How Type 1 Diabetes Is Treated

What You Should Know

Woman checking her insulin pump
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Treatment of type 1 diabetes consists of an ongoing process of managing your condition. Careful management includes lifestyle changes to diet and exercise, glucose monitoring, and insulin therapy.

The short-term goal immediately following a diagnosis is to bring high blood glucose levels into an acceptable range. Because the onset of symptoms is often sudden and severe, some people may require hospitalization to stabilize blood glucose levels.

Home Remedies & Lifestyle

Once glucose levels have stabilized, the long-term goal is to manage glucose levels on a daily basis to reduce the risk of diabetes-related complications that can affect your vision, nerves, heart and blood vessels, and kidneys.

Most professionals working with diabetes opt for the term “management” over “treatment” because the word management implies active involvement in your daily self-care. The word treatment, in contrast, is often interpreted as passive and doing only what is necessary. Though the terms can be used interchangeably, we use management here because we want to encourage you to take a proactive approach to your diabetes.

Meal Planning

Remember: food increases your glucose levels, while insulin brings it down—which means meal planning is an important part of managing your type 1 diabetes. Following a meal plan allows you to balance the insulin you take with the food you eat.

Creating a balanced meal plan involves measuring out carbs and reducing sodium while also loading up on non-starchy vegetables. Try to choose natural, unprocessed foods as much as possible, along with simple over complex carbs. Keeping track of carbs isn't always easy, so don't hesitate to ask your doctor for a referral to work with a dietitian or diabetes educator. A dietitian will consider your health needs, lifestyle, and food preferences and work them into a personalized meal plan you can live with, which can be a huge help.

Kids and teens may need extra, age-appropriate help learning to treat their type 1 diabetes: take time to learn what works for your child.

While you'll almost certainly need to make some dietary modifications, don’t believe the old myth that says you can’t eat anything sweet or must give up your favorite foods. The truth is, you can eat almost anything you want—as long as you factor it into your overall meal plan for any given day.

Physical Activity

Similarly to insulin, exercise reduces the amount of glucose in your blood. It’s not a substitute for insulin, but instead an additional way to further lower your glucose and improve your overall health.

Another benefit of regular activity is that it helps you achieve your optimal weight. The closer you are to your target weight, the better your body will use the daily insulin you take. But before starting an exercise routine, consult your doctor. Having type 1 diabetes requires that you give special attention to your blood glucose before, during, and after physical activity to help prevent a sudden drop in blood glucose levels.

Over-the-Counter Therapies: Glucose Monitoring

The only way you can confidently know what your blood glucose level is at any given time is to test it. Regular testing will help you identify high and low levels before serious problems could develop. When at-home testing is performed on a regular basis, it helps you assess how well you are balancing your insulin therapy, meal planning, and exercise to manage your diabetes. These test results will also provide valuable information for your doctor to help make adjustments to your overall care plan.

Fortunately, there are many pocket-sized glucose-monitoring devices that will check your glucose levels in seconds using only a small drop of blood. Many of these devices also allow you to download your results to your computer to make graphs and charts of your readings to help spot trends or trouble spots.

You can purchase these blood glucose monitors at your local pharmacy. But your better option is to talk with your healthcare provider, who may be able to get you one, along with a small number of test strips, for free. The companies that manufacture glucose monitors supply physicians and diabetes educators with monitors hoping they will pass them on to their patients. Before buying any monitor, also be sure to find out whether your insurance will cover the meter and strips. Some insurance companies will cover specific meters. Other options include asking your pharmacist about discounts or rebate coupons or calling the manufacturer directly.

Prescriptions

Insulin supplementation is the mainstay of type 1 diabetes management. Your doctor may also suggest other medications to keep cholesterol and blood pressure under control.

Insulin Therapy

Insulin lowers the level of glucose in the blood by allowing it to enter your cells to be used for energy. Since people with type 1 can no longer depend upon their pancreas to produce insulin, it must be obtained from injections or an insulin pump every day.

There are a number of insulin preparations available. They range from short-acting to long-acting and can be mixed together if your doctor believes this will enable you to achieve better control of your blood glucose. Your doctor will prescribe the type(s) best suited for your situation.

Though researchers are searching for additional ways to administer insulin without a needle, such as by inhaling it or taking pills, injections or insulin pumps are still the only way to get the necessary insulin that people with type 1 need to live. If you need to administer injections to yourself or someone else, make sure to familiarize yourself with storage safety precautions and injection procedures, such as rotating sites. If you think you may have trouble keeping up with injections or have a fear of needles, ask your doctor about an insulin pump instead—they have been shown to improve A1C levels. Continuous glucose monitors could also be helpful--some insulin pumps, called sensor-augmented, now include one.

Surgeries and Specialist-Driven Procedures

Few treatments for type 1 diabetes are currently known. For those with type 1 diabetes, an experimental but promising procedure called islet cell transplantation may be worth exploring. When the benefits of complex surgery outweigh the risks, those with very difficult-to-control diabetes may also need to consider a pancreas transplant.

Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM)

Carefully planning your diet and keeping up with exercise are the most important things you can do on your own to control type 1 diabetes. However, several natural treatments have shown some promise in regulating blood sugar and A1c levels in preliminary studies. They include cinnamon, vitamin D, ginseng, and the minerals magnesium, chromium, and zinc. Consider trying to get these nutrients in your diet, if possible: since supplements aren't regulated by the FDA, it's not possible to be sure what you're actually getting in a supplement, no matter what the bottle claims. You can also check recommendations from sources such as Consumer Reports and Consumer Lab, which conduct independent testing and reporting of common supplements.

A Word from Verywell

Every person with type 1 diabetes needs to pay close attention to four diabetes management pillars: meal planning, physical activity, glucose monitoring, and insulin therapy. While this may seem complicated at the outset, taking your time and asking for help to learn new routines will help you successfully manage your diabetes.

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