There are currently 3.8 million people living with a diabetes diagnosis in the UK; 90% of which have type 2. Diabetes UK also predicts that there are a further one million people living with diabetes who are yet to be diagnosed.
Uncontrolled diabetes can come with some serious complications, such as eye problems, nerve damage, and an increased risk of heart attack or stroke. So, it’s important that it doesn’t go unchecked and untreated.
While this can sound scary, it’s important to remember that diabetes isn’t a death sentence. It’s possible to live a long and healthy life with the condition if it’s controlled well. There are also a number of things that can be done to prevent and even reverse it.
Here, we’ll take a closer look at what type 2 diabetes is, what the warning signs are, and how you can reduce your risk of developing it.
What is type 2 diabetes?
Type 2 diabetes is a common condition that affects 1 in 10 people over 40 in the UK (Diabetes UK).
Those with the condition are either producing insulin but are unable to use it effectively, or do not make enough insulin. Insulin is a hormone that’s made in the pancreas. It acts like a key to allow carbohydrates that we get from food and drink (which are broken down into glucose) to move into our cells, where they can be used as energy or stored as fat.
When insulin is not being used by the body properly, blood sugar levels can continue to rise until they become too high (hyperglycemia). If blood sugar levels remain high for long periods of time, then blood vessels can become damaged, which can lead to some serious health complications. The areas of the body most affected by these complications are often your heart, eyes, feet, and kidneys.
Type 2 diabetes differs from type 1 diabetes because type 1 is usually caused by an autoimmune reaction where the body attacks itself by mistake – destroying the cells in the pancreas that make insulin. It often runs in families and is usually diagnosed before the age of 40.
What are the warning signs of type 2 diabetes?
Symptoms of type 2 diabetes might not always make you feel unwell, which is why many people can live with it for many years without realising.
However, if you have type 2 diabetes you might find that you:
- Are peeing more frequently, especially at night
- Struggle to satisfy your thirst, and feel thirsty all the time
- Have a dry mouth
- Feel very tired
- Have unexplained weight loss
- Experience blurred vision
- Take longer to heal when you cut yourself
- Get regular bouts of thrush and/or itching in your penis or vagina
- Experience nerve pain or numbness in your hands and feet
- Have dark patches on your armpits, neck, and groin areas (this is known as acanthosis nigricans and is caused by excess insulin in the blood)
- Feel irritable, anxious, or worried
It’s important to visit your GP if you are experiencing any of these symptoms, as the earlier that diabetes is diagnosed and controlled, the lower your risk of developing long-term health complications will be.
Health complications of type 2 diabetes can include:
- Heart attack and stroke due to damaged blood vessels
- Foot problems due to poor circulation and nerve damage
- Kidney damage and/or disease
- Gum disease (more sugar in your blood means more sugar in your saliva)
- The development of certain cancers
- Sexual problems in men and women due to restricted blood flow to sexual organs
- Vision loss due to damage to blood vessels in the eyes
To learn more about the health complications of type 2 diabetes, it’s worth having a read of this page from Diabetes UK.
How is type 2 diabetes diagnosed?
Type 2 diabetes can be easily diagnosed with a blood or urine test, which can be done at your GP surgery or local health centre. Alternatively, you could pay a fee to do a test at home using an online blood testing service, such as Thriva. Once you send off your sample in the post, you should receive your results within 48 hours – along with a report from a doctor. If your blood sugar levels are raised, then you will be advised to discuss the results with your regular GP.
If you do have diabetes, then your GP will talk to you about the best ways to control it. This is usually through medication, insulin therapy, and/or lifestyle changes. You’ll also be required to monitor your blood sugar levels at home and to attend regular checkups with a doctor or nurse, to make sure that everything is under control.
To find out more about what happens after a type 2 diabetes diagnosis, you might want to visit the NHS website. Or if you’ve recently been diagnosed then this page from Diabetes UK on how to cope could be helpful.
