar levels became more and more difficult, and it was worrying as I started losing chunks of my memory when I had a hypoglycaemic episode. I saw my specialist who diagnosed my diabetes as brittle diabetes. He explained that brittle diabetes is when you have hyperglycaemia and hypoglycaemia without much warning. There is no treatment for this, except frequent blood sugar checks.
I am often ill with mostly low sugar levels, ranging from 1.6 to 2.2. I’m seldom able to determine when these episodes occur which leads me into very dangerous ground. Brittle diabetes is a sub-type of Type 1 diabetes, a term used to describe particularly hard to control Type 1 diabetes. Those people who have brittle diabetes will experience frequent, extreme swings in blood glucose levels, causing hyperglycaemia or hypoglycaemia.
At the end of 2007, I was experiencing severe tenderness in my left eye and I visited my ophthalmologist who suggested I have my left eye removed as it was shrinking and becoming noticeable that there was no vision in the eye. I had the eye removed and 6 weeks later was fitted with a prosthetic eye.
Against all odds, I conceived my first child in 2010. It was a petrifying experience for me because I was so afraid of something going wrong. On the 4th of October 2010, I gave birth via C-section to my son Tyler. It was a very trying time keeping my levels down. I have successfully had two children – my second pregnancy was easier, though I was hospitalized three times in my first trimester. Once that was over, I maintained constant contact with my specialist and tried my utmost to keep my levels between 4 and 8mmol/l, so that I didn’t have to deal with the effects of my brittle diabetes.
Living with Type 1 diabetes is not as easy as most people thank. It’s a constant challenge and mine is slightly more difficult. However, I do try to rise to each of the challenges to the best of my ability. It’s my great desire to one day receive sponsorship in order to obtain a DAD (diabetic alert dog) – a dog trained to pick up if your blood sugar is high or low by the scent your body omits. Having one of these dogs as a brittle diabetic would be such a great help. It could be a lifesaver.
I urge parents, teenagers and even older individuals to take extra care of their diabetes from day one of diagnosis in order to prevent the challenges I face daily. See your doctors regularly and you could lead a fairly normal life. Diabetes is a life-altering illness, but with the correct care from day one you can lead a fairly normal life.
– Rencia Gabriel-Phillip
Would you like to share your story of living with diabetes with the Sweet Life community? Email us – we’d love to hear from you.
When you think of your diet as it relates to your diabetes, you probably think mostly about the foods you consume. However, did you know that staying hydrated is also a big concern if you have diabetes? In fact, polydipsia is the term given to excessive thirst that is a symptom of diabetes. According to the Mayo Clinic, dehydration occurs when the kidneys have trouble filtering and absorbing excess sugar. Those who suffer with diabetes insipidus are also at an increased risk for dehydration.
To ensure that you stay hydrated and reduce the risk of dehydration caused by diabetes, follow these three top strategies.
Keep a water bottle with you at all times
One of the easiest ways to stay hydrated is to keep a full water bottle with you at all times. This removes the need to purchase water outside of the home, makes it simple to have a constant supply of water, and serves as a constant reminder to drink water throughout your day. Since many public places are equipped with filtered water, you can prevent the onset of dehydration caused by diabetes with little effort and no expense.
Set reminders to get enough water
The importance of staying hydrated while managing your diabetes symptoms should not be overlooked. Dehydration is a serious condition which shouldn’t be treated lightly. If you are having a tough time remembering to drink water during the day (even while carrying a water bottle with you), set daily reminders for yourself on your phone or computer to make it a habit. Treat regular water drinking as if it were as essential as taking a medication on schedule.
Replace other beverages with water
Do you tend to drink beverages other than water throughout the day? Skip beverages that don’t provide adequate hydration. Instead, replace some of your carbonated beverages, coffee, and other drinks with a glass of water. Aim to drink at least eight 250ml glasses of water every day. Consuming a sufficient amount of water (rather than beverages that simply contain water) will help combat the risk of dehydration.
