What is Diabetes?

Diabetes is a chronic disease characterized by high levels of glucose (sugar) in the blood.

Diabetes occurs when insulin is not produced in sufficient amounts by the beta cells of the pancreas, or the cells of the body are unable to use insulin in the proper way to metabolize glucose (known as insulin resistance,  or decreased insulin sensitivity). Over time high blood glucose levels can lead to serious diabetes complications.

Type 1 diabetes is a chronic and presently incurable and unpreventable disease where the pancreas produces none or very little insulin. It is also called insulin-dependent diabetes.

The most prevalent form of diabetes (more than 90%), type 2 diabetes, is highly preventable. Type 2 diabetes is characterized by insulin resistance, decreased insulin production by the pancreas, or a combination of the two.

Diabetes - A Disease that Crosses All Divides

By 2030 more than 500 million people around the world will be living with type 2 diabetes. It is a rising global epidemic that crosses all divides, but is especially pervasive in minority populations in developed countries like the United States, and is most rapidly growing in developing nations throughout the general populace.

The History of Diabetes

Diabetes has been recognized as a medical problem for thousands of years. In Ancient Egypt a condition described by excessive urination, thirst and weight loss was described in hieroglyphics on papyrus; what today we would call type 1 diabetes. Astute physicians at the time prescribed diets of whole grains to limit the symptoms, a revelation modern researchers are finally rediscovering more than 3,000 years later.

The first clinical test of diabetes was devised in Ancient India, where patients exhibiting the common diabetes symptoms described above, had their urine analyzed with the help of ants. If the sugar-loving ants came rushing to the urine, a diagnosis of “madhumeha” was given, which translates to “honey urine.” Diabetics have elevated levels of glucose in the urine, as well as the blood, as the renal system (kidneys) works to expel the excess glucose from the body. Now instead of ants we use things like A1C tests to diagnose diabetes.

The distinction between type 1 and type 2 diabetes was first recognized in India and China around 2,000 years ago, and the causal relationship between obesity and type 2 diabetes was also noted since the symptoms of type 2 diabetes occurred almost exclusively in overweight, affluent, adult individuals. Due to the modern world’s propensity for eating cheap processed foods and being sedentary, type 2 diabetes is no longer a “disease of affluence” and has now become more prevalent in poorer communities and cultures.

The word “Diabetes” comes from Ancient Greece and means “to pass through,” in reference to the associated frequent urination, and the belief of Greek physicians that diabetes was a disease of the kidneys. Furthermore, “mellitus” means “honeyed” in Greek,  so the clinical term “diabetes mellitus” describes something similar to the “madhumeha” diagnosis in Ancient India.

A Modern Epidemic with an Ancient Solution

With all of our modern research, medicines and “understanding,” it is a wonder to consider that the essence of what diabetes is, has been understood for thousands of years. In regards to preventable type 2 diabetes, obesity has long been known to be a major risk factor for the disease, specifically in highly populated countries where obesity is now exploding in prevalence, India and China, and type 2 diabetes along with it. The Ancient Egyptians knew that blood glucose levels could be managed through modifications in diet, something the modern world is only recently recognizing the importance of in the prevention and integrated management of diabetes. In a globalized world with rising incidence of chronic diseases like type 2 diabetes, stress and environmental destruction, have we really advanced so much?

Learn More About Diabetes and Its Serious Complications

Resources and Further Reading

A standard resource about type 2 diabetes: https://www.niddk.nih.gov/health-information/diabetes/overview/what-is-diabetes

More about the history of diabetes: https://www.thediabetescouncil.com/the-history-of-diabetes/

A study about whole grains and type 2 diabetes prevention: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17760498


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