What is prediabetes?
If you have a blood test and your blood sugar levels are high, but not high enough for your doctor to diagnose you with type 2 diabetes, then this is referred to as ‘prediabetes’ or ‘borderline diabetes’.
Prediabetes is an important stage in the development of diabetes, and by making some positive lifestyle choices, it’s possible to lower blood sugar levels and avoid type 2 diabetes altogether.
To learn more about what a typical healthy blood sugar level should be, have a read of this advice from the NHS. Though it’s important to note that how blood sugar levels can be interpreted differently based on a person’s individual circumstances. Your doctor will confirm what your own blood sugar levels should be.
Could I be at risk of developing type 2 diabetes?
As well as looking out for warning signs of type 2 diabetes, it’s also important to know your risk – so you can be more proactive in taking control of your lifestyle.
According to Diabetes UK, your risk of developing type 2 diabetes increases if you:
- Are overweight or obese (particularly if you are carrying a lot of extra weight around your middle). Obesity is thought to account for 80-85% of the risk of developing type 2 diabetes.
- Are white and over the age of 40, or are Black African, African-Caribbean, or South Asian and over the age of 25.
- Are a man between the ages of 35-54 (twice as likely as women).
- Have a parent, sister, brother, or child with diabetes (two to six times more likely).
- Have Black African, African-Caribbean, or South Asian heritage (two to four times more likely).
- Have a history of high blood pressure.
If you want to find out your individual risk of developing type 2 diabetes, then you can do so in just a few minutes using the handy tool on the Diabetes UK website. You’ll need to know your height, weight, and waist size before you get started.
How can I reduce my risk of developing type 2 diabetes?
It’s estimated that there are 13.6 million people at an increased risk of developing type 2 diabetes in the UK today (Diabetes UK).
If you think or know that you are at risk of developing type 2 diabetes, then there are some things you can do to reduce this risk. Diabetes UK has highlighted that more than half of all type 2 diabetes cases could have been prevented.
The main ways you can reduce your risk of developing type 2 diabetes are to:
1. Make positive changes to your diet
While it might seem obvious, eating a healthy balanced diet is one of the best things you can do to maintain a healthy weight and improve your overall health. Within this area, the following smaller steps can be particularly beneficial:
- Reduce your intake of simple sugars and refined carbs – as these can contribute to weight gain. Simple sugars are also rapidly turned into glucose and absorbed into the bloodstream, causing blood sugar levels to rise quickly.
One of the best ways to reduce your intake of simple sugars and refined carbs is to skip processed foods – as these are often high in fat, sugar, and empty calories – and eat more natural and whole foods instead.
If you have a sweet tooth and want some tips on how to cut down your sugar intake, then it’s worth reading this advice from the NHS here.
- Eat smaller more frequent meals, rather than one or two huge meals – as this can help to regulate blood sugar levels. A study of prediabetic men found that those who are smaller portion sizes and adopted other healthy nutrition changes were 46% less likely to develop diabetes than men who made no changes to their eating habits.
For advice on suggested portion sizes, check out this advice from The UK Association of UK Dietitians (BDA).
- Drink more water. Not only is water carbohydrate and calorie-free, but staying hydrated can also help to rid your body of excess glucose through your urine. The NHS recommends that we drink 6 to 8 cups of fluid a day, with water being a top choice.
If you’re struggling to get your water intake up, then you could consider investing in a water bottle with time markings to remind you to drink.
Consider following a low-carb diet. Following a low-carb diet can be a good way to keep blood sugar levels low and stable, because carbohydrates raise blood sugar levels more than any other food. Check out our article, 8 tasty and filling low carb meals for some ideas and inspiration.
- Eat more fibre. Increasing your fibre intake can not only help you to maintain a healthy weight, but it can also help to reduce your blood cholesterol and improve your gut health.
The Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition (SACN) advises that adults should eat 30g of fibre a day – yet most only eat 19g a day. For tips on increasing your fibre intake, have a read of this article on 7 easy ways to add more fibre to your diet from the British Heart Foundation.