Make it simple to stay hydrated
Making it a habit to stay hydrated doesn’t have to disrupt your life. Begin working these simple steps into your life to limit your chances of developing dehydration as a result of diabetes. While it may take a few weeks (or more) to be sure that you are consuming the proper amount of water, you’ll eventually see how simple it is to stay hydrated throughout the day.
Every two years, the International Diabetes Federation (IDF) publishes a Diabetes Atlas, with estimates of diabetes facts and figures from around the world. The 8th Diabetes Atlas is now live – take a look! Here’s more information about it.
To mark World Diabetes Day, the International Diabetes Federation (IDF) released new estimates on the prevalence of diabetes around the world, indicating that 1 in 11 adults are currently living with diabetes, 10 million more than in 2015.
Data published in the 8th edition of the IDF Diabetes Atlas confirms that diabetes is one of the largest global health emergencies. More action is required at the national level to reduce the economic and social burden that it causes.
Type 2 diabetes
Diabetes, which is associated with a number of debilitating complications affecting the eyes, heart, kidneys, nerves and feet, is set to affect almost 700 million people by 2045. Over 350 million adults are currently at high risk of developing type 2 diabetes, the most prevalent form of the disease. One in two adults with diabetes remain undiagnosed, emphasizing the importance of screening and early diagnosis. Two-thirds of adults with diabetes are of working age and 8 million more adults living with diabetes are over 65 years old.
“Diabetes causes devastating personal suffering and drives families into poverty,” said Dr. Nam Cho, IDF President-Elect and Chair of the IDF Diabetes Atlas committee. “There is urgency for more collective, multi-sectoral action to improve diabetes outcomes and reduce the global burden of diabetes. If we do not act in time to prevent type 2 diabetes and improve management of all types of diabetes, we place the livelihood of future generations at risk.”
Diabetes and women
Diabetes has a disproportionate impact on women, the focus of IDF and its affiliated members in over 160 countries this World Diabetes Day. Over 200 million women are currently living with diabetes and many face multiple barriers in accessing cost-effective diabetes prevention, early detection, diagnosis, treatment and care, particularly in developing countries. Women with diabetes are more likely to be poor and have less resources, face discrimination and have to survive in hostile social environments. Diabetes is also a serious and neglected threat to the health of mother and child, affecting one in six births and linked to complications during and after delivery.
“Women and girls are key agents in the adoption of healthy lifestyles to prevent the further rise of diabetes and so it is important that they are given affordable and equitable access to the medicines, technologies, education and information they require to achieve optimal diabetes outcomes and strengthen their capacity to promote healthy behaviours,” said Dr. Shaukat Sadikot, IDF President.
Urgent action needed
IDF welcomes all the international commitments on diabetes that have been made over the last few years and acknowledges that some advances have taken place. However, it is clear that urgent action is still required to achieve the targets agreed by UN member states in 2013 and 2015. These include a 0% increase in diabetes and obesity prevalence; 80% access to essential medicines and devices by 2025; and a 30% reduction in premature mortality from NCDs by 2030. To this end, IDF has launched a call to action for the 2018 High Level Meeting on NCDs, calling on governments to renew their commitments and increase their efforts towards achieving the agreed targets.
“IDF is calling for all nations affected by the diabetes pandemic to work towards the full implementation of the commitments that have been made. We have both the knowledge and the expertise to create a brighter future for generations to come,” said Dr Sadikot.
Indigenous Afro-Soul artist Candy Tsamandebele talks to us about living with Type 2 diabetes.
When did you find out you had Type 2 diabetes?
After the death of my son through an accident. It was unexpected to say the least.
Was it a shock?
Yes it was.
How did you have to adapt your lifestyle?
I started with what I ate and drank. It was difficult at first, but with time I got used to it. Secondly, my lifestyle all together.
How do you balance a busy lifestyle with eating well and exercise?
Sticking to a strict diet. Also understanding the consequences of ignoring that diet.
What advice would you offer to those living with diabetes?
