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Seven diabetes myths debunked

While diabetes can be traced back to Egypt in 1550 BC, the condition is still deeply misunderstood nearly 4,000 years later. Here are a few common misconceptions, debunked.

Technology and the internet are removing the mystery surrounding diabetes for both Type 1 and Type 2 patients.

With information always available at our fingertips, online communities spanning the globe, and body monitors tracking our blood sugar at all moments of the day, diabetics are finding it easier to manage the condition.

Somehow though, we’re still learning it all alone.

The World Health Organization says between 1980 and 2014 the global figure of diabetics rose from 108 million to 422 million. Chances are you know someone – or someone who knows someone – who has diabetes.

Yet it’s equally possible you don’t know very much about its symptoms or its treatments. Much like I did before I was diagnosed with Type 1, it’s possible you think it only affects older adults, or those with an inactive lifestyle. But there’s much more to that (and yes, we can still eat sugar).

‘You must have eaten a lot of sugar as a child’

Although it is largely a consequence of years of limited exercise and a poor diet, Type 2 diabetes is not a direct consequence of “eating too much sugar”.

It is when the body can’t get proper use of the insulin it produces. Insulin is a hormone produced by the pancreas, which regulates how much glucose enters the bloodstream. It’s key to get your energy levels up, but too much of it can cause dizzy spells and fainting.

Type 1 diabetes is when – for still no known reason – your pancreas stops making enough insulin to regulate your glucose.

It’s also important to note that while diabetics are told to maintain their blood sugar levels, this isn’t what most people know as “sugar”. This refers to the glucose in our blood, which we get from carbohydrates. Unfortunately, most things we consume will contain glucose.

From milk, to pasta, to almonds and even kiwis – there is no escape from glucose, unless you settle for a lifetime of iceberg salads and carb-free, conventional meat and fish meals.

Although, you might find that will eventually hurt your body, as well as the planet.

‘Do you have to watch what you eat?’

This follows on from the last myth. While the answer is – to a certain extent – yes, there is no one food for all diabetics. Every person, whether they are Type 1 or Type 2, will choose to manage their diets differently.

When it comes to Type 1, it’s important to ensure that whatever you eat, you inject enough units of insulin to balance out the glucose levels from your meal.

Type 2 might be a little stricter, especially if you are overweight or highly inactive. But, like any other human, both types need to maintain a balanced diet and regularly exercise to maximise their chances of living a healthy life.

‘Diabetics can’t drink alcohol’

This was the first question I asked my nurse.

It’s not obviously something that children or those who don’t drink have to consider, but young people may be eager to continue going to parties, gigs or even just simply down to the pub, and it might surprise some that this statement is almost completely false.

In fact, a glass of wine can help regulate your glucose during a meal.

All spirits are glucose-free, and wine is usually a safe option if it is drunk in small quantities. Beer and cocktails are a lot trickier, however, and a few units of insulin are advised before drinking either of these.

It’s still very possible to have a normal social life, but it is advisable to ensure you bring small snacks, your monitor, and your insulin wherever you go so that you can regulate your blood if the amount you drink does accidentally go too far.

‘You need to do more cardio’

Let’s get this straight – you do not need to run, cycle, or even walk more than the average human if you are diabetic.

You don’t even need to work out if that’s not your style. People choose to engage in cardio exercise for the physical and the mental health benefits, but you should never feel required to do something you don’t enjoy.

Although, cardio is often recommended to diabetics as a way to increase the body’s sensitivity to insulin, which mitigates resistance to the hormone and keeps blood sugar levels down.

Other types of exercise, such as weightlifting or even ball sports, might raise blood sugar. While there is no reason why you should avoid any of these activities either, it’s important to monitor your levels by testing yourself more frequently if you do – as well as reduce or increase your insulin intake accordingly.

‘You’ll go blind later in life’

Diabetic retinopathy is a complication of diabetes that can cause blindness – but it only occurs if you have seriously high blood sugar levels for a prolonged period of time.

If you treat your diabetes the right way and manage to keep your glucose down for most of your life, it’s highly unlikely this will develop. Diabetics in the UK also get free annual eye check-ups to ensure no problems develop.

‘Diabetes is not a disability because it isn’t visible to the naked eye’

Under the Disability Act 2010, disabilities are impairments that have a “substantial” and “long-term” negative effect on your ability to do normal daily activities.

Diabetes may not be visible on the surface and it certainly doesn’t stop people from achieving anything, but episodes of hypoglycaemia and a dependence on insulin certainly put a toll on your day and might mean it takes more time to complete daily activities.

Diabetics are protected under this same act, meaning they have the right to take time out of work when they need to check their blood sugar, or lie down because of hyper/hypoglycaemia. Type 1 diabetics are also more at risk of catching certain viruses because their condition is a consequence of their immune system attacking their pancreas.

‘It isn’t safe for you to drive’

When diabetics first start attending driving lessons, it is important they let their school know about the condition.

Diabetics can certainly drive and there is nothing that stops them from doing so, but – like exercise – they should monitor levels before and after journeys, as well as throughout for longer road trips.

If a diabetic is prone to having hypos, they should have something in their car that says this, just in case they get into an accident.