What causes type 1 diabetes and how to know whether you're at risk
- Type 1 diabetes occurs when your immune system mistakenly attacks the pancreas and it no longer produces insulin.
- The major risk factors for type 1 diabetes are a family history of the condition, the presence of other autoimmune diseases, and living in colder climates.
- Scientists don't yet know how to prevent type 1 diabetes from developing, but you can manage the condition by checking blood sugar often and living a healthy lifestyle.
- This article was medically reviewed by Jason R. McKnight, MD, MS, a family medicine physician and clinical assistant professor at Texas A&M College of Medicine.
- For more stories go to www.BusienssInsider.co.za.
Diabetes is a chronic health condition that impairs the body's ability to use or produce insulin, a hormone that regulates the conversion of sugar from food into energy, resulting in dangerously elevated blood sugar levels.
This can happen whether you have type 1 or type 2 diabetes, though type 1 diabetes is less common. There are many differences between type and type 2 diabetes, and only about 5% to 10% of people with diabetes have type 1 (roughly 0.5% of Americans).
Here's what you should know about the causes and risk factors for type 1 diabetes.
"With type 1 diabetes, the body is essentially attacking itself at the pancreas so that it cannot produce any insulin," says Stephanie Redmond, PharmD, a certified diabetes educator and co-founder of Diabetes Doctor Supplements.
Scientists classify type 1 diabetes as an autoimmune disease, which is when your immune system mistakenly attacks your own body. But they don't know exactly what causes the body to attack the pancreas and halt the production of insulin.
Without insulin - a hormone that allows the cells in the body to absorb sugar (glucose) from the food you eat - the body is unable to fuel itself and is essentially starving. This may cause feelings of fatigue and hunger.
Most people with type 1 diabetes experience sudden and severe symptoms, in a matter of days or weeks. These can include rapid weight loss, vomiting, or loss of consciousness in the most extreme cases. If this occurs, you should seek medical attention immediately.
Although scientists don't know exactly what causes type 1 diabetes, they have identified certain risk factors, including:
Genetics and family history
Variations in the HLA gene group on chromosome 6 are associated with type 1 diabetes. Specifically, the HLA-DR3 and HLA-DR4 genes have been linked to type 1 diabetes in caucasians, who appear to develop the condition more than other races.
Research shows that the younger a person is diagnosed, the higher the chance that their development of type 1 diabetes is a result of genetic factors. In fact, people who were diagnosed before age 11 are twice as likely to have a child with type 1 diabetes.
Men with type 1 diabetes have a 1 in 17 chance of having a child with the condition. Women with type 1 diabetes have a 1 in 25 chance of passing it on if they have a child before age 25, but that decreases to 1 in 100 if the child is born after the woman turns 25.
Read more about type 1 diabetes and genetics, and what to do if it runs in your family.
Weather and climate
Researchers have identified cold weather as a possible trigger for type 1 diabetes, though it is unclear why. According to the American Diabetes Association, the condition is more common in colder climates, and develops more often in the winter than the summer.
Moreover, a 2016 study published in the journal of the European Society of Pediatric Endocrinology concluded that cases of type 1 diabetes "seems increased in relatively cold weather."
Other autoimmune diseases
Existing autoimmune diseases may increase your risk of developing type 1 diabetes. For example, the following conditions occur at higher rates in those with type 1 diabetes:
- Autoimmune thyroid diseases (Hashimoto's thyroiditis and Graves' disease): 15% to 30%
- Autoimmune gastritis or pernicious anemia: 5% to 10%
- Celiac disease: 4% to 9%
- Vitiligo: 2% to 10%
There is little that can be done to prevent type 1 diabetes from developing because researchers don't yet understand exactly why the condition occurs.
However, research has indicated that breastfeeding and waiting until at least 4 months to feed babies solid food may reduce your child's risk of developing type 1 diabetes. Although researchers don't know exactly why this may be protective, they theorise that early feeding habits affect the health of the gut microbiome, which could have protective qualities against type 1 diabetes.
In addition, people with type 1 diabetes can prevent further health complications by actively managing their condition. For example, type 1 diabetics need to check their blood sugar regularly and take insulin daily. An insulin pump or continuous glucose monitor is usually an optimal form of treatment. Read more about how to check your blood sugar at home - and the best testing devices to use.
Overall, taking medication, exercising regularly, and eating a healthy diet can all help get your blood sugar levels under control. In fact, every 1% drop in A1C levels (a measure of blood sugar) can reduce your risk for serious health complications, such as nerve or blood vessel damage, Redmond says.
"Actively managing diabetes is so important because you don't want to cause damage that can't be reversed," Redmond says. "The more you can keep blood sugars in range, the less risk for complications down the road."
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