What Causes Diabetes?

Diabetes… the word alone strikes fear in the hearts of millions around the world, particularly those at high risk of contracting the disease. However, there are multiple forms and causes of diabetes, so understanding exactly what this condition is, and how it arises in so many people is crucial.

Given that diabetes has been called a “modern epidemic”, and affects more than 420 million people around the globe, knowing how to prevent this disease has never been more important.

What is Diabetes?

Medically speaking, diabetes refers to a group of metabolic diseases characterized by high blood sugar levels, which can have a number of serious or even deadly impacts on your lifestyle, diet, weight and overall health. High blood sugar levels relate to the activity on insulin in the body, which should balance blood sugar appropriately. Insulin is produced in the pancreas, and the specific problem with insulin is what divides the two major types of diabetes mellitus.

Type 1 Diabetes

In this variety of diabetes, the pancreas fails to produce as much insulin as the body requires. This form of diabetes arises early in life, and does not appear to be the result of lifestyle or behavioral habits. It can arise during childhood or the teenage years, but tends to appear before a person turns 40 years of age. For this reason, Type 1 diabetes is often called early-onset or juvenile diabetes. Unfortunately, for those suffering from Type 1 diabetes, there is no cure, and patients will need to take insulin injections for the rest of their life.

The cause of Type 1 diabetes is unknown, but there are a few potentially causative factors that have been identified. Certain genes have been identified that can affect the development of an HLA complex, which stands for human leukocyte antigen. This antigen is involved in the body’s immune response, which can incorrectly identify insulin and neutralize it before it can properly function in the body.

Viral infections can also increase one’s risk of developing Type 1 diabetes. Certain viruses have the same antigens as beta cells – which create insulin in the pancreas. During the body’s immune response to the specific virus, the body may also turn on its own beta cells, thus making it impossible for the body to produce enough insulin.

Type 2 Diabetes

While Type 1 diabetes composes roughly 10% of all sufferers of diabetes, Type 2 diabetes makes up the difference. With approximately 90% of global cases being Type 2 diabetes, this variety has received considerably more attention. Rather than the body being unable to produce enough insulin, as explained above, Type 2 is characterized by insulin resistance, in which cells of the body fail to properly use the insulin that is being produced. Type 2 diabetes can get worse over time, and if it is not addressed in the early stages, will eventually require sufferers to use insulin injections, just like Type 1 patients.


Type 2 mainly receives more focus because it is the preventable form of diabetes, given that it is primarily caused by being obese, sedentary and practicing poor dietary habits. Increased age and low testosterone levels have also been linked to Type 2 diabetes. When you are overweight or obese, your visceral and adipose fat levels are high, which can cause the release of certain chemicals within the body that negatively impact the metabolic system and insulin receptors. Eventually, this can cause a malfunction in the processing of insulin and the development of Type 2 diabetes.

Gestational Diabetes

The third major type of this metabolic disorder is known as gestational diabetes, and affects pregnant women by increasing their blood sugar levels to much higher levels that before or after their pregnancy. Gestational diabetes typically disappears after the child is born, but it does increase the mother’s risk of developing Type 2 diabetes. Consuming high levels of cholesterol and animal fats prior to becoming pregnant has been shown as a major cause of gestational diabetes.


The hormonal fluctuations that occur during pregnancy can result in a major boost to glucose levels in the body, but not an equivalent increase in insulin to transport that glucose, thus causing the symptoms of diabetes.

Are There Ways to Treat or Prevent Diabetes?

As explained above, there is no real way to prevent Type 1 diabetes, as it can be affected by genes or other infections. Treatment for Type 1 diabetes includes regular insulin injections, as well as a more active lifestyle and healthy diet, which will keep your behaviors from exacerbating the symptoms of this metabolic disorder.

When it comes to gestational diabetes, avoiding high-cholesterol and high-fat foods prior to becoming pregnant can ensure that your body handles the hormonal transition properly, but there is still a great deal of variability in how effective prevention of gestational diabetes can be. In terms of treatment, gestational diabetes will usually disappear after childbirth, but a lower fat diet and regular, light exercise can improve your chances of a normal birth and rapid return to pre-pregnancy glucose levels.

Type 2 diabetes can be prevented in many ways, but the slow development of the disorder, as well as its connection to diet, activity levels, age and immune system health, makes it hard to see the problem coming. Staying active and eliminating excess fat and cholesterol from your diet is a good method of prevention. Furthermore, reducing sugar intake can eliminate the strain on your pancreas to produce enough insulin.

Once you have been diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes, eliminating the trigger factors can cause diabetes to go into remission, where you will not have any symptoms, but the disorder has no permanent cure. Once diabetes goes into remission, you must maintain your healthy diet, activity and lifestyle in order to keep the symptoms from returning. Typically, some type of medicine or insulin injection is required to manage Type 2 diabetes until you control the symptoms and go into diabetic remission.

A disorder that affects nearly half a billion people is nothing to ignore or think, “It can never happen to me!” Take the necessary precautions and do all you can to keep diabetes out of your life!


  1. Diabetes Research Institute
  2. WHAT IS DIABETES? – Diabetes UK
  3. Simple Steps to Preventing Diabetes – Harvard University
  4. Gestational Diabetes – Mayo Clinic
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About the Author:

John Staughton is a traveling writer, editor, publisher and photographer who earned his English and Integrative Biology degrees from the University of Illinois. He is the co-founder of a literary journal, Sheriff Nottingham, and the Content Director for Stain’d Arts, an arts nonprofit based in Denver. On a perpetual journey towards the idea of home, he uses words to educate, inspire, uplift and evolve.

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