Diabetes mellitus is a medical condition most people have heard talked about. In fact, this medical condition is so prevalent, most people probably know someone who has this condition. So what is diabetes mellitus? It is a disease of the pancreas, an organ located in the abdominal cavity. The pancreas is part of the endocrine system and the digestive system. It produces digestive enzymes to break down food for digestion and absorption in the small intestines. As part of the endocrine system, it produces hormones such as insulin which circulate in the blood. When a person has Diabetes mellitus, (also known as diabetes), the pancreas either does not produce enough insulin, uses the insulin incorrectly or both.

So why is insulin so important in our bodies? The cells in the body use glucose as the main form of energy for cellular process. Insulin assists the glucose to enter the cells. If insulin is not available, or not working properly, glucose is unable to enter the cells and be burned for energy. This causes the glucose levels in the blood to rise, creating the condition of high blood sugar, known medically as diabetes. Because the glucose remains in the blood stream, the cells are left without a source of fuel. These high glucose levels in the blood can damage small vessels in your kidneys, heart, eyes and nervous system. This is why diabetes can over time cause heart disease, blindness, kidney damage and nerve damage, especially to the nerves of the feet.

The most common forms of diabetes mellitus are Type I DM and Type 2 DM.

-Type I DM: the insulin producing cells of the pancreas are damaged and produce little or no insulin, therefore, glucose is not able to enter the cells and be burned for energy. People with this type of diabetes must use insulin injections to control their blood glucose levels. This type of diabetes is more common between the ages of 20-30, but can occur at any age.

-Type 2 DM: the insulin producing cells of the pancreas either don’t produce enough insulin or the insulin does not work properly. Blood glucose levels can be controlled in a variety of ways, including diet and exercise, oral medication or insulin injections. This type of DM is more common and accounts for 9 out of 10 people diagnosed with diabetes.

The exact causes of diabetes are not known. However, there are many factors that may increase your chances of getting diabetes. Some of these risk factors include a family history of diabetes, being overweight, use of certain medications including steroids, physical illness or stress are all some of the risk factors that can increase your likelihood of getting diabetes.

There are many signs and symptoms of the onset of diabetes including, frequent urination, fatigue, blurry vision, extreme hunger and thirst. Weight loss and tingling in your hand and feet may also be symptoms of diabetes. Often, these symptoms are mild or occur gradually over time and they go unnoticed. This is especially true for Type 2 diabetes, which is the most common type.

The best method for diagnosing diabetes is through a fasting plasma glucose test (FPG). This test measures glucose levels after you have not eaten anything for 10-12 hours. Normal fasting blood glucose levels are between 70-100mg/dl. A diagnosis of diabetes is made when the fasting glucose level is over 126mg/dl on two or more occasions. The diagnosis can also be made if a random glucose level is over 200mg/dl and the individual has common symptoms of diabetes such as frequent urination, blurred vision, increased thirst, fatigue and increased hunger.

Because of the negative long term health effects of diabetes, early detection and management are essential in preventing long term complications. Diabetes mellitus is a lifelong illness and there is no cure, but Type 2 diabetes can often be controlled with weight management, nutrition and exercise. For more information form the American Diabetes Association go www.diabetes.org.

Amy Buford is a native of Louisiana. She received her Bachelor of Science in Occupational Therapy from LSU Health Science Center in New Orleans. She graduated from LSU Medical School in New Orleans, and did her training in Emergency Medicine at UT Houston at Hermann Memorial Hospital in the Medical Center. She is board certified in Emergency Medicine. She currently lives in the Houston area and is active in the community.