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Diabetes Type 1
Testing for Glucose Abnormalities
Fasting Plasma Glucose. The fasting plasma glucose (FPG) test is the standard test for diagnosing diabetes. It is a simple blood test taken after 8 hours of fasting. In general, results indicate the following:
FPG levels are considered normal up to 100 mg/dL (or 5.5 mmol/L).
Levels between 100 and 125 mg/dL (5.5 to 7.0 mmol/L) are referred to as impaired fasting glucose or pre-diabetes. These levels are considered to be risk factors for type 2 diabetes and its complications.
Diabetes is diagnosed when FPG levels are 126 mg/dL (7.0 mmol/L) or higher.
The FPG test is not always reliable, so a repeat test is recommended if the initial test suggests the presence of diabetes, or if the tests are normal in people who have symptoms or risk factors for diabetes. For example, people who take the test in the afternoon and show normal results may actually have abnormal levels that would be revealed if they are tested in the morning.
Glucose Tolerance Test. The oral glucose tolerance test (OGTT) is more complex than the FPG and may overdiagnose diabetes in people who do not have it. Some experts recommend it as a follow-up after FPG, if the latter test results are normal but the patient has symptoms or risk factors of diabetes. The test uses the following procedures:
It first uses an FPG test
- A blood test is then taken 2 hours later after drinking a special glucose solution
The following results suggest different conditions:
- OGTT levels are normal up to 140 mg/dL
- Levels between 140 mg/dL and 199 mg/dL are referred to as impaired glucose tolerance or pre-diabetes
- Diabetes is diagnosed when OGTT levels are 200 mg/dL or higher
- Both the FPG and OGTT tests require that the patient not eat for at least 8 hours prior to the test.
The oral glucose tolerance test is used to diagnose diabetes. The first portion of the test involves drinking a special glucose solution. Blood is then taken several hours later to test for the level of glucose in the blood. Patients who have diabetes will have higher than normal levels of glucose in their blood.
Test for Glycated Hemoglobin. Another test examines blood levels glycated hemoglobin, also known as hemoglobin A1c (HbA1c). Measuring glycated hemoglobin is not currently used for an initial diagnosis, but it may be useful for determining the severity of diabetes.
The basis for its use as a diagnostic measurement in diabetes is as follows:
Hemoglobin is a protein molecule found in red blood cells. When glucose binds to it, the hemoglobin becomes modified, a process called glycation.
Glycation affects a number of proteins, and elevated levels of glycolated hemoglobin is strongly associated with complications of diabetes.
A glycated hemoglobin level of 1% above normal range identifies diabetes in 98% of patients. Normal HbA1c levels do not necessarily rule out diabetes, but if diabetes is present and levels are normal, the risk for complications is low.
The test is not affected by food intake so it can be taken at any time. A home test has been developed that might make it easier to measure HbA1c. In general, measurements suggest the following:
- Normal HbA1c levels should be below 7%.
- Levels of 11 – 12% glycolated hemoglobin indicate poor control of carbohydrates. High levels are also markers for kidney trouble
Testing for Insulin Resistance. Investigators hope that some day a simple test for insulin resistance will be available that will be able to identify people at risk for diabetes. Some research suggests that measuring insulin and triglyceride levels during a fasting period may predict a person’s sensitivity to insulin.
Type 1 diabetes is characterized by the presence of a variety of antibodies called autoantibodies that attack the islet cells. These antibodies are referred to as autoantibodies, because they attack the body’s own cells — not a foreign invader. Blood tests that test for these autoantibodies can help differentiate between type 1 and type 2 diabetes.
Screening Tests for Complications
Screening for Heart Disease. All patients with diabetes should be tested for high blood pressure (hypertension) and unhealthy cholesterol and lipid levels and given an electrocardiogram. For cholesterol, people with diabetes should aim for LDL levels below 100 mg/dL, HDL levels over 50 mg/dL, and triglyceride levels below 150 mg/dL. Blood pressure goals should be 130/80 mmHg or lower. Other tests may be needed in patients with signs of heart disease.
High blood pressure is strongly associated with diabetic nephropathy (kidney disease). In fact, patients with type 2 diabetes who show signs of microalbuminuria typically already have hypertension. Type 1 diabetes patients with microalbuminuria, on the other hand, usually have normal blood pressure readings in the doctor’s office. A 2002 study using home monitors, however, found that in type 1 patients, high systolic blood pressure during sleep often occurs before development of nephropathy. (Systolic pressure is the first and higher number in a blood pressure reading.) Home blood pressure monitoring, may help identify type 1 patients at risk for kidney damage.
