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Diabetes Causes and Treatments

According to the charity Diabetes UK, more people than ever have diabetes, with more than 4.9 million people affected and 13.6 million at an increased risk of type 2 diabetes (i). The vast majority – 90 per cent – of people with diabetes have type 2 diabetes, with eight per cent having type 1 and two per cent having rarer types. The charity also predicts that, if nothing changes, around 5.5 million people will have diabetes in the UK by 2030.

Diabetes can develop when your blood glucose levels; that is, the amount of glucose (or sugar) in your blood; becomes too high and your pancreas doesn't produce enough of a hormone called insulin. Insulin is important because it helps break down the glucose in the bloodstream, allowing it to get into the body's cells where it is used for energy.

Glucose enters your bloodstream when you digest carbohydrates, which are found in many types of food, particularly starchy foods such as bread, pasta, potatoes and rice but also in fruit, certain dairy foods and of course most sweet foods.

Many people think that eating too much sugar causes diabetes. This, however, isn't true.  But eating too much sugar can make you overweight or cause obesity, which can increase your risk for type 2 diabetes. Other risk factors for type 2 diabetes include the following:

  • Age (in general, the older you get, the higher your risk)

  • Family history of type 2 diabetes

  • Obesity/overweight

  • Inactivity

  • High blood pressure

  • History of heart attack or stroke

  • Polycystic ovary syndrome in overweight women

  • History of gestational diabetes during pregnancy

  • Diagnosis of impaired glucose tolerance or impaired fasting glycaemia


Type 1 vs Type 2

Type 1 diabetes

Affects an estimated eight per cent of all adults and children with the disease (i). Nobody really knows why it develops, but it usually affects people under the age of 40 whose bodies can't produce enough insulin. If you suffer from type 1 diabetes, it's likely you'll need regular insulin injections.

Type 2 diabetes

Usually develops when you're older, which is why it's often referred to as adult-onset diabetes. However, an increasing number of younger people are developing type 2 diabetes these days, and South Asian and African-Caribbean people are five times more likely to develop type 2 diabetes, often before the age of 40 (ii). Often people with type 2 diabetes do produce some insulin, but not enough; or else their insulin is unable to do what it's supposed to do, that is, to break down the glucose in your bloodstream.

Know the signs

With so many people unaware they have type 2 diabetes, it pays to know what the warning signs are, including the following:

  • Feeling thirsty all the time

  • The need to urinate frequently, especially at night

  • Constantly feeling tired for no reason

  • Unexplained weight loss

  • Regular bouts of thrush or genital itching

  • Blurred vision

  • Cuts and wounds that are slow to heal

Living with diabetes

If you have diabetes, there are lots of things you can do yourself to help manage it. You don’t even have to give up all your favourite foods if you eat healthily. Here are some tips on eating, as well as other ways your lifestyle can help:

Eat regularly

Don't skip meals but eat three evenly spaced out meals during the day. Try to eat a wide range of foods, including some starchy foods like pasta (choose wholemeal or wholegrain carbs wherever you can, as these release their sugars more slowly into your system than refined carbs such as white bread, white pasta and white rice).

Get your five a day

Having five daily portions of fruit and veg is a great way to make sure your diet is healthy. Go for fresh, frozen, dried or canned (a portion is roughly what you can fit into the palm of your hand).

Cut down on fat

Eating less fat - particularly saturated, or animal, fat’ is better for your heart and can help you to lose weight. Go for low-fat dairy foods and limit the amount of oil you use in cooking.

Don’t forget protein

Have two to three portions of protein a day, including meat, fish, poultry, eggs, nuts, beans, lentils or other vegetarian/vegan alternatives.

Limit sweet foods

You don’t have to cut out all sugar from your diet, just reduce the amount of you eat by choosing no-added-sugar foods. Meanwhile, avoid ‘diabetic’ foods, as they are often high in fat and calories.

Keep your weight down

If you’re heavier than you should be, losing weight can help control your blood glucose levels. Eating healthily and exercising regularly can help you to maintain a healthy weight.

Drink less alcohol

Stick to recommended limits for drinking alcohol (no more than 14 units a week), and try to make a rule never to drink on an empty stomach.