Just take it one step at a time. Take your medications on time and eat healthy.
What makes your life sweet?
Music. It really does.
Some background on Candy and her outreach work:
August 2, 2011 was one of Candy Tsamandebele’s most trying times in her life when she lost her son in a car accident. Six months later she was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes. Not one to be kept down, two years after the trauma, Candy garnered strength to launch CANDY TSAMANDEBELE FOUNDATION. She uses the foundation to teach young women and the youth in general about values and it is her vehicle to drive and leave behind a legacy as she continues to grow in the music industry.
The main aim of the Candy Tsamandebele Foundation was to teach kids about music, the importance of culture, significance of language, youth development, medical assistance, helping with school uniforms to needy, and several other initiatives that are close to her heart.
Every year Candy Tsamandebele dedicates her time to carry out community building initiatives such as visiting schools and donating school uniforms, as well as motivating the youth both in and out of school. She encourages young people to use their natural abilities and talents to make it through life. During her motivations, she always talks about the importance of getting tested for diabetes and other chronic conditions and adhering to taking treatment once diagnosed.
Since she was diagnosed with diabetes, Candy Tsamandebele has made it her mission to be a national diabetes warrior. She is a force to be reckoned with and she will stop at nothing for as long as she is needed to make a difference.
Find out more at www.candytsamandebelesa.com
Motherhood is a great adventure and (morning sickness aside!) being pregnant is magical. Inside of you, a perfect little baby is growing… Carine Visagie explains what you need to know to ensure everything goes smoothly.
If you have diabetes, or get diabetes during pregnancy, you’ll naturally want to know what you can do to stay healthy. We spoke to endocrinologist Dr Veronique Nicolaou, obstetricians Dr Veronique Eeckhout and Dr Manasri Naiker, and registered dietician Emily Innes to learn more about diabetes and pregnancy.
Get this right before pregnancy
Keen to start a family? Don’t ditch the contraceptives yet. To prevent miscarriage, stillbirth, birth defects and other complications, our experts say you first need to:
1. Tightly control your blood sugar levels. This means keeping your HbA1c below 6.1% for three months.
2. Lose excess weight. Being overweight ups your risk of complications during pregnancy.
3. Take a 5mg folic acid supplement (three months before pregnancy up until the 2nd trimester).
4. Stop smoking.
Stay healthy during pregnancy
If all goes according to plan, you’ll soon be pregnant. Congratulations! Now is the time to focus on your baby’s growth and development, which (still) means managing your blood sugar levels as well as you can.
Poorly controlled blood sugar spells trouble for pregnant moms. Apart from a higher risk of infections, hypoglycaemia (low blood sugar), pre-eclampsia (high blood pressure) and ketoacidosis, excess amniotic fluid is an increased risk, which could lead to premature delivery. Existing diabetes-related problems (like nephropathy) may also worsen during pregnancy. Additionally, your baby may grow too big, which increases the risk of stillbirth, birth trauma and respiratory distress. But this is all if your blood sugar is uncontrolled: stay in good control and you’re likely to have a perfectly normal, healthy pregnancy.
Five steps to stay in good control:
Step 1: Eat well.
- Choose high-quality, nutritious foods.
- Steer clear of refined carbohydrates.
- Include healthy fats and lean protein at each meal.
- Eat plenty of vegetables (and some fruit) every day.
- Don’t be tempted to eat for two!
Step 2: Exercise.
Talk to your medical team about physical activity. Exercise is a key part of diabetes management, but can sometimes be risky (for example, if you have high blood pressure). Keep your pulse rate below 140 beats per minute at all times.
Step 3: Get your treatment plan right.
If you have Type 1 diabetes, talk about your insulin dosage with an endocrinologist: the amount of insulin you need may double or possibly triple during pregnancy. Women with Type 2 diabetes who use only oral medication (like metformin) before pregnancy may require insulin at some point. The good news is that metformin is safe to take during pregnancy.
Step 4: Monitor your blood sugar frequently.
