Skip to content
My WebMD Sign In, Sign Up

Diabetes Health Center

Font Size
A
A
A

Diabetes Basics

What is diabetes? What are the types of diabetes?

Diabetes is a number of diseases that involve problems with the hormone insulin. Normally, the pancreas (an organ behind the stomach) releases insulin to help your body store and use the sugar and fat from the food you eat. Diabetes occurs when one of the following occurs:

  • When the pancreas does not produce any insulin
  • When the pancreas produces very little insulin
  • When the body does not respond appropriately to insulin, a condition called "insulin resistance"

Diabetes is a lifelong disease. Approximately 18.2 million Americans have the disease and almost one third (or approximately 5.2 million) are unaware that they have it. An additional 41 million people have pre-diabetes. As yet, there is no cure. People with diabetes need to manage their disease to stay healthy.

Recommended Related to Diabetes

Diabetes Care: Managing Your Time When You Have Diabetes

Sometimes, living with diabetes can seem like a full-time job -- trying to keep up with everything you need to do for proper diabetes care. "Diabetes is a very time-consuming disease to manage well," says Karmeen Kulkarni, MS, RD, CDE, and former president of health care and education for the American Diabetes Association. "The medication, the food, the physical activity -- you add life in general to that whole picture and it ends up being quite challenging."

Read the Diabetes Care: Managing Your Time When You Have Diabetes article > >

The Role of Insulin in Diabetes

To understand why insulin is important in diabetes, it helps to know more about how the body uses food for energy. Your body is made up of millions of cells. To make energy, these cells need food in a very simple form. When you eat or drink, much of your food is broken down into a simple sugar called "glucose." Then, glucose is transported through the bloodstream to the cells of your body where it can be used to provide some of the energy your body needs for daily activities.

The amount of glucose in your bloodstream is tightly regulated by the hormone insulin. Insulin is always being released in small amounts by the pancreas. When the amount of glucose in your blood rises to a certain level, the pancreas will release more insulin to push more glucose into the cells. This causes the glucose levels in your blood (blood glucose levels) to drop.

To keep your blood glucose levels from getting too low (hypoglycemia or low blood sugar), your body signals you to eat and releases some glucose from storage kept in the liver.

People with diabetes either don't make insulin or their body's cells are resistant to insulin, leading to high levels of sugar circulating in the blood, called simply high blood sugar. By definition, diabetes is having a blood glucose level of 126 milligrams per deciliter (mg/dL) or more after an overnight fast (not eating anything).

Types of Diabetes

Type 1 Diabetes

Type 1 diabetes occurs because the insulin-producing cells of the pancreas (called beta cells) are destroyed by the immune system. People with type 1 diabetes produce no insulin and must use insulin injections to control their blood sugar.

Type 1 diabetes most commonly starts in people under the age of 20, but may occur at any age.

Type 2 Diabetes

Unlike people with type 1 diabetes, people with type 2 diabetes produce insulin. However, the insulin their pancreas secretes is either not enough or the body is resistant to the insulin. When there isn't enough insulin or the insulin is not used as it should be, glucose can't get into the body's cells.

WebMD Medical Reference

Is This Normal? Get the Facts Fast!

Check Your Blood Sugar Level Now
What type of diabetes do you have?
Your gender:

Get the latest Diabetes newsletter delivered to your inbox!


or
Answer:
Low
0-69
Normal
70-130
High
131+

Your level is currently

If the level is below 70 and you are experiencing symptoms such as shaking, sweating or difficulty thinking, you will need to raise the number immediately. A quick solution is to eat a few pieces of hard candy or 1 tablespoon of sugar or honey. Recheck your numbers again in 15 minutes to see if the number has gone up. If not, repeat the steps above or call your doctor.

People who experience hypoglycemia several times in a week should call their health care provider. It's important to monitor your levels each day so you can make sure your numbers are within the range. If you are pregnant always consult with your health care provider.

Congratulations on taking steps to manage your health.

However, it's important to continue to track your numbers so that you can make lifestyle changes if needed. If you are pregnant always consult with your physician.

Your level is high if this reading was taken before eating. Aim for 70-130 before meals and less than 180 two hours after meals.

Even if your number is high, it's not too late for you to take control of your health and lower your blood sugar.

One of the first steps is to monitor your levels each day. If you are pregnant always consult with your physician.

Did You Know Your Lifestyle Choices
Affect Your Blood Sugar?

Use the Blood Glucose Tracker to monitor
how well you manage your blood sugar over time.

Get Started

This tool is not intended for women who are pregnant.

Start Over

Step:  of 

Today on WebMD

Woman holding cake
Slideshow
feet
Slideshow
 
man organizing pills
Slideshow
Close up of eye
Slideshow
 

Woman serving fast food from window
Video
Can Vinegar Treat Diabetes
Video
 
Middle aged person
Tool
are battery operated toothbrushes really better
Video
 

Prediabetes How to Prevent Type 2 Diabetes
Article
type 2 diabetes
Slideshow
 
food fitness planner
Tool
Are You at Risk for Dupuytrens Contracture
Article
 

WebMD Special Sections