Diabetes is hiding in plain sight

What if you were living with a chronic disease and didn't know it? That's reality for more than eight million Americans unaware they have diabetes.

Diabetes, the body's inability to adequately process sugar (glucose) in the body, leads to elevation in blood sugar. This can cause a host of serious health problems, including significant damage to organs.

Tiffany Pankow, MD, a member of the HonorHealth medical staff, says patients with diabetes or prediabetes often don't have any major symptoms.

This was the case for Michele, who went to see her doctor 18 years ago because she wasn't feeling quite right. She was shocked to get a phone call from her doctor, asking her how long she had been a diabetic.

"I told him that was the first I'd heard of it," she said. "It was very frightening."

Sneaky symptoms

Many symptoms of diabetes are vague and can be attributed to harmless conditions, such as aging or being out in the heat. Symptoms include:

  • Increased thirst
  • Increased urination
  • Feeling tired
  • Blurred vision
  • More frequent infections
  • Wounds that are slow to heal

If you develop diabetes, you may experience these symptoms gradually, which can make it hard to connect the dots between how you're feeling and a possible medical condition.

Treatment options

It's important to see your doctor for regular physicals so you can be screened for diabetes. The earlier you catch it, the easier it may be to manage your symptoms and prevent complications from the disease.

"Lifestyle changes are the keystone of treating diabetes," Dr. Pankow said. You should:

  • Set yourself up for success by approaching your treatment with a positive attitude. Many individuals with diabetes can control the disease with diet and activity changes.
  • Realize that you may also require oral and injectable medications.
  • Be sure to monitor your blood sugar as directed by your doctor so that you can see how well you are managing your diabetes.
  • Choose whole unprocessed fruits and vegetables and whole grain or healthy carbohydrates such as oats, barley, quinoa and lentils.
  • Limit refined processed carbohydrates such as crackers, pasta, white bread, bagels, tortillas and white rice.
  • Include healthy fats such as avocados, olive oil, nuts and fatty fish such as salmon.
  • Include lean protein such as chicken, turkey and fish.
  • Avoid sugary beverages including fruit juices, coffee drinks, sodas and sports drinks.
  • Exercise with an eventual goal of 150 minutes a week.
  • Get adequate sleep — at least seven to eight hours a night.
  • Manage and address life stressors. Both stress and poor sleep raise blood sugar levels.
  • Talk to your doctor to see if any treatment innovations are right for you, including continuous glucose monitors or insulin pumps.

Mary Lee Lehrich, RN, certified diabetes educator at the HonorHealth Diabetes Center, believes it's important to educate yourself about diabetes. She works with patients to help them understand how diabetes works and what they can do to control it, including diet and exercise.

"Making changes in how much and what you eat makes a huge difference," she noted. "Eating fewer processed foods and smaller portions can have a tremendous impact on blood sugar levels."

Take diabetes seriously

If you don't manage your diabetes properly, you're at risk of developing serious complications, including a greatly increased risk of heart attack and stroke. Diabetes is also the leading cause of blindness, kidney failure requiring dialysis, nerve damage and amputation. The disease increases the risk for many types of infection, too.

At first, Michelle was reluctant to follow her doctor's orders to manage her diabetes, despite the risks. "I went through several years of denial, telling myself it wasn't really a problem," she said.

Then she went to see Mary Lee to learn more about diabetes, and the meeting was a game changer.

"Mary Lee, my diabetes nurse educator, turned me into a believer," Michelle said. Thanks to Mary Lee's expertise, guidance and support, Michelle felt empowered to handle her diabetes.

Diabetes risk factors

Be sure to visit your doctor if you have symptoms of diabetes. Discuss screening for diabetes if you have risk factors that include:

  • A family history of diabetes
  • A history of gestational diabetes
  • Being overweight or obese
  • Being of African American, Hispanic/Latino American, American Indian or Alaska Native descent. Some Pacific Islanders and Asian Americans are also at higher risk.

If you've already been diagnosed with diabetes, see your doctor every three months. Seek medical advice if you have diabetes and are feeling ill, especially if you're concerned about an infection, have low or high blood sugars, have had medication changes, are having side effects from your medications, have questions about your condition or have any new or concerning symptoms.

And remember, many individuals with diabetes live long, healthy lives.

Think you might have diabetes?

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