The ‘for dummies’ brand is a series of books which aims to make a plethora of topics more accessible for the average Joe. They present information in a logical format, breaking it down into meaningful parts which build on each other. For example, in my old job, I had to learn the database querying language SQL. I got myself a copy of SQL for Dummies, and found it very helpful in learning the basics of the language, and it is the closest that I have ever been to being proficient in another language. It’s a shame that the only thing it allowed me to communicate with was a database, rather than people from other countries. I didn’t achieve a level of proficiency where I was dreaming in SQL either, so I don’t think I ever crossed the threshold into being considered a ‘native’ speaker. Damn, did I query some databases, though.
I haven’t directly discussed diabetes too much in the blog so far. As I sat flirting with the idea of doing so, the thought came to me about the ‘for dummies’ book series, and how it would be fun to write one for diabetes. Well, lo and behold, they’ve already got several books on diabetes, including – ‘Type 1 Diabetes for Dummies’, ‘Diabetes for Dummies’ and even ‘Diabetes Meal Planning & Nutrition for Dummies’. They are prolific. If you are looking for a truly informative experience, I would highly recommend going for one of the official books. If you would like the Dan-ified, ‘woe is me, I had pancreatic cancer’ version, however, you’ve come to the right place. Pull up your socks, grab a drink of sugar-free water and let’s begin.
It’s always nice to start discussing a topic with a little anecdote, so let’s start there. Having diabetes could have won me some money, if I was a betting man. When I was younger, a few of my good friends decided to host a wager. All of them were eating a lot of chocolate and drinking a lot of sugary drinks at the time. In this coterie were two of my best friends, Luke and Dave. For example, Luke enjoyed buying 2 bottles of Lucozade at lunch (they were 2 for £1.50, or something like that) every day, and using that fluorescent orange liquid to help digest a Boost bar, which might be the sugariest chocolate snack on the market. This common habit of consuming an eye-watering amount of sugar every day led to a disagreement in the group. None of them could decide who was going to get diabetes first. To settle it, they all decided to pledge £20 each, and whoever got diabetes first would win all of the money.
If you’re now thinking that this isn’t very much money and it sounds a little stupid, you are correct. It is very stupid. I opted out, as I actually wanted to keep my money and not get diabetes. I hoped that any bad eating habits I had at that time were me living out my young years to the fullest before I was forced to follow a stricter diet due to my metabolism starting to give way to my age. Well, look how that turned out for me. I was indeed the first to get diabetes, and it was totally out of my control. The jury is still out on who is going to win their competition, but I’ll be the first to laugh when it does finally conclude. They’ll have to give the winnings straight to me to get an early edition of my book, ‘Living with Diabetes for Idiots Who Bet Against Their Own Health’, which I will be holding back on releasing until after their contest is concluded, so I can charge the winner an excessive price. It won’t be winning any Nobel Peace prizes, so I may as well hold onto it until then.
Let’s start with the basics… Insulin is a hormone which is produced in the pancreas by pancreatic beta cells. Easy, right? No, you’re right, I don’t really understand what that means either. Basically – cells in the pancreas create, store and release insulin. When the body detects that the level of glucose in the blood is increasing, the beta cells release insulin, which causes glucose to transfer from the blood to the cells in the body. The body’s cells need glucose for energy. If the glucose levels in the blood are too low, the subject experiences symptoms such as light-headedness, sweats and ‘jelly-legs’. If the glucose levels in the blood are too high, the effects are less severe in the short-term, but especially high glucose levels can lead to symptoms such as headaches, excessive thirst and even vomiting. In the long term, consistently having high blood-glucose levels can cause severe issues, though, such as blindness, and can result in limbs needing to be removed… Not fun.
Consuming carbohydrates causes blood glucose levels to increase, necessitating the release of hormones such as insulin, which then encourages the glucose to transfer from the blood and to the cells. How on earth healthy bodies manage to do this so seamlessly is totally beyond me. Only when you are manually managing your blood glucose levels do you realise what an absolute pain in the arse this process is. Nearly everything changes how the body processes carbohydrate – the temperature, how stressed you are, the amount of exercise you have been doing, whether you are ill, how many goals your favourite football team scored last night (that last one may be a joke, but if it increases the level of stress you are feeling, it might actually be applicable). Yet, healthy bodies just sort it out. I, however, am left trying to account for a million factors that I do not understand, whilst also trying to eat as much dessert as possible, and feeling forty times more bad about doing so because I know that it is just going to make my night harder, as my blood sugar peaks and troughs, causing the alarm to go off repeatedly on my phone, and waking me up every few hours. I’m complaining again, aren’t I? Sorry, back to the hard hitting facts (which are under-researched and prone to error).
