Inside diabetes – what it does and how it happens

Learn more about what's really going on in your body when you have Type 2 diabetes

July, 2017


How does sugar affect my body?

When you eat carbohydrates (sugary and starchy stuff, like chocolate or potatoes), your body turns the carbohydrate into glucose. This is one of the simplest forms of sugar, and the cells in your body use that glucose for energy.

The blood takes this glucose around the body, delivering it to the cells so that they can do what they’re supposed to do. When there’s too much glucose, it’s either stored as glycogen, (another form of sugar), or converted to fat.

What happens when you have diabetes

There’s a slight problem though: the glucose can’t get into the cells on its own. It needs insulin to “unlock” the cell a bit like a key, and let the glucose in. Your pancreas makes insulin and releases it into the blood so the glucose can be used by the cells. In Type 1 diabetes, the pancreas can’t make insulin at all. When you have Type 2 diabetes, two things happen, usually both at once:

  • Your body becomes resistant to insulin and can’t use it properly
  • Your pancreas doesn’t make enough insulin

Without enough insulin to unlock the cells, the glucose stays trapped in your bloodstream. This means that your cells are starved of the fuel they need, and after a time, you’ll notice the effects of this. This causes some of the symptoms of diabetes – particularly feeling tired. It’s because even though you’re taking in fuel, your body can’t use it.

The normal process

With insulin resistance

Glucose trapped in the blood – aka high blood glucose or hyperglycaemia

Without enough insulin, the glucose has to stay in the blood, as it’s not being used by the cells. The level of glucose builds up higher and higher, and that causes problems too. Several things can happen, sometimes all at once:

Why does Type 2 diabetes…?
Make me need the loo more?

Too much glucose in the blood leads to your body getting rid of the excess via the urine. This is why a dip test in urine is one of the first things a healthcare professional might do to see if you have diabetes. Some people even find that their urine smells sweet. (Glucose in your urine isn’t a problem in itself, but it does cause other things, as you’ll see below.) As your body loses the extra glucose into your urine, more water is also taken from your body into your urine, so you may find you need to go to the toilet more often.

Make me more thirsty?

While your body is busy flushing out glucose through urine, you can quickly end up dehydrated. This is why you feel so thirsty and dry. Being dehydrated can also make you feel dizzy and tired, and give you a headache.

Make things look blurry?

All the glucose in your body makes the lenses of your eyes swell, so you can’t see so well.

Give me itches in unmentionable places?

Again, it’s all the fault of all the glucose. Bacteria and fungi love sugar – they thrive on it. So when you’re passing urine that’s full of glucose, these microbes have the perfect environment to grow and cause itching and irritation.

Mean I get more infections? And heal more slowly after injuries?

This is another effect of bacteria and fungi thriving in the high sugar environment of your body. This can cause infections that you might not think had anything to do with diabetes, like gum problems, sore throats, or skin infections. In someone with high blood sugar, the conditions are almost ideal for these microbes, so infections can get nasty, sometimes more quickly than they might in someone who didn’t have diabetes.

So why have I got Type 2 diabetes?

This is a tough question. A lot of people seem to think it’s just what happens if you eat too many cakes, or put on too much weight, or don’t get yourself moving enough. But it’s more complicated than that. In practice, Type 2 diabetes develops gradually – you might have it for a long time without even knowing.

We know that certain things make you more likely to get Type 2 diabetes, such as being over the age of 40, or of African-Caribbean or South-Asian descent, or being a close relative of someone who has diabetes, but they’re not things you can do anything about. Certainly being overweight, or living on sweets, or being less active doesn’t help. But by themselves, these things don’t “cause” of diabetes.

It’s going to be a combination of factors as to exactly why one person gets Type 2 diabetes and another doesn’t, some of which are beyond your control. The things you CAN do something about include what you eat, your lifestyle and your stress levels. This website is all about helping you find changes you can make in all of these areas, so that you have the best chance of keeping well.

Can I reverse my Type 2 diabetes?

The jury is out on this one. What’s clear, though, is that if you have a healthy diet, don’t smoke, drink in moderation and get plenty of exercise, you’re giving yourself the best chance of having a good quality of life and do all the things you want to do. Any steps you can take towards a healthier new you will be of benefit – why not take a look at our article “Getting started – and started again” for some inspiration to take up healthier habits starting today.