How can I help myself stay healthy if I have diabetes?
Although diabetes can’t be cured, you can still live a long and healthy life. The single most important thing you can do is control your blood sugar level. You can do this by eating right, exercising, maintaining a healthy weight and, if needed, taking oral medicines or insulin.
Eat a healthy diet. The recommended diet for many people who have diabetes is very similar to that suggested for everyone: low in fat, low in cholesterol, low in salt and low in added sugar. Your diet should include lots of complex carbohydrates (such as whole-grain breads, cereals and pasta), fruits and vegetables. This type of diet will help you control your blood sugar level, as well as your blood pressure and cholesterol levels. It's also important to watch your portion size so you can control your blood sugar and maintain a healthy weight. In order to help keep your blood sugar at a healthy level, it's important to eat at least 3 meals per day and never skip a meal. For more information, read Diabetes and Nutrition.
Tips on eating right
- Eat at about the same time every day. This helps keep your insulin or medicine and sugar levels steady.
- Try to eat 3 times a day. Have a snack at bedtime if you're taking medicine or insulin. Avoid other snacking unless you're exercising or treating hypoglycemia.
- If you're overweight, lose weight. Even losing just a little weight, such as 5 to 15 pounds, can lower your blood sugar levels.
- Eat plenty of fiber. Green leafy vegetables, whole grains and fruits are good choices. Fiber helps you feel full and helps with digestion.
- Eat fewer empty calories, such as foods high in sugar and fat, and alcohol.
Exercise. Exercising will help your body use insulin and lower your blood sugar level. It also helps control your weight, gives you more energy and is good for your overall health. Exercise is also good for your heart, your cholesterol levels, your blood pressure and your weight--all factors that can affect your risk of heart attack and stroke. Exercise also seems to make people feel better about themselves and feel less anxious. Talk with your doctor about starting an exercise program. He or she can help you make a plan. For more information, read Diabetes and Exercise.
Maintain a healthy weight. Losing excess weight and maintaining a healthy body weight will help you in 2 ways. First, it helps insulin work better in your body. Second, it will lower your blood pressure and decrease your risk for heart disease.
Take your medicine. If your diabetes can't be controlled with diet, exercise and weight control, your doctor may recommend medicine or insulin. Oral medicines(taken by mouth) can make your body produce more insulin or help your body use the insulin it makes more efficiently. Some people need to add insulin to their bodies with insulin injections, insulin pens or insulin pumps. Always take medicines exactly as your doctor prescribes.
What medicines are available to treat diabetes?
Several kinds of medicine can help you control your blood sugar level. Some medicines are pills that you take by mouth (orally). Most people who have type 2 diabetes start with an oral medicine. Oral medicine doesn't work for everyone, though. It is not effective in the treatment of type 1 diabetes. Insulin therapy is necessary for all people who have type 1 diabetes and for some people who have type 2 diabetes. If you need insulin, you'll have to give yourself a shot (either with a syringe or with an insulin pen). Your doctor will tell you which kind of medicine you should take and why.
What tests can I use to check my blood sugar level?
There are 2 blood tests that can help you manage your diabetes. One of these tests is called an A1C test, which reflects your blood sugar (or blood glucose) control over the past 2-3 months. Testing your A1C level every 3 months is the best way for you and your doctor to understand how well your blood sugar levels are controlled. The other test is called SMBG, or self-monitoring of blood glucose. Using a blood glucose monitor to do SMBG testing can help you improve control of your blood sugar levels.
What if my blood sugar gets too low?
People who have diabetes may have times when their blood sugar level is too low. Low blood sugar is called hypoglycemia. Signs of hypoglycemia include the following:
- Feeling very tired
- Frequent yawning
- Being unable to speak or think clearly
- Loss of muscle coordination
- Suddenly feeling like you’re going to pass out
- Becoming very pale
- Loss of consciousness
People who have diabetes should carry at least 15 grams of a fast-acting carbohydrate with them at all times in case of hypoglycemia or an insulin reaction. The following are examples of quick sources of energy that can relieve the symptoms:
- Nondiet soda- ½ to ¾ cup
- Fruit juice- ½ cup
- Fruit- 2 tablespoons of raisins
- Milk- 1 cup
- Candy- 5 Lifesavers
- Glucose tablets- 3 tablets (5 grams each)
If you don’t feel better 15 minutes after having a fast-acting carbohydrate, or if monitoring shows that your blood sugar level is still too low, have another 15 grams of a fast-acting carbohydrate.
Teach your friends, work colleagues and family members how to treat hypoglycemia, because sometimes you may need their help. Also, keep a supply of glucagon on hand. Glucagon comes in a kit with a powder and a liquid that must be mixed together and then injected (given as a shot). It will raise your blood sugar level. If you are unconscious, or you can't eat or drink, another person can give you a shot of glucagon. This will bring your blood sugar level back to normal.
What about smoking and alcohol?
You should stop smoking as soon as possible. It's probably okay to drink some alcohol with a meal, but you should only have 1 serving each day. A serving is 4 ounces of wine, 12 ounces of beer or 1.5 ounces of hard liquor. If you drink on an empty stomach, you risk causing a drop in your blood sugar. Talk with your doctor about how much alcohol is safe for you to consume with your diabetes.
How will I know if my blood sugar level is too high?
High blood sugar (also called hyperglycemia) can occur even if you are eating properly and taking your insulin correctly. Eating too much food at a meal, getting sick, having hormonal changes and feeling stressed out can affect your blood sugar.
Symptoms of hyperglycemia include the following:
- Frequent urination
- Extreme thirst
- Blurry vision
- Feeling very tired
What should I do if my blood sugar level is too high?
If your blood sugar level goes higher than it should, you may need to take an extra dose of rapid- or short-acting insulin to return your blood sugar to the normal range. Your doctor can tell you how much insulin you need to take to lower your blood sugar level.
See a list of resources used in the development of this information.
Portions of this article were developed by the American Academy of Family Physicians in cooperation with the American Diabetes Association.
Portions of this article were developed as part of an educational program made possible by an unrestricted educational grant from LifeScan, Inc., makers of OneTouch Blood Glucose Meters.
Portions of this article were developed with general underwriting support from The Coca-Cola Company.
Written by familydoctor.org editorial staff