As many as six times a day (before meals and snacks, and one hour after). Find out from your medical team if you should be doing any other checks (like ketone testing).
Step 5: Visit your obstetrician regularly.
Your doctor will tell you how often to come: some recommend very two weeks until 32 weeks of pregnancy. After this, schedule a weekly visit until your baby is born.
Natural birth or C-section?
If all goes well, it’s possible to deliver your baby naturally. The timing is more important than the method of delivery. Your doctor will most probably induce to deliver naturally at 38 weeks, or do a C-section if there are other problems (for example, if you have a large baby). To control your blood sugar during labour, an insulin pump and a dextrose drip will be used, and your sugar and ketone levels will be checked every 2 to 4 hours.
Gestational diabetes explained
Gestational diabetes occurs for the first time during pregnancy and goes away again after birth. Uncontrolled blood sugar levels in gestational diabetes can be as dangerous as in Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes. It may be possible to control your blood sugar with diet and exercise, or medication may be necessary. The medication will most likely be stopped after pregnancy, but it’s important to get your blood sugar tested again six weeks after delivery to rule out Type 2 diabetes.
- Dr Veronique Nicolaou, specialist physician and consultant endocrinologist, Chris Hani Baragwanath Academic Hospital
- Dr Veronique Eeckhout, gynaecologist and obstetrician, Medi-Clinic: Cape Town
- Dr Manasri Naiker, gynaecologist and obstetrician, theWomanSpace: Cape Town
- Emily Innes , registered dietician: Cape Town
From the artificial pancreas to new ways of testing blood sugar and more, we take a look at the future for those with diabetes.
Diabetes is a rollercoaster ride of blood sugar ups and downs, and tight control can be hard work. But there’s good news: while some researchers are working on a cure, others are making life easier for those with diabetes right now, through technology.
Carine Visagie brings you a roundup of the top new technologies out there.
Continuous glucose monitoring (CGM) devices are soon going to take blood sugar control to another level.
With the help of tiny electrodes stuck beneath the skin, CGM devices allow for real-time glucose readings throughout the day. The results are sent wirelessly to a monitor you can clip onto your belt and access on the go, and some devices can even send results to your doctor. Normal finger prick testing is still required (for a double check and to calibrate the CGM sensor), but you can rest assured that a CGM device will alert you if your sugar spikes or drops below your limits.
Examples include the Flash Glucose Monitoring System (Abbott) and the Guardian REAL-Time Continuous Glucose Monitoring System (Medtronic).
Ask the expert: Dr Joel Dave, endocrinologist
“24-hour glucose monitoring is going to be very helpful in patients that have difficulty controlling their blood glucose levels, as it will provide a 24-hour 360-degree view of their diabetes control.”
Ask the expert: Dr Wayne May, endocrinologist
“I’m looking forward to the Abbotts Flash Monitor, as it will stay on for 14 days and doesn’t require calibrating with a second machine.”
Insulin pumps keep getting smarter: some of the latest ones sync with CGM devices, while others are incredibly accurate at giving just the right insulin dose at the right time.
One example is the touch-screen Tandem t:slim insulin pump, which shows the date, time, how much insulin is ‘on board’ (seeing this before you bolus can help you avoid stacking your insulin*), duration of insulin action, and the amount of insulin in the reservoir. It looks like a smartphone and data is easily transferrable via a USB port. Plus, it can deliver insulin in very small doses.
*Insulin stacking is injecting a second dose too soon after a first, without taking into account the insulin already in your system. This can result in low blood sugar.
Another insulin pump to watch is the MiniMed530G by Medtronic – the first pump to shut off when blood sugar goes below a predetermined level.
Ask the expert: Dr Joel Dave, endocrinologist
“Although an insulin pump isn’t the ideal way of administering insulin for everyone, many diabetics find a pump improves their diabetes control and quality of life. Since the addition of CGM, the use of this technology has improved even more, especially in children and patients with very erratic blood sugar.”
