Diabetes is a scary diagnosis. A doctor's appointment may leave a person with more questions than answers: what will happen to me? Will I have to take needles the rest of my life? What do I do to stay healthy? ... How did I get Diabetes? From personal experience, this was a major question in my mind. First of all, it is important to understand the condition and how it works. Put simply, diabetes results when the body kills off its own insulin-producing cells in the pancreas or when the body becomes resistant to its own insulin. Insulin is a hormone that allows the cells of the body to access the sugar from the food. In a sense, insulin is like the key to the cell’s door. Without insulin around to let the sugar in to the cell, the unused sugar remains in the blood (hence the term “high blood sugar”). Cells use sugar to make energy, so without the sugar reaching the cells, a diabetic with high blood sugar may feel tired, among many things.
This takes us to the main question: what causes diabetes? As a type I diabetic, I have asked myself that question many, many times. Of course, type I diabetes and type II diabetes have different causes, which we will briefly explore:
Type I diabetes, also known as juvenile diabetes, is an autoimmune disorder. As I mentioned above, this means the body has killed off its own insulin cells. Studies have shown that a phenomenon called molecular mimicry can be partly to blame: some foreign substance (a virus, for example) has entered the body, and is extremely similar to the body’s own cells. The body then becomes ‘confused’, in a sense, and the immune system attacks its own cells along with the invader. Type I diabetes is thought to be genetic, often in families with histories of autoimmune disorders (meaning, at times, diabetes may not be seen in other members of the family, but other autoimmune disorders are). Many misconceptions exist about the causes of this condition. I have certainly heard a few, including the myth about eating too much sugar. Eating too much sugar does not directly cause diabetes. You will see below that being overweight as a result of a poor diet may cause diabetes, but “too much sugar” definitely does not.
Type II diabetes can also be genetic, or may come as a result of a poor lifestyle. Over 90% of cases of diabetes are type II diabetes. Most type II diabetics produce insulin, but they develop a phenomenon called insulin resistance, meaning the body cannot use the insulin it is producing. However, I cannot stress enough how big of a role the lifestyle plays in this condition. Most newly diagnosed type II diabetics are overweight and sedentary. Studies have shown that excess body fat may interfere with the body’s ability to use its own insulin. Obesity is not the cause of the condition, but it is a huge risk factor, along with ethnicity and family history.
So, hopefully I have answered your question! When doing your diabetes research, always make sure you are reading from a reputable and legitimate source. Some particularly helpful resources:
Source: Marieb, E. N., & Hoehn, K. (2009). Human Anatomy & Physiology, 8th Ed. San Francisco: Pearson Education Inc.