Diabetes: What it is and how to manage it

What you need to know about diabetes and how to keep your blood sugar levels under control

Proper management of diabetes is the key to staying healthy and to prevent damage to tissues and body organs. Left uncontrolled, this health condition can lead to long-term complications such as cardiovascular disease, kidney failure, blindness, erectile dysfunction and foot infection.

What is diabetes?

When a person has diabetes, the body may not have enough of a hormone called insulin, which is needed to regulate blood sugar. Insufficient insulin causes blood sugar to build up.

Starches, sugars and other nutrients are normally broken down into glucose, which is absorbed by the bloodstream1 and transported to your body cells. The cells use insulin, a hormone produced by the pancreas, to help convert glucose into energy.

Without insulin, your body is unable to use or store the glucose from the food that you eat. This glucose then builds up in your bloodstream and urine, which can cause numerous problems.

Type 1 Diabetes is diagnosed when already-damaged pancreatic cells are unable to produce insulin2 in the body. This condition is usually diagnosed in children and young adults but may also occur at any age.

Type 2 Diabetes usually occurs in middle age, when your body is either unable to produce sufficient insulin or your body cells are resistant to the effects of insulin.

How to manage the condition

Take a more active role in understanding the disease, so that you learn to manage it well and keep your blood glucose levels as close as possible to normal.

A blood glucose monitor is a useful tool to help determine patterns of blood glucose control. Do test your blood glucose levels frequently. By testing your blood glucose level and keeping a record of the results, you’ll find out whether you need to make changes in your diet, exercise or medication.

Take your medication on time

Insulin injections are required for people diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes, to help regulate their blood sugar levels3.

For Type 2 Diabetes, the treatment will depend on how well controlled your blood glucose levels are. You may need to change your lifestyle, take oral medication (in the form of pills) or insulin injections.

Do take your pills or insulin shots at the same times each day and follow your doctor's guidelines. Never miss any pills or insulin shots.

Eat smart

Knowing what food to eat and to avoid can help your body to use insulin better. Certain foods can also help to keep your blood sugar under control.

Opt for a diet which has a good balance of fruits, vegetables, complex carbohydrates, meats and milk products. Avoid foods that are high in sugar. Check the food labels, if you’re unsure. Sources of sugar in food include corn syrup, sucrose, dextrose, molasses and honey.

Eat at regular times and do not skip meals, as irregular mealtimes can affect your blood sugar levels.

Do pick up healthy cooking habits, if you prefer home cooked food. Broil, bake, boil or grill your food instead of frying, and of course limit high-fat foods such as potato chips, butter, ice cream and mayonnaise.

Exercise regularly

Exercise is an important part of diabetes care. Besides improving your overall fitness and boosting your sense of well-being, it helps to control your blood sugar levels.

Always consult your doctor before starting on any exercise programme. Check your blood glucose levels before exercising and retest your blood glucose after exercise.

Do carry carbohydrate-packed snacks such as fruit or a power bar to replenish the glucose that you need, in case your blood sugar levels are low.

When to see a doctor immediately

High blood sugar levels

If your blood sugar levels spike, you should see a doctor as soon as possible4. Symptoms of high blood sugar levels include increased thirst, fatigue, frequent urination, upset stomach and vomiting. These symptoms may occur within hours or may develop over several days. High blood sugar levels could be caused by the lack of insulin, an infection, stress or a heavy meal.

Drink plenty of sugar-free fluids and do not stop medication without doctor's advice. Be sure to test your blood sugar levels every four hours, as well as checking your blood or urine for ketones.

Low blood sugar levels

If you’re suffering from low blood sugar levels, you should also see a doctor immediately. Symptoms include shaking, trembling, sweating, hunger and irritability5. You might also feel faint within minutes.

Low blood sugar levels may be caused by too much insulin and infrequent meals. Too much exercise might also lead to low blood sugar levels.

Take a fast-acting sugar source like fruit juice or regular soda as a stopgap measure. Check your blood glucose level in 15 minutes, and see a doctor if it is still low. Let your friends and family know beforehand that they should call for a doctor immediately, if you pass out or lose consciousness.

1Health Promotion Board of Singapore. Retrieved on Aug 31, 2015 from: http://www.hpb.gov.sg/HOPPortal/dandc-article/680.

2Mayo Clinic. Retrieved on Aug 31, 2015 from: http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/type-1-diabetes/basics/definition/con-20019573.

3WebMD. Retrieved on Aug 31, 2015 from: http://www.webmd.com/diabetes/guide/type-1-diabetes?page=3.

4WebMd. Retrieved on Aug 31, 2015 from: http://www.webmd.com/diabetes/features/diabetes-symptoms-to-never-ignore.