Type 1 diabetics are reliant on insulin to moderate the glucose levels in their blood. Type 2 diabetics are not, but have to adjust their diet to help control it. There is also a little-known third category of diabetic who walk this earth – Type 3c. The NHS do not recognise this as a distinct category, so they are commonly lumped in with Type 1s, because both are reliant upon injecting insulin, due to the body not being able to naturally create it. The politically correct term for a person who relies on injecting insulin is ‘Insulin dependent’; this avoids offending anyone. I am actually a Type 3c diabetic myself, so I know how it feels to be part of this stigmatised community who are not recognised by the NHS, and who have no rights under The Geneva Convention of diabetes.
The difference between type 1 and type 3c diabetes is the following. Type 1 diabetes usually occurs due to an autoimmune reaction where the body identifies the insulin-creating cells in the pancreas as the enemy, and proceeds to attack them until they’re mostly dead, leaving the subject unable to create, store and release the hormone anymore. See all that praise I gave to the healthy body earlier for being able to regulate blood glucose levels so effectively? Well, guess how much praise the immune system is getting? Nada. Do your job and do it properly!
Type 3c diabetes, however, is caused by damage to the pancreas. In my case, that damage was done by removing the pancreas entirely, so I would say that the definition doesn’t really go far enough to cover what occurred; sort of like an individual claiming that they will paint your walls, but then proceeding to plant explosives in cans of paint all around your house, and detonating them all at once, ensuring that paint did indeed go on the walls, but failing to mention that those walls would no longer be standing. You feel a little hard-done by re-reading the definition, and you wonder if it does justice to the events. Anyway, I digress.
If you’re wondering what Type 3 diabetes is (without the ‘c’), I truly have no idea. I’ve tried to read about it before, but it seems to be touted as an early sign of alzheimer’s, although I’m not sure if that is proven or just a theory. None of it makes much sense to me. Does it mean that I am likely to develop alzheimer’s disease at a statistically early age? I have no idea. Let’s hope not. This blog has already shown my proclivity to focus on the negative, so I could do with less things to worry about if possible, not more. Thanks.
So, what does it mean, having to regulate the body’s blood glucose levels yourself? These days, there is some pretty incredible technology around to help. I have a circular device in my arm called a Dexcom which monitors my blood glucose levels. This type of system is called a Continuous Glucose Monitor (CGM) system, as it continuously sends readings to an app on your smart device. If my blood glucose levels are going too high or too low, it sends out an alarming (and sometimes embarrassing) noise to warn me, allowing me to correct it by either injecting insulin (if it is too high) or consuming sugar (if it is too low). Sugary drinks are the best way to get the blood sugar up again, as it reaches the bloodstream quicker in this form. Sweets like jelly babies and fruit pastels are good too. Anything that only contains sugar is best, as if it also contains a lot of protein and/or fat, it will take longer to break down and extract the sugar. The same applies to starchy carbohydrates, like potatoes and bread. Although these things contain sugar in the form of carbohydrate, it is processed in a different way to less complex carbohydrates, as the sugar is mostly extracted in the small intestine, rather than during digestion in the stomach.
The game of keeping your blood sugar in the correct zone is akin to playing the old game Flappy Bird on your iPhone. If you don’t know, Flappy Bird was a game released on the App Store in 2014. It took the world by storm, and everyone was obsessed with it. The objective was simple – you are a bird, and when you tap the screen you flap your wings, causing you to rise slightly. If you didn’t tap, you fell again. In the game, you were flying along horizontally, and there were various green pipes that would appear from the top and bottom of the screen, so you would have to either tap the screen the right amount of times to fly over the pipes, or moderate your tapping to dip below them, depending on which part of the screen they were appearing in. Well, with your CGM, you are essentially doing this, but instead of it being a fun game, it is integral to your health (it is a little bit fun in a strange way, though).
Keeping your glucose levels between 4 and 7 is considered ‘perfect’ control, if you can keep it there. My 90 day average, according to my Dexcom app, is 7.7, which I’m very happy with. I’ve heard some people say that they strive for an average of around 10, and others who try to keep it in the ‘perfect’ range. I believe if your average is as high as 12, that is where you may face problems in the medium-long term. I try not to read about it too often, but I believe it is in this region where blindness can become an issue, as the blood vessels in the eyes are very delicate, and having high levels of glucose in the blood can damage them.
Different people feel the lows at slightly different numbers. Personally, I don’t start actually feeling any effects until I’m as low as 3. Some people are quite sensitive to them I believe, and will feel off as soon as it hits 4. On the few occasions that I’ve not had a CGM device in, and I’ve had to test my finger to manage my insulin levels, I would start feeling light-headed, prick my finger and wipe the blood on the testing strip in the small glucose-reading device then, to my horror, find out my glucose level is at 2.7. It has shocked me a little bit, as I rarely see my levels go that low, and I start getting paranoid that any second I’ll pass out. But I’ve never had an event where I’ve gone unconscious, and will aim to keep it that way for as long as possible, if not for my entire life.
