What It's Like to Have Type 1 Diabetes

A Misunderstood Disease Characterized by Uncertainty

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Type 1 diabetes is a disease in which the body makes little or no insulin. Often referred to as juvenile diabetes because it occurs most commonly in teens and adolescents, type 1 diabetes is a form of autoimmune disease in which the immune system attacks the cells of the pancreas which produce insulin. The cause of the disorder is poorly understood but is believed strongly linked to genetics

Type 1 diabetes differs from type 2 diabetes in that lifestyle plays a significant role in the development of the latter.

Type 2 diabetes (also referred to as adult-onset diabetes) can occur any age and is as strongly linked to obesity and inactivity as it is genetics.

It is often presumed that a person who develops diabetes in adulthood has type 2, but this is not always the case. Type 1 diabetes can manifest in adulthood in the same way that type 2 can develop in children. Adding to the confusion is the fact is that some people can have both types, a condition known as latent autoimmune diabetes of adults (LADA).

Facts About Type 1 Diabetes

According to a report from the American Diabetes Association, around 1.25 million Americans are currently living with the type 1 diabetes. It is a condition that many in the public still misunderstand, believing that those affected "brought it on themselves" due to the lack of exercise and poor diet. This is a common misconception.

In fact, with type 1 diabetes, you can be perfect health and still experience the symptomatic ups and downs caused by the lack of insulin control.

Poor diet and inactivity can contribute to the symptoms, but the disease is there irrespective of these conditions and cannot be reversed.

If your body is deprived of insulin (the hormone which moves sugar into cells for fuel), sugar can rapidly build up in the bloodstream, causing your cells to starve.

When this happens, a person will commonly experience symptoms of hyperglycemia (high blood sugar), including:

  • Increased thirst
  • Headaches
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Blurred vision
  • Frequent urination
  • Fatigue
  • Weight loss
  • Long-term damage to the nerves and small blood vessels of the eyes, heart, and kidneys

On the other hand, if you don't control your insulin or take too much, you can also experience symptoms of hypoglycemia (low blood sugar).

Challenges of Managing Type 1 Diabetes

To control type 1 diabetes, people will need to watch what they eat, monitor their blood sugar, and take insulin shots when needed. While this may seem pretty simple and straightforward, it more often not the case.

One of the hallmarks of type 1 diabetes is that is completely unpredictable. There is no set course to the disease, and people can experience different symptoms and responses the insulin control measures. Oftentimes, there may be no rhyme or reason as to the ups and downs of a person's blood sugar. Even if the same diet is maintained day after day, a reading can suddenly shoot up for no apparent reason.

Because of this, people with type 1 diabetes always need be on the alert. This means carting around a load of supplies wherever they go, including a blood sugar meter, an emergency sugar source, and even an insulin cooler if traveling.

They also need to watch what they eat all the time, counting every carbohydrate, and avoid stresses that can cause blood sugar levels to skyrocket.

Typically speaking, a person will need to check his or her blood sugar at least three to four times per day (although newer continuous glucose monitors can check values throughout the day, often through a simple phone app).

Living With Type 1 Diabetes

For many people living with type 1 diabetes, the hardest part if having to think about it all of the time. It can be mentally and emotionally draining, and it never goes away.

With that being said, many of those affected have the opposite experience.

Having a chronic, life-altering condition can often refocus a person on the things that really matter. It can incentivize someone to make positive lifestyle changes, eliminating stresses and unhealthy habits that may have undermined the quality of life. It allows people to establish new goals to approach life in an entirely new way.

If diagnosed with type 1 diabetes, start by learning everything you can about the disease. Find a specialist endocrinologist to work with and establish a support network who can help normalize diabetes in your life.

There will be challenges, but, if you take it one day at a time, you'll be better able to understand your own body and how the disease applies to you as an individual. By doing so, you can become a master—rather than a victim—of the disease.

Sources:

American Diabetes Association (ADA). "Living With Type 1 Diabetes." Arlington, Virginia; updated November 21, 2016.

Miller, K.; Foster, N.; Beck, C. et al. "Current State of Type 1 Diabetes Treatment in the U.S.: Updated Data From the T1D Exchange Clinic Registry." Diabetes Care. 2015; 38(6):971-8. DOI: 10.2337/dc15-0078.

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