The electrocardiogram (ECG, EKG) is used extensively in the diagnosis of heart disease, from congenital heart disease in infants to myocardial infarction and myocarditis in adults. Several different types of electrocardiogram exist.
Screening for Kidney Damage. The earliest manifestation of kidney disease is microalbuminuria, in which tiny amounts (30 to 300 mg per day) of protein called albumin are found in the urine. Microalbuminuria is also a marker for other complications involving blood vessel abnormalities, including heart attack and stroke.
The American Diabetes Association recommends that people with diabetes receive an annual microalbuminuria urine test. Patients should also have their blood creatinine tested at least once a year. Creatinine is a waste product that is removed from the blood by the kidneys. High levels of creatinine may indicate kidney damage. A doctor uses the results from a creatinine blood test to calculate the glomerular filtration rate (GFR). The GFR is an indicator of kidney function; it estimates how well the kidneys are cleaning the blood.
Screening for Thyroid Abnormalities. Thyroid function tests should be administered.
Dietary Goals and Exercise
The treatment goals for a diabetes diet are:
Achieve near-normal blood glucose levels. People with type 1 diabetes must coordinate calorie intake with medication or insulin administration, exercise, and other variables to control blood glucose levels. New forms of insulin now allow more flexibility in timing meals.
Protect the heart and aim for healthy lipid (cholesterol and triglyceride) levels and control of blood pressure.
Achieve reasonable weight. A reasonable weight is usually defined as what is achievable and sustainable, rather than one that is culturally defined as desirable or ideal. Children, pregnant women, and people recovering from illness should be sure to maintain adequate calories for health.
Manage or prevent complications of diabetes. People with diabetes, whether type 1 or 2, are at risk for a number of medical complications, including heart and kidney disease. Dietary requirements for diabetes must take these disorders into consideration.
Promote overall health.
Overall Guidelines. There is no such thing as a single diabetes diet. Patients should meet with a professional dietitian to plan an individualized diet within the general guidelines that takes into consideration their own health needs.
Healthy eating habits along with good control of blood glucose are the basic goals, and several good dietary methods are available to meet them. General dietary guidelines for diabetes recommend:
Carbohydrates should provide 45 – 65% of total daily calories. The type and amount of carbohydrate are both important. Best choices are vegetables, fruits, beans, and whole grains. These foods are also high in fiber. Patients with diabetes should monitor their carbohydrate intake either through carbohydrate counting or meal planning exchange lists
Fats should provide 25 – 35% of daily calories. Monounsaturated (olive, peanut, canola oils; avocados; nuts) and omega-3 polyunsaturated (fish, flaxseed oil, walnuts) fats are the best types. Limit saturated fat (red meat, butter) to less than 7% of daily calories. Choose nonfat or low-fat dairy instead of whole milk products. Limit trans-fats (hydrogenated fat found in snack foods, fried foods, commercially baked goods) to less than 1% of total calories.
Protein should provide 12 – 20% of daily calories, although this may vary depending on a patient’s individual health requirements. Patients with kidney disease should limit protein intake to less than 10% of calories. Fish, soy, and poultry are better protein choices than red meat.
Healthy Weight Control
Weight gain is a potential side effect of intense diabetic control with insulin. Being overweight can increase the risk for health problems. On the other hand, studies suggest that more than one-third of women with diabetes omit or underuse insulin in order to lose weight. Eating disorders have become a serious problem within the general population and are especially dangerous in patients with diabetes. Some evidence suggests that they contribute to about 20% of cases of recurrent ketoacidosis in young women. Ketoacidosis is significant complication of insulin depletion and can be life-threatening.
Aerobic exercise has significant and particular benefits for people with type 1 diabetes. It increases sensitivity to insulin, lowers blood pressure, improves cholesterol levels, and decreases body fat. Because glucose levels swing dramatically during workouts, people with type 1 diabetes need to take certain precautions:
- Monitor glucose levels carefully before, during, and after workouts.
- Avoid exercise if glucose levels are above 300 mg/dL or under 100 mg/dL.
- To avoid hypoglycemia, inject insulin in sites away from the muscles they use the most during exercise.
- Before exercising, avoid alcohol and if possible certain drugs, including beta-blockers, which increase the risk of hypoglycemia.
- Insulin-dependent athletes may need to decrease insulin doses or take in more carbohydrates, especially in the form of pre-exercise snacks. Skim milk is particularly helpful. They should also drink plenty of fluids.
- Good, protective footwear is essential to help avoid injuries and wounds to the feet.
