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Health and happiness after a diabetes diagnosis

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 a much needed wake-up call to make simple lifestyle changes, setting them on the path to a happier, healthier life. Now, get comfy, make yourself a cup of tea (hold the sugar) and learn how to manage your diabetes.

Let's start with the basics. What 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 then again, 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 show 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:

  • take a brisk walk every evening after dinner for 45–60 minutes
  • opt to take the stairs rather than the elevator
  • exit one or two stops earlier in your commute to work to bump up your steps
  • use a standing desk
  • introduce walking meetings at work
  • join team sports/group activities

Consistency and habit are the key to lasting benefits.

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 overwhelmed by the countless diabetes diets out there, but here are some simple practices that are easy to manage and can help you get good results.

  • Avoid sudden sugar surges by minimizing refined or processed sugar – this includes snacks like cakes, doughnuts, and candy.
  • Reduce or cut out sugary drinks (which can also include some juices). Replace with good-old-fashioned H2O.
  • Try low-Glycemic Index options, like switching from white grains (e.g. bread) to wholemeal. It's important to remember carbohydrates affect sugar levels.
  • Swap those sugary, quick-release carb breakfast cereals for healthier alternatives. It's a quick win!
  • 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 fiber. 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. While you’re at it, swap frying for steaming, grilling, or baking.
  • Cut down on alcohol. This cuts calories as well as reduces your blood pressure and risk of cardiovascular disease.
  • Quit smoking.

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. Weight management is important for people with diabetes, but it's also important to not become obsessed with it. I often tell my patients to also focus on the quality and variety of nutrients in their diet as well.

What medications may I need to help 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.

A diabetes diagnosis can feel daunting. It's important you're honest with yourself about what changes you can make (and actually stick to). You’re the world’s best expert on yourself, so have a good, hard think about what can you do in your daily routine to help manage your diabetes. How can you add more daily physical activity? What can you add or cut out to improve your diet? If you’re motivated and consistent, you can make this a healthy new beginning. So, don't feel discouraged – feel empowered in your healthy lifestyle changes.

Here’s to your health.

Dr. Shubs