Diabetes 101: What is Diabetes?

Diabetes is often a life-changing diagnosis for our patients. It can be a serious condition if not treated and maintained with lifestyle changes to a patient’s diet and activity level and sometimes medication or insulin.

Each November is recognized as National Diabetes Month. As this disease affects millions of Americans in one way or another, make sure you know the basics of this disease and how it works.

How Diabetes Works

While diabetes is a fairly well-known disease, even for people who don’t specialize in medicine, there are still many specifics that most people aren’t familiar with. 

Diabetes is a serious health condition. It affects people long-term, and although the exact process, risk factors, and treatments will vary based on the type of diabetes, the disease basics are more or less the same.

In each type of diabetes, the body isn’t able to appropriately regulate its own blood glucose levels with insulin from the pancreas, either because the pancreas can’t make insulin or the person’s body has become insulin resistant.

High blood glucose levels over an extended period of time can damage your heart, eyes, and kidneys. 

Type 1 Diabetes

Type 1 diabetes is often diagnosed at a young age when a patient is a child or teenager, but it can affect patients of any age. About 5% to 10% of people with diabetes have type 1 diabetes. 

This type of diabetes happens when a person’s pancreas doesn’t make enough insulin or no insulin at all for the body. 

The cause of type 1 diabetes isn’t clearly understood, but it’s expected that it’s a sort of autoimmune reaction where the body attacks and destroys the insulin-making cells of the pancreas. There also seems to be a genetic and environmental component, like a virus, that triggers the development of this diabetes. 

Type 2 Diabetes

The majority of people with diabetes, approximately 90% to 95%, have type 2 diabetes. It tends to affect adults, particularly adults over the age of 45, but it can also affect people of any age.

Type 2 diabetes happens when your body’s cells no longer respond appropriately to insulin. That triggers your pancreas to make more insulin to try to control your level of blood sugar, and that pattern keeps going until the pancreas is tapped out and your blood sugar keeps rising uncontrollably. 

The causes behind this type of diabetes is typically lifestyle choices, although people of certain ethnicities are at a higher risk of developing the disease. 


Prediabetes is a precursor to type 2 diabetes. More than one in every three Americans has prediabetes, but more than 84% of those people don’t know they have it. Like type 2 diabetes, it’s typically more common in adults, but people of any age can develop it.

In prediabetes, your blood sugar is consistently higher than normal, but it isn’t quite high enough to be diagnosed as type 2 diabetes. 

Like type 2 diabetes, the cause is mostly lifestyle choices with some ethnicities having a higher risk of the disease than others. 

Gestational Diabetes

Gestational diabetes specifically affects people during pregnancy. About 2% to 10% of pregnant people in the United States are diagnosed with this type of diabetes. It’s classified as gestational diabetes if the person doesn’t already have diabetes. 

During pregnancy, a person’s body goes under many hormone changes, including normal levels of insulin resistance later in the pregnancy. However, in gestational diabetes, the person’s pancreas can’t make enough insulin to keep up with managing blood glucose levels in the body. 

The risk factors for gestational diabetes are a little more varied. A person is at higher risk if they  had gestational diabetes during another pregnancy or had previously given birth to a baby weighing more than 9 pounds. 

Other risk factors include:

  • Overweight
  • 25 years old or older
  • Family history of type 2 diabetes
  • Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS)
  • African American, Hispanic or Latino American, American Indian, Alaskan Native, Native Hawaiian, or Pacific Islander

Unlike type 1 or type 2 diabetes, gestational diabetes will go away after pregnancy, but it can affect the person’s and baby’s health in the future. 

A person’s lifestyle choices, weight, and sometimes their genetic predisposition can put them at higher risk for developing some type of diabetes. But for many patients, particularly those with type 2 diabetes, their lifestyle can also go a long way to control it and manage symptoms.

By understanding how the different types of diabetes work in the body, you’ll be able to better educate patients as they navigate their health journey and life living with this chronic disease.