Type 1 diabetes starts with an organ in the body called the pancreas. The pancreas is only about 6 inches long but its functions are vital for survival. The pancreas has two primary functions. Its first role is to release enzymes into the gastrointestinal tract to help with digestion. Its second role is to release hormones including insulin. Insulin allows glucose into the cells were is can be used as energy or stored for later in the liver, muscles and kidneys.
Interestingly, 99% of the pancreas function revolves around releasing enzymes to help with digestion. Meaning insulin is a very small part of its role.
So a 6 inch organ, of which only 1% of its function is dedicated releasing insulin, is the difference between having and not having type 1 diabetes.
What is type 1 diabetes
Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune disease. This means your immune system has targeted the beta cells of the pancreas, that release insulin, and destroys them. This leaves the person unable to control their own blood glucose levels. Until the discovery of insulin in 1921 this was a death sentence.
Contrary to popular belief, you are not born with type 1 diabetes. You develop it. The overwhelming majority of people who develop type 1 will do so in childhood. Though, there are people who develop diabetes well into adulthood.
What are the symptoms of type 1 diabetes?
If you’re reading this you have likely experienced these. Symptoms occur rather rapidly. Usually over the course of a few weeks. They include weight loss, thirst, dry mouth, blurred vision, genital itching, tiredness and fatigue amongst others.
You can become acutely unwell and if left untreated the condition will be fatal (though this is very rare due to good detection practices these days).
Diabetic Keto Acidosis
If the symptoms go unrecognised and no insulin is administered in time, people developing type 1 diabetes can suffer with a condition known as diabetic keto acidosis (DKA).
DKA develops when a person has an absolute insulin deficiency. Normally, the body releases glucose and fat to help give the body energy. This is usually a fine balance and both nutrients enter the cells of the body from the blood. In type 1 diabetes no insulin is present to help glucose enter the cells. Therefore, the body releases more fat to compensate for the lack of glucose getting into the cells. Fat is further broken down into substances known as ketones to help make up for the lack of glucose. In normal quantities ketones are not a problem. With a lack of insulin and no glucose entering the cells, ketones accumulate and become toxic.
The person suffering with DKA accumulate dangerous levels of ketones. These turn the body acidic lowering your pH levels and make you very acutely unwell. Symptoms include nausea, vomiting (coffee ground vomit) and back pain.
Meanwhile glucose levels rise to dangerously high levels. The body can only excrete glucose by urinating out the excess glucose. This causes dehydration and further exacerbates the problem. Therefore, DKA describes the 3 processes happening in your body. Diabetic describes high glucose levels. Keto refers to the rising ketones in the blood. Acidosis is because the ketones push the body into an acidic environment.
If left untreated this condition is fatal. Though this is very rare nowadays due to modern medicine.
What causes type 1 diabetes?
The simple answer is, we don’t know. There are many theories such as viral infections, shock, illness, genetics but we actually do not know at present.
How is type 1 diabetes managed?
Due to the fact your body no longer produces insulin, you will need to take insulin lifelong.
Usually, you will take one long acting insulin. This provides coverage for your body for around 24 hours and essentially works in the background. We call this your background insulin.
You will also take a rapid acting insulin with meals. This is matches blood sugar spikes when you eat and prevents sugar levels rising too much after meals. We call this your rapid or fast acting insulin. We call this a basal bolus insulin regime. I have previously blogged about this here.
Need more help?
Search our type 1 diabetes section for more information about the management of type 1 diabetes.
If you’d prefer to get expert support, have a look at our consultancy page or programmes page. Here we give you real world strategies for managing type 1 diabetes.
You don’t have to be alone in this and our plans help you get on top of your glucose levels quick and efficiently.
We also have a support group which can be found on our Facebook page below.