- Resistance or high impact exercises should be avoided. They can strain weakened blood vessels in the eyes of patients with retinopathy. High-impact exercise may also injure blood vessels in the feet. Because patients with diabetes may have silent heart disease, they should always check with their doctors before undertaking vigorous exercise.
A 2006 study of over 19,000 children with type 1 diabetes found that regular physical activity helps improve blood sugar levels without increasing the risk of severe hypoglycemia. The researchers suggest that doctors recommend regular exercise for pediatric patients with type 1 diabetes.
Insulin is essential for strict control of blood glucose levels in type 1 diabetes. Tight blood glucose control is the best way to prevent major complications in type 1 diabetes including those that affect the kidneys, eyes, nerve pathways, and blood vessels. Intensive insulin treatment in early diabetes may even help preserve any residual insulin secretion for at least 2 years.
There are, however, some significant problems with intensive insulin therapy:
There is a higher risk for low blood sugar (hypoglycemia).
Many patients experience significant weight gain from insulin administration, which may have adverse effects on blood pressure and cholesterol levels. It is important to manage heart disease risk factors that might develop as a result of insulin treatment.
A diet plan that compensates for insulin administration and supplies healthy foods is extremely important. [For detailed information, see In-Depth Report #42: Diabetes diet.] Pancreas transplantation eventually may be recommended for patients who cannot control glucose levels without frequent episodes of severe hypoglycemia.
Regimens for Intensive Insulin Treatment
The goal of intensive insulin therapy is to keep blood glucose levels as close to normal as possible. In one major study, even when levels were 40% higher than nondiabetic levels, benefits were still observed.
Blood glucose levels before meals
Less than 110 mg/dL (or 6.1 mmol/L)
90-130 mg/dL (or 5-7.2 mmol/L)
Bedtime blood glucose levels
Less than 120 mg/dL (6.6 mmol/L)
110-150 mg/dL (or 6.1-8.3 mmol/L)
Glycated hemoglobin (HbA1c) levels
4 – 6%
Less than 7%
From Diabetes Management in the 21st Century: Multiple Therapeutic Options for Achieving Glycemic Control, Diabetes and Endocrinology Treatment Updates, © 2000 Medscape, Inc.
Standard insulin therapy is usually one or two insulin injections, one daily blood sugar test, and visits to the health care team every 3 months. For strictly controlling blood glucose, however, intensive management is required. The regimen is complicated although newer insulin forms may make it easier.
A diet plan that compensates for insulin administration and supplies healthy foods is extremely important. Pancreas transplantation eventually may be recommended for patients who cannot control glucose levels without frequent episodes of severe hypoglycemia.
There are two components to flexible insulin administration and a number of variations of insulin delivery for accomplishing them:
Basal insulin administration. The basal component of the treatment attempts to provide a steady amount of background insulin throughout the day. Basal insulin levels maintain regular blood glucose needs. Insulin glargine now offers the most consistent insulin activity level, but other intermediate- and long-acting forms may be beneficial when administered twice a day. Short-acting insulin delivered continuously using a pump is proving to a very good way to provide basal rates of insulin.
Mealtime insulin administration. Meals require a boost (a bolus) of insulin to regulate the sudden rise in glucose levels after a meal.
In achieving insulin control the patient must also take other steps:
The patient should perform four or more blood glucose tests during the day.
Patients should coordinate insulin administration with calorie intake. In general, they should eat three meals each day at regular intervals. Snacks are often required.
Insulin requirements vary depending on many non-nutritional situations during the day, including exercise and sleep. People are at enhanced risk for low blood sugar during exercise. Some patients experience a sudden rise in blood glucose levels in the morning–the so-called “dawn phenomenon.”
The patient must also maintain a good diet plan and should visit the health care team of doctors, nurses, and dietitians once a month.
Because of the higher risk for hypoglycemia in children, experts recommend that intensive treatment be used very cautiously in children under 13 and not at all in very young children.
Insulin cannot be taken orally because the body’s digestive juices destroy it. Injections of insulin under the skin ensure that it is absorbed slowly by the body for a long-lasting effect. The timing and frequency of insulin injections depend upon a number of factors:
The duration of insulin action. Insulin is available in several forms, including standard-, intermediate-, long-, and rapid-acting.
Amount and type of food eaten. Ingestion of food makes the blood glucose level rise. Alcohol lowers levels.
The person’s level of physical activity. Exercise lowers glucose levels.
