Living with Type 1 Diabetes

A Misunderstood Disease Characterized by Uncertainty

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If you or someone you know has been diagnosed with type 1 diabetes, you may be dealing with a number of strong emotions, from surprise, confusion, and anxiety to anger or depression. These feelings are a normal part of receiving a new diagnosis, so try to be patient with yourself during this time of adjustment. Learning about the disease can help set you up for dealing with it successfully.

What Is Type 1 Diabetes?

Type 1 diabetes is a disease in which the body makes little or no insulin. Often referred to as juvenile diabetes because it occurs most commonly in teens and adolescents, type 1 diabetes is a form of autoimmune disease in which the immune system attacks the cells of the pancreas, which produce insulin. The cause of the disorder is poorly understood but is believed to be strongly linked to genetics.

Type 1 diabetes differs from type 2 diabetes in that lifestyle plays a significant role in the development of the latter. Type 2 diabetes (also referred to as adult-onset diabetes) can occur at any age and is as strongly linked to obesity and inactivity as it is to genetics.

It is often presumed that a person who develops diabetes in adulthood has type 2, but this is not always the case. Type 1 diabetes can manifest in adulthood in the same way that type 2 can develop in children. Adding to the confusion is the fact that some people can have both types, a condition known as latent autoimmune diabetes of adults, or LADA.

Facts About Type 1 Diabetes

According to the American Diabetes Association, around 1.25 million Americans are currently living with type 1 diabetes. It is a condition that many in the public still misunderstand, believing that those affected "brought it on themselves" due to a lack of exercise and poor diet.

In fact, with type 1 diabetes, you can be perfectly healthy and still experience the symptomatic ups and downs caused by lack of insulin control. Poor diet and inactivity can contribute to the symptoms, but the disease is there irrespective of these conditions and, unlike type 2, cannot be reversed.

Emotional

Type 1 diabetes is a disease you'll have to manage and think about daily, each time you eat. For many people living with type 1 diabetes, the hardest part is having to think about it all the time. It can be mentally and emotionally draining, and it never goes away. As a result, it may seem overwhelming at first.

With that being said, many of those affected have the opposite experience. Having a chronic, life-altering condition can often refocus a person on the things that really matter. It can incentivize someone to make positive lifestyle changes, eliminating stresses and unhealthy habits that may have undermined their quality of life. It allows people to establish goals to approach life in an entirely new way.

Get help from your doctors as well as a nutritionist or diabetes educator as you adjust your diet and learn to take insulin. Take things one day at a time: over time, you'll learn what your body needs and can handle.

Physical

If your body is deprived of insulin (the hormone that moves sugar into cells for fuel), sugar can rapidly build up in the bloodstream, causing your cells to starve. When this happens, a person will commonly experience symptoms of hyperglycemia (high blood sugar), including:

  • Increased thirst
  • Headaches
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Blurred vision
  • Frequent urination
  • Fatigue
  • Weight loss
  • Long-term damage to the nerves and small blood vessels of the eyes, heart, and kidneys

On the other hand, if you don't control your insulin or take too much, you can also experience symptoms of hypoglycemia (low blood sugar).

Social

If you've been diagnosed with type 1 diabetes, start by learning everything you can about the disease. Find a specialist endocrinologist to work with and establish a support network who can help normalize diabetes in your life. Seek out support in the form of online or in-person support groups, which can be very helpful. (Always take any advice you hear in social forums with a grain of salt, and check with your doctors before implementing changes—what works for another person may not work for you.) Consider starting an exercise group if your local area doesn't have one. And be sure to ask family and friends with help when you need it.

Practical

To control type 1 diabetes, people with this condition need to watch what they eat, monitor their blood sugar and take insulin shots when needed. While this may seem pretty simple and straightforward, more often than not that is easier said than done.

One of the hallmarks of type 1 diabetes is that is completely unpredictable. There is no set course for the disease, and people can experience different symptoms and responses to insulin control measures. Oftentimes, there may be no rhyme or reason to the ups and downs of a person's blood sugar. Even if the same diet is maintained day after day, a reading can suddenly shoot up for no apparent reason.

Because of this, people with type 1 diabetes always need to be on the alert. This means carting around a load of supplies wherever they go, including a blood sugar meter, an emergency sugar source, and even an insulin cooler if traveling. They also need to watch what they eat all the time, counting every carbohydrate and avoiding stresses that can cause blood sugar levels to skyrocket.

Typically speaking, a person will need to check his or her blood sugar at least three to four times per day. Newer continuous glucose monitors can also check values throughout the day, often through a simple phone app.

A Word from Verywell

There will be challenges, but if you take managing type 1 diabetes one day—and one meal—at a time, you'll be better able to understand your own body and how the disease applies to you as an individual. By doing so, you can be a proactive manager rather than a victim of the disease.

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