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Diabetes Library: What is Diabetes?

Overview: Diabetes Mellitus Type 2

By Jessica DuLong


Over 90 percent of the diabetes cases in the United States are diabetes mellitus type 2 (DM 2). The disease is becoming more and more common. The incidences of DM 2 in the U.S. having tripled since 1960.


Signs and symptomsWhat is diabetesWho gets itWhat is happening to the bodyPreventionWhat you can do at homeTreatmentAdditional resources

Diabetes mellitus type 2 (DM 2), also called adult-onset, or noninsulin-dependent diabetes, is the most common form of the disease. Over 90 percent of the diabetes cases in the United States are type 2 diabetes. Similar to diabetes mellitus type 1 (DM 1), DM 2 interferes with the body’s processing of food into fuel for its cells. In DM 2, the pancreas usually produces insulin, but the body is unable to use it effectively. An unhealthy buildup of glucose in the blood results, leading to symptoms which include: fatigue, frequent urination and unexplained weight loss.

A systemic illness, diabetes affects the entire body, predisposing those with the disease to other medical problems including: damage to the small blood vessels and nerves due to hypoglycemia, insufficient blood flow to the legs, and increased risk of atherosclerosis, heart attack, and stroke. Because the disease is usually associated with obesity, the primary means of treating DM 2 is weight loss through diet and exercise. In some cases, oral blood-glucose-lowering medications may also be necessary.

Signs and Symptoms

The symptoms of type 2 diabetes develop gradually and are not as noticeable as in type 1 diabetes. They include: fatigue; increased urination; unusual thirst; unexplained weight loss; frequent bladder and vaginal infections in women; poor wound healing; diminished sensation or numbness in the hands and feet; blurred vision; impotence

What is diabetes mellitus type 2?

Diabetes mellitus type 2 (DM 2) is a systemic illness resulting in the inability of the body to make efficient use of fuel. Unlike in diabetes mellitus 1 (DM 1), the pancreas in someone with DM 2 usually produces insulin, but the body does not respond to it appropriately. Like DM 1, the end result of DM 2 is an unhealthy buildup of glucose in the blood and an inability of the body to make efficient use of its main source of fuel.

Who gets it?

Over 90 percent of the diabetes cases in the United States are diabetes mellitus type 2 (DM 2). The disease is becoming more and more common, the incidences of DM 2 in the U.S. having tripled since 1960. Because mild diabetes often causes no outward symptoms for years, half of the approximately 16 million people in the U.S. with type 2 diabetes do not know they have the disease and are not being treated.

What is happening in the body?

Diabetes mellitus type 2 (DM 2) ) is a systemic illness resulting in the inability of the body to make efficient use of fuel from digested foods. One of the main sources of energy used to fuel the cells and tissues of the body is glucose, a sugar produced from the breakdown of nutrients in food. Under normal conditions, the concentration of glucose in the blood changes in response to a variety of conditions including meals, exercise, stress, and infections, but remains within a set limit. In the case of DM 2, the metabolism is thrown off-balance and blood sugar levels increase to dangerously high levels.

Crucial to the body’s ability to process the energy from food into fuel for the cells is insulin, a hormone produced by the pancreas. Under normal conditions, insulin is produced when the concentration of glucose in the bloodstream increases, usually after a meal. Insulin stimulates muscle and fat cells, among others, to absorb glucose in order to fuel their activities. Other pancreatic hormones, glucogon and somatostatin, help facilitate the mobilization of the body’s stores of glucose.

In DM 2, the delicate balance of regulatory hormones is disrupted. Although the pancreas produces insulin, the body is less sensitive to its effects. Greater amounts of insulin are needed to maintain normal amounts of glucose in the blood.

Insulin resistance develops over time, causing the pancreas to produce increasing amounts of insulin. Eventually this progresses to the point where the pancreas can no longer meet the body’s insulin needs.

Without adequate insulin, the muscle and fat cells are unable to absorb the glucose they need for fuel. Because the cells are unable to absorb the glucose from the blood, blood sugar levels rise until glucose begins to escape through the kidneys into the urine, carrying with it large amounts of water. This results in the increased volume of urine production that is symptomatic of DM 2.

Like in DM 1, the greatest risk of DM 2 is the damage to body tissues caused by hyperglycemia, or elevated blood sugar levels. High glucose levels in the bloodstream have the potential to cause widespread damage to a variety of organ systems greatly increasing the risks for hypertension, heart disease, stroke, circulatory diseases of the feet and legs as well as disorders of the eyes, kidneys and nerves.

The effects of diabetes on the body are widespread. According to the National Diabetes Information Clearinghouse, diabetes is associated with long-term complications that affect almost every major part of the body. It contributes to blindness, heart disease, strokes, kidney failure, amputations, and nerve damage. Uncontrolled diabetes can complicate pregnancy, and birth defects are more common in babies born to women with diabetes. The following are late complications which can result from diabetes:

  • Retinopathy — Weakness in the arteries caused by lack of oxygen because of DM 2 can result in the death of small areas of the retina. When these areas die, they attempt to regenerate themselves and the ensuing formation of new blood vessels can lead to detachment of the retina and to blindness.

  • Kidney damage — The chief cause of kidney damage in people with diabetes is hyperglycemia. Kidney function can best be preserved by keeping blood glucose levels as close to normal range as possible.

  • Neuropathy — Hyperglycemia can damage any nerve in the body. In some cases, the nerves in the gastrointestinal tract are damaged, in particular the nerves controlling the churning of the stomach. This can cause poor stomach functioning and delays in processing a meal.

    Other nerves at great risk for damage in people with diabetes are those which supply sensation to the hands and feet. Nerve damage in the extremities can cause diminished sensation making it easy to inadvertently injure the hands and feet.

  • Poor circulation—Diabetes can cause damage to the blood vessels which, in turn, restricts circulation and increases the risk of high blood pressure, stroke, heart attack, foot ulcers and gangrene of the feet.

  • Poor wound healing — Another affect of restricted blood circulation is poor wound healing and heightened risk of infection. For people with diabetes, even minor injuries can pose a major health risk.

    Because of the combined factors of nerve damage and poor wound healing, the feet are at particular risk for infection. Diminished sensation caused by neuropathy can make it easy to injure the feet, and poor wound healing increases the risk of infection in those injuries.

    Small cuts from carelessly clipped toenails and blisters, corns and calluses from ill-fitting shoes.

    Jessica DuLong is a managing editor at savvyHEALTH.com.


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