Low blood sugar is particularly dangerous, as it leads to the patient passing out far easier than the blood levels being high, as far as I am aware. This occurs due to the cells in the body not having enough energy. The opposite, where your blood sugar is very high, can also lead to the subject going unconscious, which I didn’t even realise until recently; I thought you could only go unconscious from low levels, but apparently if it gets very high, you can pass out from dehydration. The more you know, the more you wish you didn’t have to…
It is worth knowing the symptoms of low or high blood sugar, as it may help you save someone’s life. Low blood sugar can lead an individual to seem drunk – they will appear drowsy, shaky, weak, sweating, and may struggle to speak. High blood sugar is a little different and probably harder to tell from any external physical symptoms – the patient may feel the need to drink a lot, feel tired, get headaches, experience nausea and vomiting, and develop stomach pains. Quick action is essential if someone falls into a diabetic coma, or is on the verge of falling into one. That is why you should take it seriously if you see someone who looks visibly impaired in public, and not simply dismiss them as a drunken idiot. Pay attention to their wrist and see if they have any sort of medical band on, which identifies them as having diabetes. Falling into a diabetic coma is very dangerous for someone with diabetes, and will result in death if it is not urgently treated. Knowing these things can save someone’s life. If they are still awake enough, encourage them to drink something sugary, like fruit juice or Coke. Make them drink about 100 – 150ml of the liquid, that should be sufficient. If they are already unconscious, call an ambulance immediately.
Anyway, back to the less serious stuff. My new favourite pastime since becoming a Danabetic is finding low sugar drinks that I can enjoy, that are not full of total crap. When you look on the side of a Coke Zero can and it claims that it has 0 of anything in it, you have a right to be suspicious. Trip is a good brand, and has the added benefit of containing CBD. The Elderflower Mint flavour is amazing, but I cannot taste an iota of elderflower in it; it is all mint, which is fine with me. Another good brand is Punchy, who do a Blood Orange, Bitters and Cardamom flavour which is TO DIE FOR. Blood orange is so underrated as a flavour.
I also enjoy Kombucha drinks, and they are usually very low sugar too, but I’d say it is a more controversial flavour, and one that some people really despise. I used to despise it, but then my life got flipped-turned upside down a la Prince of Bel-Air, and low sugar drinks became more of a prerogative to me, so I forced myself to try it more. Lo Bro’s Passionfruit flavour is a good one, if you are looking to get into kombucha. It is quite vinegary, which doesn’t sound appealing, I know, but it’s very good for you, and the perfect drink if you are northern and want an excuse to drink vinegar.
None of these drinks are particularly cheap, I know, but considering I hardly drink alcohol anymore, and they are all low sugar, I think it is worth it. If you are trying to reduce the amount of alcohol you are drinking, or just want some exotic drinks to dive into in the evening, I’d recommend all of the above. Now, one last point, then I’ll wrap this up.
Since being diabetic, I have felt more of an affiliation with mothers who have to breastfeed in public. Stay with me… On the tube, I occasionally have to inject insulin due to my blood sugar going high. I’ve done this a few times on the way into work, when the train is absolutely rammed and I barely have enough room to maneuver the pen into my stomach. Usually, as I pull the pen out of my bag and attach a needle to it, I see people inquisically trying to watch, whilst also trying not to seem rude. Sometimes, they don’t care about seeming rude at all, and they just stare at me, trying to figure out what I am doing. One time, a little girl who was sitting next to me asked me what I was doing. I told her that I was diabetic, and that I had to inject insulin to keep me alive. Her dad then apologised to me and told her to leave me be, but I actually found the whole interaction quite sweet.
It makes me think of mothers having to breastfeed in public, and how they also probably monitor the reaction of those around them. I am also aware it isn’t actually akin to the experience, and that the act of breastfeeding your child is a far more intimate act than shoving a needle into your belly, but you know, I am one step closer to knowing what it feels like. I stand with you, breastfeeding mothers in public, and know exactly what you go through every day. We should link up and start an advocacy group – I don’t mind being president and mansplaining our grieves to anyone who will listen. Consider this my application.
So, there is volume one of Diabetes for Dummies. Hopefully you’ve learnt something and, if not, well done, you know a lot about diabetes already, and probably listened much more attentively in Science than I did. I’m coming up to my 1 year anniversary since being diagnosed, and feel like I’ve come a long way in that time. Initially, I found it all really hard and scary to get to grips with, but it does start to get much easier. You become more confident in your decisions, and more in control of the overall situation. I could write another 400 posts about the lack of support for those first few months, but I’ll save that for my next release, ‘Fighting Diabetic Authority for Dummies’.