By David Elmore, Pure Matters

The words "blood" and "sugar" are a single phrase for millions of Americans: "blood sugar."

The official term is glucose, and keeping it within a certain range occupies the minds of people with diabetes daily -- even hourly.

People with diabetes either do not produce insulin, produce insufficient insulin or the body's cells don't use the insulin produced efficiently. Insulin is necessary for the cells to use sugar from food (transformed into sugar during digestion) as fuel. Insulin allows sugar carried by the blood to enter cells. Without sufficient insulin, the sugar stays in the blood and the level of blood sugar rises, the cells don't have energy for normal activities, and, over time, damage can occur to heart, kidneys, eyes, blood vessels, and nerves.

Keeping blood sugar levels within a prescribed range reduces the risk of long-term complications of diabetes. This can be achieved by most people with diabetes through monitoring, diet, exercise, and drug therapy, according to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK).

The diseases

Both type 1 and type 2 diabetes require regular monitoring of blood sugar, careful attention to diet and exercise, and usually medication.

Type 1 diabetes was commonly known as juvenile diabetes because it usually develops in children and adolescents. It is an autoimmune disease that destroys the beta islet cells of the pancreas. These are the cells that produce insulin. Type 1 requires a person take insulin in the form of shots and makes up only about 5 to 10 percent of the people with diagnosed diabetes. Type 1 is more common among whites than nonwhites; some northern European countries have high rates of type 1. The reason for this difference is not known.

Type 2 diabetes was commonly known as adult onset diabetes. It is more common than type 1. Ninety to 95 percent of people diagnosed with diabetes have type 2. In type 2, the body either fails to make sufficient insulin or it does not properly use the insulin it makes.

The majority of people with type 2 are overweight or obese, and scores of medical studies have linked prolonged obesity with the development of type 2 diabetes. People with type 2 diabetes often have elevated blood pressure and high levels of blood lipids (fats). As more children and teenagers become overweight, type 2 diabetes is becoming more common in young people.

Race also plays a role in type 2 diabetes, which is more common among African Americans, Asians, Hispanics, Pacific Islanders, and American Indians than whites.

'Tight' control of blood sugar

Chronically high blood glucose levels can cause damage to some internal organs and tissues. Diabetes is associated with long-term complications that affect almost every part of the body. The disease often leads to blindness, heart and blood vessel disease, stroke, kidney failure, amputations, and nerve damage. Uncontrolled diabetes can complicate pregnancy, and birth defects are more common in babies born to women with diabetes. The overall goal of treatment is to keep blood sugar levels as close to normal range as possible to prevent complications.

Diet, exercise, and regular measurement of blood glucose levels are important to tight control. If insulin is part of the treatment plan, insulin doses may have to be adjusted daily depending on blood glucose levels. If oral diabetes medication is part of the plan, a health care provider may alter doses depending on home blood glucose levels taken over a period of time, or if symptoms of too low a blood sugar (hypoglycemia) or too high a blood sugar (hyperglycemia) occur.

People with diabetes can check their blood sugar levels at home using blood glucose monitors, small computerized machines that analyze a small drop of blood usually obtained from a prick of the finger. The American Diabetes Association (ADA) recommends blood glucose levels be checked at home for anyone:

  • Taking insulin or diabetes pills
  • On intensive insulin therapy
  • Having a hard time controlling blood glucose levels
  • Having severe low blood glucose levels or ketones from high blood glucose levels
  • Having low blood glucose levels without the usual warning signs

Home monitoring can be done as often as needed. Some common schedules are several times a day (usually for people with type 1); or once a day or even once a week (usually for people with type 2); or when the person with diabetes is ill (illness can affect blood sugar levels). Different schedules or a combination of these may be prescribed by a health care provider.

At routine office visits, health care providers can check the average blood sugar level for the past three months by doing a hemoglobin A1C test. This test is analyzed in a laboratory and requires a tube of blood drawn from a vein.

A few disadvantages of the tight control are a slightly increased risk of hypoglycemia (low blood sugar) and some gaining of weight, according to a study by the NIDDK. But the long-term benefits outweigh the short-term complications, says NIDDK. People with diabetes often get hypoglycemic because of too much insulin, or too much diabetes medication, or a combination of other factors, such as not eating enough before exercise.

"We recommend an intensive control management of diabetes to keep blood sugar as close as possible to normal for the good of patients in the long run and short run," says Nitin Mayur, M.D., an endocrinologist and internal medicine specialist in Marietta, Ga.

Diet

Although people with diabetes should monitor their diets, the approach for a person with type 1 diabetes is different than the approach for a person with type 2.

People with type 1 diabetes should coordinate their diets with their insulin regimen. The goal is to match how much insulin they take to how much insulin they need, which is largely determined by meal size and content. Thus, it is important for a person with type 1 to understand the impact of specific foods on glucose levels.

Previously, people with type 1 diabetes had to plan meals around when they took their insulin, but the emphasis now is on tailoring shots around eating habits. Frequent monitoring of blood sugar allows people with this type of diabetes to adjust their insulin dose to match glucose levels and make corrections if necessary. You should have regular eating patterns to maintain tight control.

People who are overweight or obese are more prone to develop Type 2 diabetes. A person with this type of diabetes should reduce his or her calorie, fat and salt intake, and increase their exercise. Modest weight loss (five to 10 pounds) may lower blood sugar levels to a range where medications become unnecessary.