Eight things your friend with diabetes wants you to know

As someone with diabetes, I’m often asked questions about what that means and what it’s like to live with. While it’s a complicated condition, I’m always happy to talk about it because the more people understand, the easier it is for them to help out when needed. Below are eight things everyone should know about type 1 diabetes. 

Once you understand a little bit about diabetes, there are many things you can do to help your friends, colleagues or family members who live with it, just like me.

Around 140,000 Australians live with type 1 diabetes. Around six people are diagnosed with the condition every day, many of them are children. 

Here are eight things everyone should know:  

1. I’m normal

Surprise, surprise! I don’t look sick, and you can’t tell from the outside (aside from my scarred fingers, bruises on my stomach and needles in my handbag) that I have type 1 diabetes.

I can do the same things as everybody else, I just have to approach things a little differently to make sure my blood glucose (a type of sugar) remains in a normal range. Blood glucose levels, also referred to as blood sugar levels, are pretty much exactly as it sounds – the amount of glucose present in someone’s blood.

In people with type 1 diabetes, their body produces either too little or no insulin, which means their blood glucose levels aren’t regulated correctly. Glucose levels that are too high or too low can be dangerous. 

2. It’s not because I ate too much sugar as a kid

The cause of type 1 diabetes is unknown. What is known is that it’s not due to lifestyle factors and it can’t be prevented… so stop asking me if it’s because my mum fed me (or I stole) one too many pieces of cake as a kid!

3. There’s a difference between type 1, type 2 and gestational diabetes

Type 2 diabetes is the most common form, and receives the most media attention, as a person’s weight or lifestyle can increase the risk of developing it. There are certain things you can do to help prevent type 2 diabetes – like maintaining a healthy (low sugar, low fat) diet and doing regular exercise. But type 1 diabetes and gestational diabetes are quite different.

So, what is type 1 diabetes? It’s an auto-immune condition where the cells in the pancreas that produce insulin have been mistakenly attacked and destroyed by the body. Insulin is a hormone that the body produces to regulate glucose levels. People with type 1 diabetes like myself need daily insulin injections to replace the insulin that the body can’t produce.

Gestational diabetes is diabetes that can be triggered by pregnancy. To find out more, visit Diabetes Australia.
Child eating a cupcake

4. It’s serious, it’s difficult, and for me, it can be scary

It’s a complex condition and can be very challenging to manage. There’s a fine balance when it comes to keeping my blood glucose level in a safe range. If I take an unplanned light walk during my lunch break, it could throw a spanner in the works for my glucose level for the rest of my day.

The symptoms are different for each person but for low blood glucose levels they can include shaking, trembling or weakness, slurred speech, sweating, paleness, and changes in behavior. If it’s left untreated it can result in losing consciousness and seizures. If my blood glucose level is too low it means my brain is starved of energy and I can’t think properly, I’m more likely to lose my balance and hurt myself. It may sound ridiculous to you, but the fear of having low blood glucose with no source of sugar nearby is really scary. I’m constantly thinking about where my nearest source of sugar is and how I’m going to get it if I need it.

For me personally, if my glucose levels are too high, I can experience blurred vision, tiredness, headaches, changes in mood and behavior and/or difficulty making decisions. The worst part is, it can take a while to start feeling better again. 

Blood glucose levels outside of the normal range over a long time can lead to serious long-term complications including eye, kidney and cardiovascular disease, nerve damage and premature death. Like having type 1 diabetes wasn’t bad enough! Not to mention that it takes longer for me to get over a common cold compared to most people, and things like small cuts can take longer to heal.

5. I can eat what you eat (if I’m careful)

“Can you eat that? Can you drink that?” I get asked this regularly. And the answer is yes! Well, most of the time.

For someone with diabetes, food and insulin is a bit like a maths equation. I need to make sure that I match the amount of glucose I take in with an appropriate level of insulin. If I get the equation wrong, it can result in blood glucose levels that are too high or too low.

So, I can eat food with high or low levels of carbohydrates (that get broken down to glucose), I just have to make sure I’m administrating enough insulin to support the food that I’m eating. 

6. I test my blood regularly so I can control my glucose level

People often think I’m a ‘bad diabetic’ because they see me testing my blood glucose levels so regularly, when in fact, that’s not the case. It’s as simple as: the more I know, the more controlled I can be. I find frequently testing my blood glucose level helps me to make more informed decisions and have better control of my diabetes.

7. It’s not ‘lucky’ that I sometimes NEED to eat sugar

Sugar is my medicine. I don’t get to plan when I need sugar, it usually happens when I don’t want it. Sugar is as important to someone with type 1 diabetes as an asthma pump is for someone with asthma. So, stop eating my lollies and drinking my lemonade! 

When my blood glucose level is low (formally called hypoglycaemia) I urgently need sugar to increase my blood glucose level to a normal range. Some common causes of hypoglycaemia include exercise, alcohol, administering too much insulin or not eating enough. Sometimes ‘needing’ to consume sugar is great, but on a bad day, after my fourth or fifth lemonade, I’m really hating it. Especially if I’ve woken up overnight with low glucose levels and I have to skull a lemonade at 3am.

8. I need your help

Having supportive and informed people around me makes life a lot easier. My support network is everything to me and without them, some of my past low or high blood glucose levels could have become extremely dangerous. It really helps to have people there to check in that I’m OK, especially when I don’t realise that I’m not.

If you have friends or family members who have diabetes, try to be understanding of their needs. Look after them if they’re recovering from an episode of high or low glucose, make sure they’re safe and that they’re getting the food or drink they need. It can make managing a seriously challenging condition just that little bit easier. 

There’s never a moment in the day when I’m not subconsciously thinking about my blood glucose level and what I’m going to eat or drink next… or what exercise I’m going to do… or where my closest source of sugar or insulin is. If my behavior seems unusual or I don’t seem well, don’t be afraid to ask me if I’m ok and please help me get sugar if my level is low. 

People with diabetes can’t operate normally when our glucose levels are at either extreme and just understanding that will help make a world of difference.
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