Your guide to detection, education and support this Diabetes Awareness Month.
For most people, morning rituals include brewing a cup of coffee and turning on the news or scrolling through social media to wake up before the start of a busy day. But those with diabetes need to have a more purposeful approach. Upon the alarm clock ringing, they must check their blood sugar levels almost immediately. Shortly after, they have to prepare a well-balanced meal to make sure they maintain their levels for the rest of the day.
Diabetes is a disease that causes a person’s blood glucose (or blood sugar) to be too high and their insulin, which turns blood glucose into energy, to be too low. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that over 30 million people in the United States have diabetes. That accounts for over 9 percent of the population. In fact, the CDC also reports one in four people don’t even know they have diabetes and another 84 million people are facing prediabetes because their blood sugar level is higher than average but not to the point of being diagnosed.
The Silent Killer
Diabetes is broken into two categories: Type I and Type II. According to the National Institution of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK), Type I diabetes occurs when the body doesn’t make enough insulin, which is caused by an attack from the immune system. Type I diabetes is solely a genetic disease, and most patients are diagnosed at a young age. Type II diabetes forms when the body doesn’t make insulin well and arises mostly in older patients. This is the most common form of the disease and can be genetic or acquired.
If untreated, NIDDK reports diabetes can lead to a series of health issues, including heart disease, kidney disease, eye problems, dental disease, foot issues and nerve damage.
Dr. Rita Rahbany from Advanced Diabetes and Endocrine Medical Center in East Orlando characterizes diabetes as a silent killer for those reasons. She explains that few people die from diabetes itself but instead from the lack of care when it comes to the disease, which leads to strokes and heart attacks.
She finds that most patients are first diagnosed by their primary physicians. They rely on those doctors before seeking care from an endocrinologist, a medical professional who specializes in glands and the hormones produced from those glands.
“We’re seeing so many cases where the treatment for diabetes is delayed by a primary physician and patients end up with complications before they come to us,” Rahbany says. “Endocrinologists like to think of themselves as the gatekeepers for physicians and diabetics.”
She explains that because diabetes is a progressive disease, patients will eventually need to see a specialist. According to the American Diabetes Association, some common symptoms of diabetes include but are not limited to increased thirst, weight loss, blurry vision and extreme fatigue.
What to Do About Diabetes
Not only does Rahbany state that endocrinologists have more access to medications when it comes to diabetes, including new FDA-approved drugs such as pills and weekly injections, but they also have more resources to help patients understand the disease. This includes various comprehensive classes.
Rahbany’s practice offers free educational classes, called Diabetes 101, both online and in person. Nutritionists attend the classes to offer insight and suggestions for diet and lifestyle changes to direct patients to a path of health.
“We recommend patients go to [the classes] at least once at the beginning of their diagnosis to help prevent further complications and help them with lifestyle changes,” she says.
At her practice, Dr. Rahbany finds that 80 percent of her patients have Type II diabetes while only 20 percent have Type I. She explains that Type II can be prevented by creating lifestyle changes that embody a balanced diet and exercise.
She suggests a balanced diet of low-fat, low-carb and high-protein meals. Fish and lean meats like chicken or turkey are good sources of protein while red meat should only be consumed maybe once a week.
“We try to get our patients to eat, on average, 1,500 to 1,600 calories a day with low carbs – not no carbs,” Rahbany says.
Finding Support in the Community
Orlando resident Christina Martin created a Facebook group called Diabetes Support Orlando in 2016 to offer another level of support for patients and families who are living with diabetes. After being diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes at the age of 13 – something she considered “a death sentence” at the time – it became her dream to help others with the same illness.
The social circle calls themselves “the Diabtribe” and they are always welcoming new members. Its purpose is to provide advice and be a safe space for members to connect about what they’re going through so they can empower, motivate and support each other.
“We try to close the gap between what [patients] get from their family and what they get from a medical professional,” Martin says.
While Martin’s Facebook group was coming to fruition, she was also working to establish the Type Zero Foundation. This nonprofit organization promotes health awareness and exercise. Through both groups, Martin and other community members gather once a month to participate in outings that benefit their health while facilitating a bond among Central Florida residents living with diabetes.
“We want people to know that we are always looking to expand and strengthen our community,” Martin says. “If anyone does want to join, we advise people to go through our Facebook group, and they can ask questions, meet people through our outings and share ideas with us about how we can continue to make our group even better.”
In November, Diabetes Awareness Month acts as a reminder to schedule an appointment with a physician to test blood glucose levels so any irregularities can be found early on. It’s also a time to inspire individuals who are living with diabetes to fight back and live to see many more years.