Living with Diabetes

Type 1 Diabetes Causes: What You Need to Know


Type 1 diabetes is a serious medical condition that interferes with the body's ability to absorb sugar out of the blood. If left untreated, it can cause severe symptoms and life-threatening complications. Unlike type 2 diabetes, type 1 is not caused by a person's diet or lifestyle, but is instead linked to problems with the immune system. Around 1.4 million Americans have type 1 diabetes, or 4% of all diabetes patients.

What Causes Type 1 Diabetes?

Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune disorder. When your immune system is functioning normally, it attacks viruses and bacteria to fight off illness and infection. With type 1 diabetes, it malfunctions and destroys healthy cells in the pancreas, called B-cells, that produce insulin. Eventually it destroys so many of these cells that the pancreas loses the ability to produce insulin at all.

The Role of Insulin

Insulin is a hormone that plays a key role in the healthy functioning of your metabolism. It helps cells in your body absorb glucose, or sugar, out of your blood and convert it into energy. At the same time, if you have more sugar in your blood than you need, it signals your liver to store the excess and release it when you need it, like between meals, helping keep your blood sugar levels balanced throughout the day.

When you lose the ability to produce insulin, you can no longer regulate your glucose levels, and sugar starts to accumulate in your bloodstream.

The Role of Glucose

When you eat food, your digestive system breaks down any carbohydrates into glucose, a simple sugar. The glucose enters your bloodstream where it can be absorbed by your cells and turned into energy.

Glucose is an important source of fuel for your body, but too much of it can be harmful. If it accumulates in your bloodstream and stays at a high level for too long, it can cause your arteries and veins to start hardening. This can lead to poor circulation throughout your body, damaging many other internal organs and body parts, including your heart, kidneys, eyes, immune system, skin, and feet.

Type 1 Risk Factors

Type 1 diabetes used to be called "juvenile diabetes," because it was thought to be a childhood disease. Even though we now know that people can develop type 1 diabetes at any age, it's still most common in children and young adults. Other risk factors for type 1 diabetes include family history; if you have a close family member like a parent or sibling with type 1 diabetes, you're more likely to develop it as well. Certain genes also increase your risk of developing type 1 diabetes.

Diabetes Type 1 Symptoms

Unlike type 2 diabetes which develops gradually, symptoms of type 1 diabetes tend to come on suddenly, and can become severe within weeks or even days. Symptoms can include:

  • Severe or frequent thirst
  • Extreme hunger
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Frequent Urination (or more frequent diaper changes or bedwetting in children)
  • Fatigue
  • Irritability or moodiness
  • Blurred vision
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Skin, urinary, or vaginal infections

Diagnosis of Type 1 Diabetes

Talk with your doctor right away if you or your child is experiencing symptoms of type 1 diabetes. There are several tests that can be used to diagnose type 1 diabetes by checking the person's glucose levels. These tests include a random blood sugar test, which measures glucose levels at a single point in time; glycated hemoglobin test (or A1C test), which measures average blood sugar levels over a 90-day period; and a fasting blood sugar test, which measures glucose levels after an overnight fast.

After these tests, you might be given additional tests to determine whether you have type 1 or type 2 diabetes.

Type 1 Diabetes Treatment

You can manage your type 1 diabetes and keep your blood sugar levels under control with medication and lifestyle changes. Treatment programs include:

Insulin

If you have type 1 diabetes, you will need to take artificial insulin every day, either through injection, or or with an insulin pump. You will also need to test your blood sugar regularly to monitor your glucose levels and calculate how much insulin you need that day.

Metformin

Metformin is an oral diabetes medication that can help manage blood sugar levels by improving your body's ability to use insulin. While it was previously prescribed to people with type 2 diabetes, it is now sometimes also used in type 1 diabetes treatment if the patient is experiencing insulin resistance.

Other Medications

If your diabetes has led to other health problems, like high blood pressure, or kidney disease, your doctor might prescribe additional medications to help manage those conditions.

Diet & Exercise

Counting carbs, eating a healthy diet, staying physically active, and managing stress can all help manage your diabetes and keep blood sugar levels under control. Exercise can lower blood sugar, so it's important to monitor your levels carefully and adjust your food intake or insulin dose to keep them balanced.

Curing Type 1 Diabetes

The Diabetes Research Institute is the best hope for a cure for type 1 diabetes. Scientists at the DRI are working to develop a biological cure that would restore the body's ability to produce insulin naturally. One approach involves a technique called islet transplantation, in which cells from a healthy pancreas are injected into someone with type 1 diabetes.

In studies, several patients who received this treatment were able to significantly reduce the amount of artificial insulin they needed, or stopped needing it altogether. Clinical trials are now underway to make a biological cure for type 1 diabetes available to the general public.

The Diabetes Research Institute Foundation's What is Diabetes? brochure has important information about type 1 diabetes, type 2 diabetes, and more.
Get more answers to your questions about type 1 diabetes, type 2 diabetes and gestational diabetes symptoms and treatments. (In Spanish: ¿Que es La Diabetes?).
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Diabetes Research Institute Foundation's Guide for School Personnel and Childcare Providers
Educate teachers, school personnel and other child care providers about taking care of your child with type 1 diabetes. 
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A Guide for School Personnel and Child Care Providers

Educate teachers, school personnel and other child care providers about taking care of your child with type 1 diabetes. Download this helpful guide now.