Fast-Acting Insulin. Insulin lispro (Humalog) and insulin aspart (Novo Rapid, Novolog) lower blood sugar very quickly, usually within 5 minutes after injection. Insulin peaks in about 4 hours and continues to work for about 4 hours. This rapid action reduces the risk for hypoglycemic events after eating (postprandial hypoglycemia). Optimal timing for administering this insulin is about 15 minutes before a meal, but it can be also taken immediately after a meal (but within 30 minutes). Fast-acting insulins may be especially useful for meals with high carbohydrates.
Regular Insulin. Regular insulin begins to act 30 minutes after injection, reaches its peak at 2 to 4 hours and lasts about 6 hours. Regular insulin may be administered before a meal and may be better for high-fat meals.
Intermediate-Acting Insulin. NPH (neutral protamine Hagedorn) insulin has been the standard intermediate-acting form. It works within 2 to 4 hours, peaks 4 to 12 hours later, and lasts up to 18 hours. Lente (insulin zinc) is another intermediate-acting insulin that peaks between 4 to 12 hours and lasts up to 18 hours.
Long-Acting (Ultralente) Insulin. Long-acting insulins, such as insulin glargine (Lantus), are released slowly. Insulin glargine matches parts of natural insulin and maintains stable activity for more than 24 hours. Studies suggest that it poses less of a risk for hypoglycemia and weight gain than NPH. It has a higher incidence of pain at the injection site than NPH. Ultralente insulin peaks at 10 hours and lasts up to 20 hours but varies greatly in activity from day to day.
Combinations. Regimens generally include combinations of short and longer-acting insulins to help match the natural cycle. For example, one approach in patients who are intensively controlling their glucose levels uses 3 injections of insulin, which includes a mixture of regular insulin and NPH at dinner. Another approach uses 4 injections, including a separate short-acting form at dinner and NPH at bedtime, which may pose a lower risk for nighttime hypoglycemia than the 3-injection regimen.
Alternative Methods for Delivering Insulin
Insulin Pumps. An insulin pump can improve blood glucose control and quality of life with fewer hypoglycemic episodes than multiple injections. The pumps correct for the “dawn phenomenon” (sudden rise of blood glucose in the morning) and allow quick reductions for specific situations, such as exercise. Many different brands are available.
The typical pump is about the size of a beeper and has a digital display. Some are worn externally and are programmed to deliver insulin through a catheter in the skin or the abdomen. They generally use rapid-acting insulin, which is the most predictable type. They work by administering a small amount of insulin continuously (the basal rate) and a higher dose (a bolus dose) when food is eaten.
Many adults, adolescents, and school children use insulin pumps. A 2006 study found that even very young children (ages 2 – 7 years) can successfully use insulin pumps and that the pumps provided better blood sugar control than twice-daily insulin injections.
The catheter at the end of the insulin pump is inserted through a needle into the abdominal fat of a person with diabetes. Dosage instructions are entered into the pump’s small computer and the appropriate amount of insulin is then injected into the body in a calculated, controlled manner.
Learning to use the pump can be complicated, although over time most patients find they are fairly easy to use. To achieve good control, patients and parents of children must undergo some training. The patient and doctor must determine the amount of insulin used — it is not automatically calculated. This requires an initial learning period, including understanding insulin needs over the course of the day and in different situations and knowledge of carbohydrate counting. Frequent blood testing is very important, particularly during the training period.
Insulin pumps are more expensive than insulin shots and occasionally have some complications, such as blockage in the device or skin irritation at the infusion site. In spite of early reports of a higher risk for ketoacidosis with the pumps, more recent studies have found no higher risk.
Insulin Pens. Insulin pens, which contain cartridges of insulin, have been available for some time. Until recently, they were fairly complicated and difficult to use. Newer prefilled pens (Humulin Pen, Humalog) are disposable and allow the patient to dial in the correct amount.
Inhaled Aerosol. In 2006, the FDA approved the first non-injected form of insulin. Exubera is an inhaled form of insulin. It is approved for adults but should not be used by patients who smoke or have quit smoking within the past 6 months. Patients with asthma, bronchitis, or emphysema should also not use inhaled insulin. Scientists are also developing other types of non-injected insulin, including spray formulas.
Other Alternative Insulin Delivery Methods. Another promising avenue of investigation for delivering insulin is the use of ultrasound pulses.
Pramlintide (Symlin) is a new type of injectable drug that can help control postprandial hyperglycemia, the sudden increase in blood sugar after a meal. Pramlintide is injected before meals and can help lower blood sugar levels in the 3 hours after meals. Pramlintide is used in addition to insulin for patients who take insulin regularly but still need better blood sugar control. The FDA approved this drug in 2005 for adults with type 1 and type 2 diabetes. Pramlintide and insulin are the only two drugs approved for treatment of type 1 diabetes.