Bionic (artificial) pancreas systems are the next big thing in diabetes management. These systems, the first of which is still being tested, combine the latest CGM tech with the most advanced insulin pump tech and add a sophisticated computer programme to simulate the function of the pancreas.
The system constantly checks blood sugar levels by means of a CGM, and responds automatically by administering either insulin (to lower blood sugar) or glucagon (to raise blood sugar levels quickly) via two separate pumps. The system hooks up to a programme on your smartphone that makes decisions every few minutes, telling the pumps via Bluetooth how much hormone to deliver.
The bionic pancreas should be available in the next 5 years.
Ask the expert: Dr Joel Dave, endocrinologist
“The artificial pancreas has been the ‘holy grail’ for diabetes care for many years. The system has been vastly improved and early studies are showing great promise. Although not for routine clinical use at the moment, in the near future it will be a life-changing addition to the diabetes care of many patients.”
What about now? Smartphone apps for diabetes
If the future of diabetes tech seems too far away, keep an eye out for apps that can help you deal with diabetes right now, on your smartphone. We like:
Glucose Buddy: to track blood sugar readings, insulin doses, carb intake, exercise, blood pressure and weight, and
Diabetic Connect: helping you tap into trusted advice, friends, support and tips.
But be warned: many international apps use mg/dL, the US blood glucose standard, instead of mmol/l, the South African standard.
Celeste Smith is no stranger to gestational diabetes: she’s had it twice, including during her pregnancy with now-five-year-old twins Connor and Adam. We find out what she wishes she’d known before she fell pregnant.
Is there a reason you’re so happy to share this very personal story?
I want to educate, encourage and motivate women with gestational diabetes, and prevent other women from having to go through what I and many others had to endure.
How did you find out you had gestational diabetes?
My first pregnancy was stillborn: Noah was born at 38 weeks. I didn’t know I had gestational diabetes until after Noah was born. We suspected with my family having diabetes that I could get it, but my doctor at the time never picked it up. When I wanted to fall pregnant again, my new doctor Dr Jansen immediately tested for glucose tolerance before I fell pregnant, and then again after I fell pregnant. That’s how we found out I had gestational diabetes again.
What were your symptoms?
What’s tricky about gestational diabetes is that it goes from nothing to full-blown diabetes very quickly. It’s only when you’re pregnant, so there’s no warning beforehand. The symptoms I had were swollen hands and feet, bad circulation, pins and needles in the hands, and constant thirst – I was drinking a lot of water.
Does diabetes run in the family?
Yes – my late mother had Type 2 diabetes, and three of my sisters and my brother have diabetes (half of my eight siblings, in fact!) None of my family recognised my symptoms, but none of us were looking for them: you put your faith in the doctor, that’s what doctors are there for.
What did you do to manage your gestational diabetes?
During my pregnancy with the twins, I was put on Metformin and later insulin. I also had to have monthly HbA1c tests and test my blood sugar seven times a day: when I woke up, before each meal, after each meal and before I went to bed. My fingers had so many holes in them; I didn’t know where to prick myself! I went to a dietician, which was helpful, we discussed good eating habits and made a lot of changes – we started eating more steamed foods and not so much starch (like potatoes, bread and pasta). And I started exercising. My diabetes doctor, Dr Dave, told me I had to exercise every day, even when I was tired after working all day.
What advice would you offer to women with gestational diabetes?
Listen to your doctors, stick to your eating plan and exercise a little bit every day. Stay focused: this is for the health of your babies. It helps that you just have to stay focused for nine months, and then the reward at the end is breathtaking. My boys were big for twins (2.8kg/each at 35 weeks) and healthy. I’ll never forget how relieved I was to hear both babies crying in the delivery room. They were both crying at the same time, and the doctor said: “Wow, they sound like a choir!”
What makes your life sweet?
I could say sunsets and sunrises, I could say my religion or even cupcakes and chocolates. But my husband and three boys are the light of my life, and sharing everything with them makes my life so sweet.