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What Is Diabetes?

Diabetes is a chronic disease that occurs in two different types. Both forms of diabetes, called type 1 and type 2 diabetes, revolve around a breakdown in the body's ability to either produce or manage insulin. (A third type, gestational diabetes occurs only during pregnancy.)

Insulin is the hormone that controls the processing of glucose, a form of blood sugar that moves constantly through the bloodstream in order to supply the body with the energy needed for muscle contractions and metabolism.

The job of insulin is to make sure the glucose actually moves into the body's cells. Without insulin, the glucose builds up in the bloodstream. Over time, elevated glucose levels can damage the linings of blood vessels leading to damage to the eyes, kidneys and other sensitive tissues. This damage can result in blindness, impotency, kidney failure, increased risk for heart attack and the deterioration of nerves or blood vessels, and can force the amputation of limbs.

The process that causes type 1 diabetes, the less common form, directly affects the pancreas by destroying the beta islet cells that produce insulin.

In the process that causes type 2 diabetes (which affects nine out of 10 diabetics) the pancreas either does not produce enough insulin, or the body becomes less and less efficient at getting insulin to move glucose into the cells (insulin resistance). A potential to develop type 2 diabetes can be inherited, but its development is triggered by environmental factors such as being overweight and sedentary.