I was very saddened to hear at the weekend that Home Secretary Theresa May, 56, has Type 1 Diabetes. This is a horrible illness to get. It’s chronic, thus far incurable and she’ll need to inject insulin for the rest of her life.
I applaud May going public about her illness as my hope is that it will help to raise awareness. Not just among the public but maybe among her cabinet colleagues too, some of whom could certainly do with a bit of health education. Since I began my diet after a Diabetes scare and the whole purpose of following Paleo is to try and avoid developing Diabetes, I thought this might be a good point to say some more about the illness.
Two different diseases
First of all, Diabetes is confusingly two illnesses with one name. Our Home Secretary has Type 1. The kind I am trying to avoid is Type 2 which typically (though not always) comes on in adulthood and is nearly always related to obesity and diet. It has an hereditary element and is more commonly found in certain ethnic groups such as my own, Jewish, and in some south Asian communities.
Type 1 more usually occurs in children but, again, it too can come on in adulthood, as Theresa May has discovered. And Type 2 can occur in children and adolescents. With childhood obesity on the rise, that’s sadly becoming more common.
Type 1 Diabetes
So let’s look first more closely at Type 1. Essentially this is not a “lifestyle” disease, ie it isn’t caused by obesity and lack of exercise. We still don’t know what causes it, though there are theories it may be caused by a virus or even shock.
In its essence Type 1 Diabetes is a disease of the autoimmune system. It causes the islets in the pancreas which produce insulin to stop working altogether. This is why people with Type 1 Diabetes need to replace the insulin with daily injections – sometimes up to four times a day, though Theresa May has said she only needs to inject twice a day.
Insulin regulates the sugar in our bloodstream. It’s a bit like a thermostat. If you’re not Diabetic, you’ll likely be unaware of the magical balancing act insulin daily performs in your body. It mops up excess sugar in your blood and ensures it reaches the organs that need it to function, mostly our brains! We need oxygen to survive but we need sugar too for energy. (Sugar in this context refers to what the body does to food after you’ve eaten it. It doesn’t refer to actual sugar! So you don’t need to eat sugar for energy.)
Type 2 Diabetes
In Type 2 Diabetes, or adult-onset Diabetes as it’s still sometimes called, the islets in the pancreas don’t stop making insulin altogether but production becomes sluggish and weak. You stop making sufficient insulin to regulate your blood sugar and may need to insulin-stimulating drugs to make up for this. It will also be necessary to reduce weight and exercise to stop the strain on the pancreas. Some people with Type 2 Diabetes may eventually need to inject insulin.
In a nutshell, Type 1 Diabetes is an autoimmune disease where the body for some reason attacks itself. Type 2 Diabetes is a disease of the digestive system.
So far as we know, you can’t prevent Type 1 Diabetes from occurring. Research is always ongoing into causes and cures but as yet, we still don’t know what causes it and we can’t cure it. You can however live a full and active life with Diabetes if you control it through correct diet and insulin. It’s chronic, ie long-term, but not life threatening if treated properly. Uncontrolled Diabetes is indeed life threatening and can lead to nerve damage, amputation and death. This is due to excess levels of blood sugar damaging organs and eventually destroying them. Hence good control is essential.
It’s easier to try and prevent developing Type 2 Diabetes since that is largely linked to diet and exercise, or lack of the latter! Some people who develop Type 2 can successfully treat themselves by reducing their weight and exercising. It may even be possible to treat Type 2 with no meds at all and I know of people who have successfully done this – one of whom reduced her meds by half thanks to successfully following the Paleo regime.
There is also something called Gestational Diabetes which some women develop while pregnant. This can be very dangerous for mother and baby and needs careful monitoring and treatment. A woman with Diabetes who becomes pregnant needs to be supervised very closely. The danger is too much sugar in the bloodstream will create a very large baby and the baby may be born with health deficiencies.
Fortunately Gestational Diabetes will often disappear once the baby is born. And developing the condition in one pregnancy does not necessarily mean a woman will develop it with a subsequent pregnancy.
That’s about it. It’s obviously very condensed and there is a lot more to it but if you want more, or think you might be at risk or may even have the disease, do please see your doctor who can very easily arrange for a test to establish if you have it or are at risk of developing it. In the UK it’s estimated one to two million people have undiagnosed Type 2 Diabetes. The sooner you receive a diagnosis, the less damage it can potentially do. Check yourself out if you think you’re at risk.
I wish Theresa May all the very best in handling and managing her condition.