Stay active

Exercise is an important part of managing type 2 diabetes, as it keeps your blood glucose levels and weight healthy, increases your fitness and lowers your blood pressure. Aim to do at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity every week (30 minutes on five days of the week is ideal, though you can break your sessions down into 10-minute chunks). Moderate intensity means your heart will be beating faster and you’ll feel warmer, plus you should be slightly out of breath (try fast walking, cycling or swimming).

Stop smoking

If you have diabetes, it can increase your risk of heart disease and stroke. Smoking increases that risk even further. If you need help with giving up, there are lots of stop smoking products that may help, such as patches, lozenges and gum.

Look after your skin and feet

Having diabetes could mean you may also have dry skin, so moisturise often. Diabetics can also suffer with foot problems, so wash your feet daily and check carefully for any cuts, sores or blisters.


Diabetes and your skin

If you have diabetes, you may be more likely to have dry skin as well as problems with the skin on your feet. Here are some of the things you can do to keep your skin healthy from top to toe:

Moisturise regularly

Use a gentle moisturiser on your skin after bathing or showering, but avoid moisturising between your toes, as it could encourage the growth of fungus. Try to use hand cream every time you wash your hands to stop your hands getting too dry; and if you're going outside, use a lip balm to prevent your lips chapping.

Use warm water, not hot

If you’re taking a bath or a shower, make sure the water is warm rather than hot, as water that’s too hot can dry out your skin. Also avoid using bath products that may irritate your skin (choose mild products designed for sensitive skin).

Protect yourself

Always use sun protection during the summer and if you’re going abroad. Use a product with SPF15 or higher on mild days and SPF30 or higher when the sun is strong. Meanwhile, in the winter wear a hat, gloves, thick socks and warm shoes or boots when you go outside.

Stay humid

During the winter the air in your home can become very dry, especially if you have central heating. But increasing the humidity can help to keep your skin healthy. Try using a humidifier, or place bowls of water near radiators. Also keep your body hydrated by drinking plenty of water. 

Avoid infections

If you get any minor cuts or burns, treat them as quickly as possible to avoid any infections developing using a gentle skin cream or ointment. If you suffer a more severe cut, burn or infection, see your GP as soon as possible.

Check your feet

Inspect your feet for any cuts or blisters daily, and if you do spot a problem ask your GP or diabetes nurse to have a look as soon as possible.

Treating diabetes

The treatment for diabetes depends on which type you have. Most people with type 1 diabetes have to take insulin. Type 2 diabetes, on the other hand, is often controlled by following a healthy diet and exercising regularly, though some people with type 2 diabetes may also need medication:


There are several different types of prescription tablets used to treat type 2 diabetes that don't contain insulin. You may need to take them if your diabetes isn’t being controlled well enough by eating healthily and exercising. There are several different types of glucose-lowering medicines available, and you may need one or a combination of two or more.


If have type 1 diabetes you’ll usually need to take insulin. Meanwhile, if you've been taking tablets for type 2 diabetes that have started to become less effective at controlling your blood sugar levels, your GP may prescribe different tablets or insulin. Most people need two to four insulin injections a day, usually in the stomach, buttocks or thighs, using an insulin pen. The good news is that the needles used to inject insulin are very small, and most people get used to using them fairly quickly.

You may also be advised to take other medicines to reduce your risk of health problems that arise as a complication of diabetes. There’s lots more information on diabetes treatments at

Diabetes complications

If you don’t manage your diabetes effectively ’ or if you have untreated diabetes ’ it can lead to a variety of health problems. In the long term, these include things such as heart attack, stroke, eye damage (including blindness), kidney disease, musculoskeletal problems (including limited joint mobility), nerve damage and kidney failure.

To avoid these complications, you should manage not just your blood glucose levels, but also your blood pressure and cholesterol. In the shorter term, type 2 diabetes can lead to complications called hypoglycaemia (blood glucose that’s too low) and hyperglycaemia (blood glucose that’s too high).


