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Type 1 Diabetes: How It Works

Carrie Mccorkindale, MPH, RD, CDE
April 27, 2020
February 6, 2024

Balancing medications, and sticking to a daily exercise routine and nutrition plan are keys to manage type 1 diabetes. But managing type 1 diabetes can be tricky, especially if you don’t know how your body works and reacts. Here we will talk a little about some complex pathophysiology: how the body functions typically versus with Type 1 diabetes to help you understand the mechanism behind the disease.

Type 1 diabetes occurs as a result of immunologic, genetic and environmental factors that destroy the certain cells in your pancreas called beta cells. These beta cells make an important hormone called insulin. 

Insulin is responsible for moving the glucose in the blood to cells to provide the body with energy. Type 1 diabetes can occur at any age but the majority of patients that are diagnosed tend to be in their mid-teen-age years. There is not a single environmental factor that is known to cause this disease. 

In type 1 diabetes, the immune system mistakenly destroys the beta cells in your pancreas that make insulin. When enough beta cells are destroyed, the pancreas makes little or no insulin. People with type 1 diabetes must replace insulin with injections of insulin or an insulin pump. Without insulin, the blood glucose rises to higher than normal, called hyperglycemia.

Type 1 diabetes is less common than type 2 diabetes but has been increasing worldwide by 2-5%. Immunologic, genetic and environmental factors have been identified as potential causes of the rise.

Autoimmune Mechanism

It is thought that the body’s own immune system destroys the very own beta cells in the pancreas. The rate of decline of the beta cells producing insulin varies from person to person.

Genetic Considerations

The risk of developing type I diabetes is 10 times higher in the relatives of the individuals with this disease. It is interesting to note that differences in risk are also dependent on which parent has the illness. Children of Type I diabetic mothers have only a 2% risk of developing type 1, whereas children of afflicted fathers have a higher risk at 7%. 

Environmental Factors

Environmental factors, which have been studied are viruses, namely Rubella, Coxsackie viruses, Cytomegalovirus and Rotavirus. The effect of breastmilk,   cow’s milk and bovine milk intake as nutritional considerations have been studied also, however these studies have been difficult to replicate and are inconclusive. Free radicals due to the exposure to nitrosamine compounds can in turn cause diabetes. At this time, experimental studies on exposure and dietary intake remain inconclusive.

To prevent or delay the health problems associated with type 1 diabetes, it is important to manage blood glucose, blood pressure, and cholesterol, and follow a self-care plan provided by your doctor or diabetes educator.  At this time, type 1 diabetes can’t be prevented. However, researchers are working to identify possible ways to slow down the disease and improve health outcomes.

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