Anyone with diabetes has been faced with inane questions, uninformed proclamations, and blatant falsehoods at some point in their lives — and probably often. Most people are well meaning but misinformed, and a few are simply inconsiderate. Either way, there’s a lot of misinformation out there about the disease, and these misunderstandings only make it harder for those of us with diabetes to manage it, and harder for our friends and family to be a caring support team.
Part of the problem is that you’d never know from looking at me that I have to work hard every day not remain not only healthy, but upright and functioning. Because diabetes is an “invisible” disease and widely misunderstood, even stigmatized, many of us find it easier to keep quiet about the constant challenges of managing diabetes — but that doesn’t help our friends learn about this part of our lives.
In honor of National Diabetes Awareness Month, I want to share some of the things I wish everyone knew about diabetes.
1. No, I Didn’t Overdose on Sugar
Researchers aren’t exactly sure of all the factors that go into developing Type 1 Diabetes, but one thing we do know is that nothing you eat can give you diabetes. While obesity and an unhealthy diet can be risk factors for Type 2 Diabetes (although plenty of people with Type 2 eat well and maintain a healthy weight), Type 1 Diabetes is a genetic autoimmune disease where the body attacks its own pancreas and destroys the insulin-producing cells there.
There has been some interesting research lately linking the disease to environmental factors that may play a role in activating a genetic predisposition, including exposure to common viruses or the wrong mix of gut bacteria. No matter the reason, it’s clear that T1D is nobody’s fault. Some of us just drew the insulin short straw.
2. But I Can Still Eat It
People with diabetes can eat everything that you can eat, we just have to pay careful attention to balance out our blood sugar levels. Sure, it can be unhealthy to overload on sugar or heavy carbs — and any doctor would say the same for a healthy, diabetes-free patient. I’m careful to eat well to keep my glucose levels even, but I can still have the occasional treat… I just have to proceed with caution! I know what I’m getting myself into, and I know I need to prepare myself mentally for the ups and downs, discomfort and mood swings. I even give my close friends and family a heads up about what’s to come!
Unless someone has specifically asked you to help them monitor their health, it’s usually best to steer clear of commenting on their diet — your concern can easily come off as unwelcome nagging or policing. Believe me, it can get embarrassing to order ‘vodka & diet coke’ when everyone else grabs a beer! It’s not because I’m calorie-counting, it’s just that I know my body and my management plan better than anyone, and I know what is right for me. If I treat myself, you can be sure I’m carefully compensating with adjusted insulin levels, exercise, and the rest of my diet. And sometimes, I need a slice of chocolate lava cake just like anyone else!
3. Discipline Doesn’t Cut It
No matter how careful I am, I’ll still have rough days. Even if I follow my diet, exercise, and dosing plan to a T, there are a million other factors that play into glucose levels and cause them to swing unpredictably — stress, excitement, hormone changes, growth, a common cold, even the weather! That’s why, despite constant planning and monitoring…
4. There’s No Such Thing as “Controlling” or Curing Diabetes T1
Even the most perfect medical plan and flawless execution won’t guarantee that you’re never at risk for life-threatening blood sugar imbalances. There’s no controlling the disease — there’s only managing it.
With diabetes, there are no days off. It’s a 24/7 job, 365 days of the year. I’ve been managing the disease since I was eight years old, and there will never be day when I am not dependant on insulin to stay alive.
Luckily, that doesn’t mean that diabetes controls my life. I work hard to be able to do all the things I want to do and lead a rich and exciting life.
5. I Can Still Play Sports and Be Active — Actually, I’m Great at It!
I see false information all over the place saying that people with diabetes can’t handle strenuous exercise because working out requires your body to burn through glucose at a faster rate. It does take a little extra planning, but any athlete knows that success and health are based on paying attention to your body and being careful to give it what it needs to support you by hydrating and keeping your sugars up.
In fact, exercise is an important part of a healthy lifestyle for anyone with diabetes, just as it is for those without. Just ask fellow Type 1 Diabetes swimmer Gary Hall and his 10 Olympic medals, or check out my interview with intense personal trainer Ty Cucarola. I’m still amazed that Jay Cutler, the quarterback for the Chicago Bears, made it to the pro NFL level while managing Type 1, but it just goes to show!
6. Diabetes Isn’t a “Mild” Disease
Both Type 1 and Type 2 are very serious diseases that can have a huge impact on your life. Besides the constant risk of hypoglycemia or hyperglycemia (too much or too little insulin can send you to the ER in a flash), diabetes is associated with many long term risks. Unfortunately, the disease makes me considerably more likely to suffer heart disease, stroke, kidney failure, and gum disease. If improperly treated, diabetes can also lead to nerve damage, coma, blindness and, in extreme cases, even amputation.
There is no such thing as a “mild” form of the disease, nor are these complications easily avoided with diet.
7. It Can Take a Toll
I’ve never let my diabetes hold me back. Despite everything we can do, however, diabetes can take a real emotional toll for many. The daily stress of constant disease management can be overwhelming and isolating. Sadly, people with diabetes are 3 to 4 times more likely to struggle with depression than the rest of the population, putting them at risk for dangerous diabetic burnout.
I’ve been lucky to have the support of my family and friends and to have developed a management system that works for me, but it never hurts to have more people on your team. It’s always good to keep people nearby who can recognize the signs of blood sugar swings without you having to tell them — they can be a real lifesaver (figuratively and literally) in social settings or when you are out unprepared. If you love someone with diabetes, make sure they know they have your support!