Pramlintide is a synthetic form of amylin, a hormone that is related to insulin. Side effects may include nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, headache, fatigue, and dizziness. Patients with type 1 diabetes have an increased risk of severe low blood sugar (hypoglycemia) that may occur within 3 hours following a pramlintide injection. This drug should not be used if patients have trouble knowing when their blood sugar is low or have slow stomach emptying (gastroparesis).
CD3-Antibodies. A new type of drug called a CD3 antibody is showing promise for helping patients newly diagnosed with type 1 diabetes. In phase II clinical trials, patients received the drug for 6 days. Results from a 2005 trial published in the New England Journal of Medicine indicated that the CD3 antibody helped stimulate the patients’ natural insulin production and decreased their need for insulin drug therapy. The beneficial effects lasted up to 18 months after CD3 treatment. Researchers think that this drug affects the autoimmune response involved in type 1 diabetes and helps preserve the residual beta cell function of the pancreas.
Glucose (Blood Sugar) Levels
Both low blood sugar (hypoglycemia) and high blood sugar (hyperglycemia) are of concern for patients who take insulin. It is important, therefore, to carefully monitor blood glucose levels. In general, patients with type 1 diabetes need to take readings four or more times a day. Patients should aim for the following measurements:
- Pre-meal glucose levels of between 90 and 130 mg/dL
- Bedtime levels of between 110 and 150 mg/dL
Different goals may be required for specific individuals, including pregnant women, very old and very young people, and those with accompanying serious medical conditions.
Finger-Prick Test. A typical blood sugar test includes the following:
- A drop of blood is obtained by pricking the finger
- The blood is then applied to a chemically treated strip
- Monitors read and provide results
Home monitors are about 10 – 15% less accurate than laboratory monitors are and many do not meet the standards of the American Diabetes Association. Most doctors believe, however, that they are accurate enough to indicate when blood sugar is too low.
To monitor the amount of glucose within the blood a person with diabetes should test their blood regularly. The procedure is quite simple and can often be done at home.
Some simple procedures may improve accuracy:
- Testing the meter once a month
- Recalibrating it whenever a new packet of strips is used
- Using fresh strips; outdated strips may not provide accurate results.
- Keeping the meter clean
- Periodically comparing the meter results with the results from a laboratory
Less Invasive or Noninvasive Tests. A number of noninvasive or less painful tests are on the market or under investigation. The following are some examples:
- A battery-powered wristwatch-like device (GlucoWatch) measures glucose by sending tiny electric currents through the skin — a technique called reverse iontophoresis. It is painless and has a warning device when detecting high glucose levels. It takes 2 hours to warm up and the sensor pads need to be changed every day. About a quarter of the time, it differs significantly from actual fingerstick tests, however, so it should be used to supplement, not replace, blood tests. Nevertheless, in one study it was very effective in improving glucose control in children and was well tolerated. The device in the study also included an alarm that allowed detection of nighttime hypoglycemia. Refinements in the technique should improve accuracy.
- The continuous glucose monitoring system (Minimed) uses a needle-like sensor inserted under the skin, which is attached to a beeper-like computer device worn by the patient. Glucose is measured every 5 minutes, and the results are stored in the device. After 5 days, the patient removes the sensor and the doctor obtains data from the device, which is then used to identify trends and insulin needs. It is does not replace fingerstick tests.
- Some monitors, such as Sof-Tact and FreeStyle, are designed to obtain blood from areas of the skin that are less sensitive. Both appear to be less painful than standard methods.
- Investigative pain-free monitors include laser devices (Altea MicroPor), microneedles, and infrared devices.
Hemoglobin A1c (HbA1c or H1Ac), also called glycated hemoglobin, is measured periodically to determine the average blood-sugar level over the life span of the red blood cell, which is about 8 to 10 weeks. In general, measurements suggest the following:
- Normal HbA1c levels should be below 7%.
- Levels of 11% to 12% glycolated hemoglobin indicate poor control of carbohydrates. High levels are also markers for kidney trouble.
Home tests (DRx, Metrika A1c Now) are available for measuring HbA1c that may allow better monitoring of glucose levels.
Urine tests are useful for detecting the presence of ketones. These tests should always be performed during illness or stressful situations, when diabetes is likely to go out of control. The patient should also undergo yearly urine tests for microalbuminuria (small amounts of protein in the urine), a risk factor for future kidney disease.
For patients beginning intensive insulin therapy, experts recommend an eye examination when starting treatments and every 3 months thereafter up to a year.