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Diabetes is on the rise in South Africa, and is the second leading cause of death according to a recent report by Statistics South Africa. With early diagnosis and sticking to prescribed medicine, people with diabetes can lead healthy lives. Those at risk of developing type 2 diabetes may even be able to avoid the need for diabetes medicine, provided they make healthy changes to their lifestyles in time.

What is diabetes?

Diabetes, or diabetes mellitus, is a type of health condition whereby the sugar or glucose that the body absorbs from eating carbohydrates (contained in sugar, bread, pasta and fruit juice for example) remains in your blood without your body being able to process it. This can have a number of serious long-term effects and potentially life-threatening complications if it is not managed effectively. 

Some people have diabetes from childhood. Usually, this is type 1 diabetes, which is an autoimmune disease known as type 1 diabetes, caused by the person’s immune system attacking the areas of an organ called the pancreas where insulin is produced by the body. Insulin is a hormone that regulates blood sugar, also known as blood glucose. 

Other people may develop diabetes at a later stage due to factors including unhealthy lifestyle choices, and sometimes this is also influenced by genetic factors. Generally, this describes type 2 diabetes, and is sometimes called adult-onset diabetes or insulin resistance, which is the most common form of the disease. In this type of diabetes, the body no longer effectively responds to insulin, meaning that blood sugar levels are uncontrolled. 

Symptoms of diabetes

Not all people who have diabetes or are pre-diabetic will experience the same symptoms, however it is important to speak to your family practitioner if you have any of the following: 

* Often feeling very thirsty 
*Increased appetite
*Frequently needing to urinate, especially at night
*Sores or cuts that take a long time to heal
*Blurry eyesight

These symptoms may develop slowly over time and this can make them seem less noticeable. 

Who is at risk of developing diabetes? 

* People who experience the symptoms listed above
*Those with family members who are diabetic
*Overweight or obese people
*People older than 30 
*Women who have had a baby with a birth weight of 4kg or more 

These individuals should have their blood sugar tested, which will determine whether their bodies are producing or using insulin effectively. 

What does testing involve? 

A glucose tolerance test (GTT) usually involves the patient being given a glucose solution to drink, then a little while later a small amount of blood is drawn and sent for analysis. The test measures how the body deals with glucose, or blood sugar, and if your body is able to efficiently clear the glucose from the blood after drinking the sugary drink.

Speak to your family practitioner well before having the test and ask if you need to do anything to prepare for the particular type of glucose screening test you will be undergoing. Sometimes you will need to stop taking certain medicines a few days or weeks before the test, but your doctor will advise you about this. 

In some instances you may need to reduce the amount of carbohydrates in your diet for a few days or weeks in advance, and your doctor may request that you do not eat or drink anything except water for eight hours before the test. 

Whatever the results of your test may show, there is much that can be done nowadays to help control diabetes or prevent further development of insulin resistance. Your doctor may prescribe insulin injections, or medicine to be taken orally if you are diagnosed with diabetes. 

A healthy balanced diet, rich in vegetables, lean protein and whole grains, and regular exercise can go a long way to improving the quality of life of diabetics and can help to prevent it in people who are at risk of developing diabetes.