Diabetes: An Overview

Diabetes is a disease in which the body cannot make energy from food as it should. This is because the body doesn’t produce enough insulin, or else the insulin produced is not working properly. Insulin is an important hormone. We need insulin to help our body’s cells take up sugar from food. The cells then make energy from the sugar. Sometimes cells don’t respond to insulin. This can also cause diabetes.

More than two million Canadians have diabetes. Each year, 60,000 more cases are diagnosed.

For in-depth information about diabetes, please see the AboutKidsHealth Diabetes Resource Centre

What happens in the body when someone has diabetes?

A person with diabetes stops producing the essential hormone insulin, or else the insulin is not working properly. A hormone is a chemical "messenger" that travels from one part of the body to another to tell it what to do.

Only with insulin can the body use the sugar in the food we eat to make energy. If there is no insulin, cells are unable to use the sugar to make energy. The "unused" sugar builds up in the blood and is passed out of the body in urine.

We need energy to:

  • produce our body heat
  • make our muscles work, our hearts beat, our lungs breathe, our brain think
  • allow the growth, renewal, and repair of the billions of cells that make up our bodies

Without insulin, we can’t survive

Insulin is made in the pancreas. This is an organ located just behind the stomach. Special cells in the pancreas known as beta cells make insulin. Beta cells are found in islands of tissue named the islets of Langerhans.

There are different kinds of diabetes, but children and teens usually develop type 1 diabetes. In type 1 diabetes, the beta cells have been destroyed and the body cannot produce any insulin.

More and more teens are starting to develop type 2 diabetes. With this type of diabetes, the body can usually produce some insulin. However, either it is not enough or it doesn’t work well enough to keep blood sugar levels normal.

Treatment of diabetes

There are two goals of treatment for diabetes. One is to establish and keep up blood sugar levels that are as close to normal as possible so your child can stay healthy and avoid complications in the future. The second is for the child to adjust well to living with diabetes in order to live a long, healthy, and productive life.

Treatment of type 1 diabetes

Around the world, the basic treatment of type 1 diabetes is the same. It consists of:

  • taking insulin injections several times a day, or using a pump that delivers a steady supply of insulin with extra doses at mealtimes
  • monitoring blood sugar several times a day
  • following a meal plan
  • making up for extra activity with extra food, or sometimes less insulin

Within this basic framework, different health care teams will work with your family to develop a plan that fits in with your child’s specific needs and your family’s routines at home. You will be asked to bring your child in to the clinic for regular check-ups every three months. During these clinic visits, you can discuss any concerns you have with the diabetes care team.

Treatment of type 2 diabetes

Type 2 diabetes is managed by a combination of healthy eating, physical activity, weight loss, and for many young people, medication. For almost everyone, treatment involves a major lifestyle change.

Teens will have the best possible chance of success if the entire family learns about type 2 diabetes and adopts the same healthy lifestyle. This will be a source of great support to your teen. Also, it will reduce the risk that other family members will develop diabetes, since they are at increased risk of the disease.

When diet and exercise alone do not control the blood sugar level then the doctor may prescribe pills that help the body's insulin work better. Some young people may also require insulin injections. Pills and insulin do not replace the need to pay close attention to healthy eating, regular exercise, and aiming for and achieving a healthy weight. These are the cornerstones of the treatment of type 2 diabetes.

Key points

  • Diabetes is a disease in which the body cannot make energy from food.
  • The body needs insulin to help the cells take up sugar from food and make energy.
  • In type 1 diabetes, the body does not produce insulin. Type 1 diabetes is treated with insulin injections, monitoring blood sugar, and following a meal plan.
  • In type 2 diabetes, the body can usually produce some insulin, but either it is not enough or it does not work properly. Type 2 diabetes is managed with a combination of healthy eating, physical activity, weight loss, and sometimes medication.

Marcia Frank, RN, MHSc, CDE

Denis Daneman, MB, BCh, FRCPC