Make sure you get enough vitamin D. Studies have shown that vitamin D can help to lower blood sugar levels and prevent type 2 diabetes. Our article, What is vitamin D and why do we need it to stay healthy? explains how to make sure you’re getting enough.
- Cut down on alcohol. Heavy drinking can interfere with blood sugar control and lead to weight gain, which can increase the risk of developing type 2 diabetes. Diabetes UK advises that the safest way to enjoy a drink and keep your risk of developing type 2 diabetes to a minimum, is to stick to the NHS guidelines.
There are plenty more healthy diet tips on the diet and nutrition section of our site.
2. Be more active
Exercise can help to reduce your risk of developing type 2 diabetes in multiple ways. For example, not only can it help you to maintain a healthy weight – but it can also increase the body’s sensitivity to insulin, so it can use it more effectively (which helps to keep blood sugar levels stable). Plus, studies have shown that as well as helping to prevent diabetes, it can also help to reverse it.
If you want to start taking small steps towards being more active, then it’s worth having a read of our article; 17 creative ways to increase your daily step count. Or for more fitness ideas and inspiration, why not take a look at our articles, 5 steps to staying fit from home, and 10 different sports and activities to try?
3. Get support to lose weight if you need it
Being overweight or obese is one of the main risk factors for diabetes – and the NHS recommends that you consider losing weight if your BMI is 25 or over. It also recommends losing weight (regardless of your BMI) if your waist size is 94cm (37ins) or more for men, or 80cm (31.5 ins) for women.
However, while we all know that eating a healthy diet and moving more can is good for us, sometimes it can be easier said than done – especially if you have a lot of weight to lose. But, there’s nothing wrong with reaching out for extra support if you’re struggling to lose weight alone.
You could consider joining a weight loss support group, like Slimming World – you can find your nearest group by using this handy tool on the NHS website. Your GP can also be a source of support and will be able to advise you on the best way to lose weight based on your individual health needs.
Alternatively, you could ask friends and family for help – perhaps by asking them to exercise with you and/or support you in making healthy meal choices.
4. Quit smoking
Health experts believe that smoking may be responsible for 360,000 cases of type 2 diabetes in the UK, and is now considered to be an independent risk factor. The risk of developing type 2 diabetes if you’re a smoker increases with the number of cigarettes you smoke.
One large study showed that women who smoked more than 40 cigarettes a day were 74% more likely to develop diabetes, while men had a 45% increased risk.
The reason for this risk is that nicotine in cigarettes can make the body less sensitive to insulin, which affects how well it’s able to use it. This causes both glucose and insulin levels to rise, which can develop into type 2 diabetes over time.
If you want to give up smoking, but are concerned about how you might do this, then it’s worth having a chat with your GP, who will be able to advise you on the best way to do this. It’s also worth having a read of these 10 self-help tips to stop smoking from the NHS. You might also find some additional tips in our article, 8 tips on how to break negative habits and develop positive ones.
Considering our risk of developing certain health conditions can be daunting. But it can also be an important first step in making some positive lifestyle changes and taking control of our health.
If you’re aware that you need to make lots of changes to your lifestyle and you’re feeling overwhelmed, then it can help to start small. Often small changes can come together to make a big difference, and will be more sustainable in the long run.
It’s also key to be kind to yourself when working on improving your health. Try to avoid being too hard on yourself about lifestyle choices you might have made in the past, and stay focussed only on what you can do to improve your health – both now and in the future. Also, remember to give yourself credit for any positive changes that you do make; however small they might seem.
For more information, support, and advice on everything diabetes-related, you can visit the Diabetes UK website.
Have you lowered your risk of developing type 2 diabetes? Or are you planning to make some lifestyle changes to lower your risk? We’d be interested to hear from you. Join the conversation on the health section of the community forum, or leave a comment below.