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Health and happiness after a diabetes diagnosis

A finger with a drop of blood after a diabetes test.
A finger with a drop of blood after a diabetes test.

Are you among the more than 400 million people who have been diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes? If so, you’re probably ready for some good news: for many of my patients, this diagnosis has been the wake-up call they needed to make the simple lifestyle changes that set them on the path to a happier, healthier life. Make yourself a cup of tea (hold the sugar), and read my answers to six questions you may have about managing your diabetes.

What even is diabetes?

Diabetes results from a problem with the way the body handles sugar. If your blood sugar is too high, the mechanism that usually kicks in to bring it down is disrupted.

Type 1 diabetes is a genetic condition that destroys the cells that produce insulin. I don’t cover it here, but you can find out more in Ada’s Medical Library.

Type 2 diabetes is linked to family history. Age and weight gain are factors that can disrupt insulin production or how your body uses it. Diabetes symptoms include peeing frequently (including several times per night), and feeling more thirsty or tired than usual, but some people don’t have symptoms.

What are the potential complications of diabetes?

Having uncontrolled diabetes can damage small blood vessels. The effect of this can be ‘silent’ or asymptomatic until it’s already established, affecting the eyes, kidneys and nerves. Diabetes also increases the risk of heart attack, stroke and infection. The good news is that reducing sugar levels and losing weight can slow down or even stop the development of some of these complications.

Could diabetes impact my mental health?

Yes, diabetes can have a significant impact on mental health (and vice versa). It’s not uncommon for people to have a depressive episode alongside diabetes. If you are experiencing signs of depression, seek help from your healthcare professional to manage this condition.

Man excercising in a park in the fall.

How can physical exercise help manage diabetes?

Losing weight (and keeping it off) is a really important part of managing diabetes, and exercise helps with both physical and mental health. Studies how sugar levels and cardiovascular risk can be improved with a consistent combination of aerobic (such as swimming) and strength (such as weight) training.

For simplicity, some exercise is better than none. Here are some of my patients’ good habits that don’t require expensive gym memberships:

  • brisk walk with the dog for 45–60 minutes every evening after dinner
  • taking the stairs
  • alighting one or two stops early in the commute to work and walking
  • using a standing desk
  • introducing walking meetings at work
  • joining team sports/group activities

Consistency and habit are the key to lasting benefits. This is a great video to get you thinking.

If you’re taking insulin or the sulphonylurea group of medications, speak to your healthcare professional about doing prolonged or vigorous physical activity.

How should my diet change after a diabetes diagnosis?

You may be feeling a bit bamboozled by the myriad diabetes diets out there. Here are some simple principles that can help you get good results.

  • Avoid sudden sugar surges by minimizing refined or processed sugar — this includes snacks like cakes, doughnuts and candy. Switch to brown sugar or cut sugar out entirely.
  • Reduce or cut out sugary drinks (which can include some juices). Replace with good-old-fashioned H2O.
  • Carbohydrates affect sugar levels. Try low-GI options, like switching from white grains (e.g. bread) to wholemeal.
  • Quick win: many breakfast cereals are full of sugar and quick-release carbs, and can easily be swapped to healthier alternatives.
  • Check added salt content of so called ‘healthy’ alternatives to prevent high blood pressure.
  • Eat the rainbow! Veggies and fruits are packed with vitamins, minerals and fibre. I recommend a fresh, colorful array for all your meals.
  • Reduce processed meat, which is linked with certain cancers and heart disease.
  • Switch to healthy fats such as olive oil, oily fish, nuts and seeds to help reduce heart disease risk, and while you’re at it, swap frying for steaming, grilling or baking.
  • Cutting down alcohol also cuts calories, as well as reducing your blood pressure and risk of cardiovascular disease.

Remember, you don’t need to cut out entire food groups, buy expensive ‘healthy food options’ or choose elaborate fad diets to get good results. While weight management is important for people with diabetes, don’t become obsessed by it. I often tell my patients to focus on the quality and variety of nutrients in their diet as well.

What medications may I need to manage diabetes?

Medication for Type 2 diabetes depends on your individual health profile. Speak to your healthcare professional about your options. Even the most cutting-edge medication works best combined with the lifestyle changes mentioned above. One last note on healthy lifestyle habits that make a big impact in managing diabetes: quit smoking.

A diabetes diagnosis can feel daunting. Be honest with yourself about what changes you can make (and stick to). You’re the world’s best expert on yourself, so have a good, hard think. What can you do in your daily routine to add more physical activity? What can you add, or cut out, to improve your diet? If you’re motivated and consistent, you have the power to make this a healthy new beginning.

Here’s to your health.

Dr. Shubs