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What is Diabetes?

Diabetes is the common term for several metabolic disorders in which the body no longer produces insulin or uses the insulin it produces ineffectively.

It is a common condition and is characterised by abnormally high blood sugar levels.

Diabetes is known as "diabetes mellitus" - where diabetes comes from the Greek word for siphon, which describes the excessive thirst and urination of this condition, and mellitus is the Latin word for honey, because diabetic urine is filled with sugar and is sweet.

Diabetes essentially changes the way your body uses food

The key to the problem is insulin - as insulin's role in the body is to help glucose get into the body cells where it is used to make energy.

Diabetes is characterized by a partial or complete lack of insulin production by the body. The most common forms of diabetes are type 1 diabetes and type 2 diabetes. In both types of diabetes, people have little or no ability to move sugar out of the blood stream and into the cells, where it is used as the body's primary fuel.


Symptoms and complications

Symptoms of diabetes include:

  • Frequent urination
  • Extreme thirst and/or hunger
  • Weight change (gain or loss)
  • Fatigue
  • Numbness
  • Sores that are slow to heal, and
  • Increased infections

Learning how to best manage your diabetes is key to your treatment. Poor control of diabetes can lead to an increased risk of:

  • Heart disease
  • High blood pressure
  • Stroke
  • Kidney failure
  • Blindness
  • Foot and leg infections


How common is diabetes?

According to the International Diabetes Federation, 425 million adults around the world have diabetes, as of 2017. In Canada, 11 million people are living with diabetes or pre-diabetes.

Of these, 90% have type 2 diabetes, and 10% have type 1 diabetes.


What happens in diabetes?

We all rely on insulin, a hormone made in the pancreas, to move glucose from the blood into the body's cells. People with diabetes have partial or complete lack of insulin production in the body.

When we eat, our digestion of food breaks down carbohydrates into glucose that is absorbed into the blood in the small intestine. Everyone has glucose from food in their blood stream.

If the insulin is working properly, then the glucose levels rise and fall normally, as insulin moves glucose into the cells to produce energy.

Insulin is the key that opens up the cell to allow glucose to enter. In diabetes, the key to open the cell is not working and so instead, glucose levels pile up in the bloodstream.


Type 1 diabetes

People with type 1 diabetes don't produce insulin. The body stops making insulin because the cells in the pancreas have been destroyed.

Exactly why this happens is not known, but it has been suggested that the body's natural defenses, the immune system, destroy the insulin-producing tissue as if it were a foreign body.

Unknown environmental factors probably trigger the process in those people who are genetically predisposed.

Approximately 10% of people with diabetes have type 1.

Type 1 diabetes generally first appears in childhood or adolescence.


Type 2 diabetes

People with type 2 diabetes produce insufficient insulin, or the insulin that they produce does not work properly and can't move glucose into the body's cells.

When the insulin is not working as effectively as normal, it is also called "reduced insulin sensitivity" or "insulin resistance".

This causes glucose to accumulate in the blood and can cause hyperglycemia (high blood sugar levels).

Type 2 diabetes is the most common form of diabetes with approximately 90% of all diabetes cases being type 2.

People who are overweight, over the age of 40, and those of Native/Indigenous, African, Hispanic or Asian descent are most prone to type 2 diabetes.

This content is for informational purposes only, and is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare professional with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.