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Type 1 diabetes is usually treated by taking insulin.
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Type 1 diabetes, also called juvenile diabetes, develops most often in childhood or adolescence, although it may also be first diagnosed in adulthood. In this disorder, production of insulin by a person's pancreas decreases or stops completely, resulting in low or absent insulin that leads to abnormally high levels of blood glucose. When high blood glucose is untreated, it can cause both immediate and long-term problems.
Insulin is a hormone made by beta cells in your pancreas. Between meals, insulin keeps blood glucose in a normal range of about 70 to 100 mg per deciliter. After your digestive tract breaks down food into nutrients, blood sugar increases, but the level drops gradually due to the action of insulin. This hormone helps move glucose into your cells, which use it as an important source of energy. In people who develop type 1 diabetes, beta cells stop making insulin, so blood sugar remains high, a condition called hyperglycemia. In this disorder, low insulin itself causes no symptoms directly, but its absence and the resulting high blood glucose levels are responsible for changes that, without proper treatment, can eventually affect many organs and body functions.
Hunger and Low Energy
Because insulin helps move glucose into cells, when a person has type 1 diabetes and little or no insulin, cells become starved for energy. Because of this, a constant feeling of hunger, called polyphagia, often develops regardless of how much the person eats. Weight loss may also occur in spite of eating a full diet. Because of their problems using nutrients for energy, people with untreated type 1 diabetes also feel tired most of the time and generally lack energy. Sometimes, the body may start burning protein to obtain energy and, since muscle tissue is rich in protein, a person with type 1 diabetes may eventually lose some muscle mass and notice that his muscles seem smaller and his strength has lessened.
Thirst, Urination and Healing
High blood sugar in type 1 diabetes also causes the kidneys to produce more urine to flush the extra sugar out of the blood, causing frequent urination, which is called polyuria. As the body loses fluid by making more urine, body tissues tend to become dehydrated and a person may be constantly thirsty, prompting an urge to drink more fluids than usual, a symptom called polydypsia. A person with type 1 diabetes may also notice that she tends to heal more slowly after an injury, which can be caused by poor circulation because of diabetes-induced changes in blood vessels or nerve damage, or neuropathy, that can interfere with sensation and contribute to frequent injuries, and slower immune responses to injury or infection. Changes in healing can be subtle, however, and may only become obvious if a person has had untreated type 1 diabetes for a long time.
Treatments and Problems
Most people with type 1 diabetes take synthetic insulin to keep their blood sugar within a generally healthy range. This treatment is usually effective, but it requires careful monitoring of blood glucose and occasionally involves adjusting insulin doses or making other changes in treatment. Rarely, an individual takes natural insulin derived from pigs or cows. Pancreatic extracts purported to contain insulin are sold at some health-food stores, but you should not take these, because they are not approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and their purity and dosage are not guaranteed.
A person with type 1 diabetes may experience acute symptoms caused by high blood glucose -- after forgetting a scheduled dose of insulin or eating an extremely sugary meal, for example. He might feel hungry and have little energy, and he could be thirsty and urinate frequently over a period of several hours. These symptoms are usually short-lived, however, and generally disappear after he resumes a normal schedule of insulin dosing. Vomiting, difficulty breathing, confusion, rapid pulse and coma indicate a serious complication of high blood glucose and require immediate medical attention.
Much research has been conducted to find the best treatments for type 1 diabetes, such as long-acting types of insulin that might control blood glucose for long periods. A paper published in March 2013 in "Diabetes Care" reported on an insulin formula whose effects can last as long as 36 hours and concluded that it could control glucose levels especially well without causing dangerously low glucose overnight, a possible problem with some formulas. This insulin may also require fewer doses of fast-acting insulin that are usually taken with meals during the day. Research such as that published in September 2012 in the "Journal of Artificial Organs" also describes the possibility of developing artificial pancreas implants that could be worn for a lifetime.