By now, you probably know a
lot about diabetes. You know you have to take shots, test your blood,
and watch what you eat. But did you ever wonder what causes diabetes? Or
how long it has been around?
What Exactly Is Diabetes?
The foods we eat are broken down, absorbed into the bloodstream, and
then used by the body for energy. Insulin is the chemical the body makes
to help convert sugar in the blood into energy. Insulin is made in the
pancreas, a long, skinny gland that sits behind your stomach.
You probably have a type of
diabetes called Type 1 or insulin-dependent diabetes, which usually
develops in childhood. In people with this type of diabetes, the body no
longer makes enough insulin to do a good job of breaking down sugar in
the blood. That's why all people with Type 1 diabetes have to take at
least one shot of insulin every day just to stay alive.
Scientists aren't sure
exactly why Type 1 diabetes happens, but they know it has something to
do with the immune system, the mechanism in the body that fights off
colds and infections. For some reason, in certain people, the immune
system screws up and begins attacking and destroying the body's own
cells: those of the pancreas that make insulin.
When enough of these cells
are destroyed, and the pancreas can no longer make enough insulin to
break down the sugar in the blood, the symptoms of diabetes begin to
appear. See if you remember having any of them:
because the body is trying to get rid of excess sugar.
Strong thirst, because
the body wants to replace all the fluid lost through the urine.
Strong hunger and weight
loss, since without insulin to help use the food you eat, the body
begins to starve.
Diabetes has been around a very long time. There was a prescription for
frequent urination, its most common symptom, on an Egyptian papyrus
dating back to 1500 B.C.
Much later, in 100 A.D., the
Greek physician Aretaeus of Cappadocia first named the condition
"diabetes," which is Greek for "siphon," since
people with diabetes urinated so often.
In 1889, two medical
researchers in Europe, J. von Mering and O. Minowski, removed the
pancreas of a dog to see what would happen. The dog began to urinate a
lot, and the researchers noticed there were flies swarming around the
pools of urine. When they tested the urine and discovered that it
contained sugar, they realized the dog had developed diabetes. Now they
knew that diabetes was a disease of the pancreas.
Until this century, the only
way doctors had to treat diabetes was through diet. Aretaeus of
Cappadocia prescribed a diet of milk, gruel, cereal, and wine. Other
doctors throughout history tried a strict meat diet, and still others
tried a diet high in fat. These diets didn't help, of course. People
with Type 1 diabetes usually only lived a few months after they
Then, in 1921, in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, something happened that
would change the lives of people with diabetes forever. Dr. Frederick G.
Banting and a medical student, Charles H. Best, took fluid from animal
pancreases, purified it, and injected it into Leonard Thompson, an
11-year-old boy suffering from severe diabetes. Leonard was barely alive
and weighed only 75 pounds.
But after injections of the
fluid, his blood sugar levels went down, he was able to eat a more
normal diet, he gained weight, and he lived to be an adult. The magic
ingredient in that fluid was—you guessed it!—insulin.
Unfortunately, as people
with diabetes started living longer, doctors noticed that they tended to
develop diseases of the eyes, kidneys, nerves, and blood vessels.
Doctors began to suspect that these problems might be due to high levels
of sugar in the blood, so better ways of testing the sugar levels were
In the early 1980s, more and
more people started testing the amount of sugar in their own blood,
known as the blood glucose level. And now doctors say you should check
several times every day.
It's not much fun, but
testing blood sugar helps you make changes in your insulin dose, the
amount of food you eat, and the exercise you get in order to keep the
blood sugar level as close to normal as possible.
In 1993, an important
scientific study called the Diabetes Control and Complications Trial, or
"DCCT," proved beyond a shadow of a doubt how important it is
to control your blood sugar levels. This way, people with diabetes can
decrease their chances of developing eye, kidney, and nerve problems.
Scientists are now testing whether giving insulin injections or a pill
might keep people from getting diabetes, at least for a little while.
Scientists are convinced that some day in the future a treatment can be
used to vaccinate all children against diabetes.
Since 1971, scientists have
been trying to create an artificial pancreas to try to cure diabetes in
people who already have it. With an artificial pancreas, a person with
diabetes could have controlled blood sugars without having to inject
insulin. The artificial pancreas is still years away, but scientists are
confident that it will happen.