Frequently Asked Questions

What is diabetes?

Diabetes Mellitus (DM) is a group of metabolic diseases in which there are high blood sugar levels over a prolonged period. Diabetes is a chronic, often debilitating and sometimes fatal disease, in which the body either cannot produce insulin or cannot properly use the insulin it produces. Insulin is a hormone that controls the amount of glucose (sugar) in the blood. Diabetes leads to high blood sugar levels, which can damage organs, blood vessels and nerves. The body needs insulin to use sugar as an energy source.

Are there different types of diabetes?

Yes. There is Type 1, Type 2 and gestational diabetes.

What is type 1 diabetes?

Type 1 diabetes occurs when the immune system mistakenly attacks and kills the beta cells of the pancreas. No, or very little, insulin is released into the body. As a result, sugar builds up in the blood instead of being used as energy. About five to 10 per cent of people with diabetes have type 1 diabetes. Type 1 diabetes generally develops in childhood or adolescence, but can develop in adulthood. Type 1 diabetes is always treated with insulin. Meal planning also helps with keeping blood sugar at the right levels. Type 1 diabetes also includes latent autoimmune diabetes in adults (LADA), the term used to describe the small number of people with apparent type 2 diabetes who appear to have immune-mediated loss of pancreatic beta cells.

What is type 2 diabetes?

Type 2 diabetes occurs when the body can’t properly use the insulin that is released (called insulin insensitivity) or does not make enough insulin. As a result, sugar builds up in the blood instead of being used as energy. About 90 per cent of people with diabetes have type 2 diabetes. Type 2 diabetes more often develops in adults, but children can be affected. Depending on the severity of type 2 diabetes, it may be managed through physical activity and meal planning, or may also require medications and/or insulin to control blood sugar more effectively.

What is gestational diabetes?

A third type of diabetes, gestational diabetes, is a temporary condition that occurs during pregnancy. It affects approximately two to four per cent of all pregnancies (in the non-Aboriginal population) and involves an increased risk of developing diabetes for both mother and child.

What are complications of diabetes?

Having high blood sugar can cause diabetes-related complications, like chronic kidney disease, foot problems, non-traumatic lower limb (leg, foot, toe, etc.) amputation, eye disease (retinopathy) that can lead to blindness, heart attack, stroke, anxiety, nerve damage, and erectile dysfunction (men). Diabetes-related complications can be very serious and even life-threatening. Properly managing blood sugar levels reduces the risk of developing these complications.

What causes diabetes?

No one knows what causes diabetes. However, there are reasons why some people are more likely to develop diabetes, particularly Type 2 diabetes.

Who is more likely to develop Type 2 diabetes?

People are more likely to develop Type 2 diabetes if it runs in their family. Other risk factors include obesity, being over 40 years old, being a member of high risk group (Aboriginal Asian, African or Hispanic descent) and having gestational diabetes in past pregnancies.

What are the signs and symptoms of diabetes?

  • Unusual thirst
  • Frequent urination
  • Weight change (gain or loss)
  • Extreme fatigue or lack of energy
  • Blurred vision
  • Frequent or recurring infections
  • Cuts and bruises that are slow to heal
  • Tingling or numbness in the hands or feet
  • Trouble getting or maintaining an erection

It is important to recognize, however, that many people who have type 2 diabetes may display no symptoms.

Why does diabetes have to be treated?

If left untreated or improperly managed, diabetes can result in a variety of complications, including:

  • Heart disease
  • Kidney disease
  • Eye disease
  • Problems with erection (impotence)
  • Nerve damage

Is diabetes a concern in the NWT?

Diabetes is a major public health issue in the Northwest Territories and in Canada overall. On average, there are approximately 200 new diagnoses of diabetes among the NWT residents each year on average.

Are Aboriginal people at increased risk of developing diabetes?

Yes. There are many risk factors for the development of type 2 diabetes, one of which is being a member of a high-risk population. High risk populations include Aboriginal, African, Asian, Hispanic or South Asian descent.

Can you prevent diabetes?

Research shows that lifestyle changes can help prevent or delay the onset of type 2 diabetes. A healthy meal plan, weight control and physical activity are important prevention steps. There are no preventative steps for type 1 diabetes. The cause of type 1 diabetes remains unknown. It is not caused by eating too much sugar, and is not preventable. The current thought is that type 1 diabetes occurs when the body’s immune system destroys the cells that make insulin.

What are key areas of diabetes management?

  • Education: Diabetes education is an important first step. All people with diabetes need to be informed about their condition.
  • Physical activity: Regular physical activity helps your body lower blood glucose levels, promotes weight loss, reduces stress and enhances overall fitness.
  • Nutrition: What, when and how much you eat all play an important role in regulating blood glucose levels.
  • Weight management: Maintaining a healthy weight is especially important in the management of type 2 diabetes.
  • Medication: Type 1 diabetes is always treated with insulin. Type 2 diabetes is managed through physical activity and meal planning and may require medications and/or insulin to assist your body in controlling blood glucose more effectively.
  • Lifestyle management: Learning to reduce stress levels in day-to-day life can help people with diabetes better manage their disease.
  • Blood pressure: High blood pressure can lead to eye disease, heart disease, stroke and kidney disease, so people with diabetes should try to maintain a blood pressure level at or below 130/80. To do this, you may need to change your eating and physical activity habits and/or take medication

What services are available in the NWT for those who want to manage their diabetes?

Diabetes management services are available to all residents of the NWT through a variety of programs and services in the communities:

  • The NWT Community Health Nursing Chronic Care Program is offered in every community health centre to individuals living with diabetes.
  • Residents with diabetes from all communities are followed by a physician or nurse practitioner for medication management and regular disease monitoring, which may include medical travel to a regional centre.
  • Targeted Diabetes Education and Care Programs are offered in Fort Smith, Inuvik, Hay River and Yellowknife by teams of diabetes educators including nurses, nurse practitioners, dieticians, and physicians.

How is diabetes treated?

Insulin therapy is required for the treatment of type 1 diabetes. There are a variety of insulin available to help manage diabetes. Insulin is injected by pen, syringe or pump. Your health care provider will work with you to determine:

  • The number of insulin injections you need per day
  • The timing of your insulin injections
  • The dose of insulin you need with each injection

The insulin treatment your health care provider prescribes will depend on your goals, age, lifestyle, meal plan, general health and motivation. Social and financial factors may also need to be considered. People with type 2 diabetes may use lifestyle modifications and/or medications, with or without insulin, to keep their blood sugar within the target range.

Care plans and treatment for people with type 2 diabetes can include:

  • Eating healthy meals and snacks
  • Enjoying regular physical activity
  • Monitoring your blood glucose using a home blood glucose meter
  • Aiming for a healthy body weight
  • Taking diabetes medications including insulin and other medications, if prescribed by your health care provider
  • Managing stress effectively