My friend Alastair is doing the Ride London 2016 and will be cycling 100 miles around London and Surrey at the end of this month to raise money for Diabetes UK. Diabetes is a condition that is known to affect 3.5 million people in the UK (with around 549,000 people estimated to have undiagnosed diabetes). 90% of people living with diabetes have type 2 diabetes which develops when the body can’t produce enough insulin or if the insulin being produced can’t work properly. Insulin is a hormone produced by the pancreas which allows glucose to be used by the cells in the body, or to be stored for future use, and stops the levels of sugar in the blood from becoming too high (hyperglycaemia) or too low (hypoglycaemia). Most diabetics I know have type 2 diabetes, which can sometimes be controlled by diet or exercise, but may also need to be controlled through taking diabetes medication or having insulin injections. I also have a couple of friends who have type 1 diabetes which is caused by the body not producing any insulin at all. Despite this, I knew very little about it and just how dangerous it can be.
Alistair’s wife Ruth has type 1 diabetes. She has kindly shared an insight into what it is really like to live with type 1 diabetes and how it impacts upon her daily life:
I haven’t got type 1 because I ate too many sweets. I can’t reverse it if I try a certain diet. It’s not my fault and it’s a pain – literally. For reasons scientists aren’t entirely sure of, people with type 1’s immune systems destroy the beta cells that produce insulin. So whilst your blood sugar is controlled by your pancreas, my pancreas is effectively useless and I stay alive by constant testing and injecting. There is no cure, it will get worse as time goes on and it affects my entire life. Diabetes can affect your eyes and feet (high blood sugar over time damages blood vessels), kidneys (if your blood sugar is too high your body resorts to your kidneys to clean it up which they struggle with), slows up healing (not good considering how often I’m sticking needles into myself) and all organs (back to the damaged blood vessels).
It takes over your whole life, from the minute you wake up (what’s my blood sugar reading?) to taking more insulin at night. I test my blood sugar at least four times a day, more likely six or seven (pricking my finger each time) and inject insulin at least four times a day – three times with meals, extra if I’m having snacks and take longer-lasting insulin at night.
You can’t just grab a sandwich, take an impromptu walk or go for a quick drink. Everything needs to be planned. If you have type 1, before you eat you have to test your blood sugar (involving a meter, a lancet which contains a needle to prick blood from your finger, and testing strips). You then have to work out how many grams of carbs are going to be in what you’re eating and then inject the matching dose of insulin into a fatty part of your body eg. your stomach, thighs, arms. Not easy on the tube. If you are planning to do any exercise, you have to take this into account when taking insulin (you take less as exercise burns up glucose) and drinking alcohol throws everything off. No two type 1 diabetics are the same and it’s very complicated. Blood sugar is not just affected by what you eat/drink and how much exercise you take, it also changes depending on stress, tiredness, being ill…the NHS offer week-long training for type 1s. Seriously – it takes at least a week to get to grips with all of this. So trust me, I know what I’m doing. Which leads me on to…
You can eat whatever you like, you just adjust your insulin dose. So please don’t make special ‘sugar free’ things for me or buy me ‘diabetic chocolate’ (which tastes disgusting). And please, please don’t ask me if I’m sure I should be eating that. But on the other hand, please don’t think I’m rude if I double check you got me diet coke or ask how long it’ll be until we eat. I have to work these things out in advance.
If you have a hypo, it means your blood sugar is low and you need sugar. Not chocolate – it’s too fatty so the sugars are released slowly. Sugar. So sugary drinks, fruit juice, sweets etc. If your blood sugar is high, you take more insulin. Generally simple. Unless it’s so high you need hospitalisation for diabetic ketoacidosis or so low you slip into a coma. You can have hypos at night. It’s horrible.
It’s not the end of the world. Yes, it’s a pain and yes it takes over your life. But it doesn’t stop you leading your life. Support is vital – from diabetes specialist doctors and nurses, from Diabetes UK and from family and friends.
Thank you Ruth for sharing an insight into living with diabetes and good luck to Alastair for the Ride100. If you would like to support the work of Diabetes UK and sponsor Alastair on his cycling challenge, you can do so via his JustGiving page.