Several things can cause your blood glucose to drop too low, making you feel hungry, shaky and lightheaded. Missing a meal or not eating very much can lower your blood glucose too much, as can exercising more than usual or taking too much medicine for the amount of carbohydrate you’re eating.
If you feel a hypo coming on, eat some fast-acting carbohydrate, such as a small carton of pure fruit juice, five sweets (such as jelly babies), three or more glucose tablets or some glucose gel.


Not taking your medication or taking too little can cause a hyper, as can eating too many carbohydrates. You may feel very tired, thirsty and generally unwell, and may need to go to the toilet more frequently than normal.

If your blood sugar stays high for just a short time, treatment isn’t necessary. But if it stays high, you should drink plenty of sugar-free fluids, take extra insulin (if you’re on insulin), or contact your GP or diabetes nurse if you’re feeling unwell, particularly if you’re vomiting.

You can help prevent hypos and hypers by keeping a regular check on your blood glucose levels. Your GP or diabetes nurse will tell you how often you should do this, and if necessary give you advice on checking your sugar levels yourself by doing a finger-prick test or by using a flash glucose monitor.

Natural support for blood sugar control

There are several natural supplements that may help with blood sugar control  ’ though they shouldn’t be used as an alternative to conventional medicines or medical care. These natural supplements include the following:


An essential trace mineral, chromium is required by the body to help regulate the amount of glucose in the blood. Indeed, there are some studies that suggest chromium supplementation may help to improve blood sugar level control, including among those who have type 2 diabetes (iii). There are small amounts of chromium in foods such as broccoli, grape juice, dried garlic, orange juice and turkey breast.


Far more than a culinary flavouring, cinnamon is one of the oldest remedies used in traditional Chinese medicine. Widely recommended by natural therapists as a supplement that may help with type 2 diabetes - among other conditions and ailments  ’ it has been found to improve blood sugar levels in some small-scale studies of people with the disease (iv).

Alpha lipoic acid

There’s also some evidence that this fatty acid may help to control blood sugar levels (iii). The supplement has also been used widely in Germany to treat diabetic peripheral neuropathy 'nerve damage caused by diabetes that affects the feet, hands,  legs and arms' with one study confirming its effectiveness (iv).


People who have diabetes may find themselves deficient in certain nutrients as a result of the disease itself and taking medicines that treat it. Experts believe magnesium is often lacking in people with diabetes (vii), so taking magnesium in supplement form could help support your general health. There is also some evidence that magnesium supplements may help to enhance blood sugar control (viii).

Fish oils

People with type 2 diabetes have an increased risk of cardiovascular disease, and high levels of fat molecules in the blood called triglycerides can increase your risk of heart disease too. Experts also believe high triglyceride levels may be a sign of poorly controlled type 2 diabetes. However, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has upheld claims that the omega-3 fatty acids eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) - both of which can be found in oily fish ’ contribute to the maintenance of normal (fasting) blood concentrations of triglycerides. Studies also suggest that fish oil supplements may reduce triglyceride levels by up to 30 per cent (ix).

Please bear in mind that if you have diabetes and your blood sugar levels become too low for whatever reason, you may be at risk of hypoglycaemia. If you have diabetes, check with your GP before taking any medicines, including natural supplements.

Managing diabetes can be a balancing act, but this guide should help put you on the right track. If you’d like more advice on how to support your overall health, visit our health library.



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Disclaimer: The information presented by Nature's Best is for informational purposes only. It is based on scientific studies (human, animal, or in vitro), clinical experience, or traditional usage as cited in each article. The results reported may not necessarily occur in all individuals. Self-treatment is not recommended for life-threatening conditions that require medical treatment under a doctor's care. For many of the conditions discussed, treatment with prescription or over the counter medication is also available. Consult your doctor, practitioner, and/or pharmacist for any health problem and before using any supplements or before making any changes in prescribed medications.

Our Author - Christine Morgan


Christine Morgan has been a freelance health and wellbeing journalist for almost 20 years, having written for numerous publications including the Daily Mirror, S Magazine, Top Sante, Healthy, Woman & Home, Zest, Allergy, Healthy Times and Pregnancy & Birth; she has also edited several titles such as Women’ Health, Shine’s Real Health & Beauty and All About Health.

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