Lesson #1

What is diabetes?

Diabetes mellitus is a systemic illness that interferes with the body's ability to process carbohydrates and sugars into fuel. Diabetes is characterized by high blood sugar — specifically, high blood glucose. Glucose is the sugar found in fruits, parts of plants, and starch. When you eat, digestion of these foods sends free glucose into the bloodstream. Normally, glucose is taken up from a person's bloodstream into all the body's cells, and is used to generate the energy the body requires to function. The bloodstream always has some glucose coursing through; however, in diabetes the level of blood glucose becomes too high. Anyone's level of blood glucose at any given moment can be measured with a simple blood test.

How do you get high blood glucose?

High blood glucose occurs when your body cannot make enough insulin, or if the insulin being produced isn't functioning properly. Insulin is a hormone produced by the "beta cells" of the pancreas, a big gland/organ situated in your upper abdomen. Insulin is required to transport glucose out of the bloodstream and into all the body's cells for energy.

When the pancreas is functioning normally, it has two purposes. First, it secretes "pancreatic juice" into the intestine. This "juice" is made up of enzymes that help you digest carbohydrates (starch) and lipids (fats). Second, the pancreas produces appropriate amounts of the hormones insulin, glucagon and somatostatin to regulate the glucose concentration in your blood. These hormones keep blood glucose levels, which fluctuate, within the normal range.

In people with diabetes however, there is an insufficient amount of insulin being produced, and this balanced system fails. Without enough insulin, glucose cannot enter the body's cells and remains in the bloodstream. Because it has no way of being removed, glucose accumulates in the bloodstream to abnormally high levels. As you will learn in future lessons, this high blood glucose can lead to health problems if not diagnosed and treated appropriately.

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