Diabetes Handbook Online

Once known as one of the most serious diseases that led almost inevitably to an early death, diabetes is nowadays for millions of people throughout the world easily controlled with medicines and diet. The diabetic of today can lead a relatively normal life; a little extra care over the choice of food, daily tablets or, for some, an injection of the controlling hormone, insulin along with some medical and personal supervision of their health, is all that is necessary.

It s a complicated disorder, however, for it can affect, in one way or another, every part of the human body. Once diagnosed, diabetics, and those close to them, have to suddenly learn a lot about food, exercise, diet and the checks necessary on health but they soon become experts, and gradually learn to cope with something that becomes, in time, little more that habits: the habit of being careful about what is eaten and when; the habit of an injection or a daily routine checks on the urine to see that they are maintaining good health.

Diabetes is, very simply, a disorder that prevents the body from using up the energy-giving sources of a particular kind of foodstuff carbohydrate. As a result the carbohydrates, which are turned into sugar by the digestive system, accumulate in the blood and are then passed out into the urine. They would normally be used up as energy, or else stored in the body as fat, but instead they are excreted. In Greek, 'diabetes' literally means 'passing through'.

Historically, the disorder has been recognized for thousands of years. Early Greek physicians described it as a 'melting down' or 'wasting' disease because one of its early characteristics before the days of treatment was a severe and continual loss of weight. In the Middle Ages in Europe, the presence of sugar in a patent's urine was the reason it was given the Latin name mellitus meaning 'honey' urine and the term 'diabetes mellitus' is still used today. It was only in the late nineteenth century, however, that the reasons for the development of the disorder began to be understood. Scientists then were eagerly searching for the causes of every disease; the microscope and the advancement of all types of science stimulated research and exploration into the human body's functions.

Historically, the disorder has been recognized for thousands of years. Early Greek physicians described it as a 'melting down' or 'wasting' disease because one of its early characteristics before the days of treatment was a severe and continual loss of weight. In the Middle Ages in Europe, the presence of sugar in a patent's urine was the reason it was given the Latin name mellitus meaning 'honey' urine and the term 'diabetes mellitus' is still used today. It was only in the late nineteenth century, however, that the reasons for the development of the disorder began to be understood. Scientists then were eagerly searching for the causes of every disease; the microscope and the advancement of all types of science stimulated research and exploration into the human body's functions.

In 1890 experiments on animals showed that if one particular part of the digestive system was removed the pancreas the animal developed all the signs and symptoms of diabetes. The pancreas is an organ in the upper part of the abdomen that lies just below the stomach. About six to nine inches (15-23 cm) long and two to three inches (5-8 cm) wide, it is richly supplied with blood vessels and ends in a duct (tube) that opens into the first part of the intestine, the duodenum. Until the late-Victorian scientists did their experiments the pancreas' function was unknown, but clearly it was a gland that made something which passed out both into the digestive tract and into the bloodstream.

Part of digestive system

It took 30 more years before, in 1921 Frederick Banting, a Canadian surgeon, and Charles Best, a medical student who was helping him with his experiments in a Toronto laboratory, discovered that an extract of certain, parts of the pancreatic gland could be made which, when injected, overcame the diabetes. They had discovered something they named insulin, called this because it came from the 'islets of Langerhans' (insula is 'island' in Latin), special cells that were grouped together throughout the spongy gland of the normal pancreas. Insulin was found to be a hormone, a chemical substance which is secreted by a gland which travels via the blood-stream to other organs which it stimulates into action. At last it seemed that the whole problem of diabetes had been solved: people with diabetes were those whose pancreas did not make enough insulin, which was necessary to enable them to digest and make use of sugar in their bodies.

It seemed very simple then, and in fact the basic theory that an insulin deficiency equals diabetes remains unchallenged. As the years have passed, however, the complications of the human body's chemistry have been better understood and it is nowadays appreciated that many other factors may be playing a part in the cause, the effects and the control of diabetes. Nevertheless, insulin stops diabetes from getting worse, controls the disorder and keeps a diabetic healthy. Other forms of treatment by tablet have since been discovered which reduce blood sugar and stimulate the pancreas to produce more insulin, and for many particularly older patients this may be all that is necessary to keep their diabetes under control.


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