For Kids: What is Diabetes?


What is diabetes?

Diabetes is a condition where your body is not able to turn the food you eat into energy. Your body needs insulin to unlock your body’s cells and turn the food into energy. Your entire body is made up of these tiny cells, all different kinds depending on where they are in your body.

Insulin is something called a hormone, which is a chemical messenger inside your body. Without insulin, the food you eat cannot get into your cells, and instead that food gets stuck in your blood, making your blood sugar high.

There are several types of diabetes. Type 1 diabetes is a condition that happens when the immune system attacks the cells in your pancreas that make insulin. The immune system is supposed to help fight off colds, viruses, and things like that, but sometimes it attacks your own body by mistake. For people with type 1 diabetes, insulin is required every day to stay alive. About five to ten percent of people with diabetes have type 1.

For type 2 diabetes, the problem starts where the cells put up a wall and do not let the insulin in. Then the body starts working harder to make more insulin, and over time stops making it all together. Then people with type 2 diabetes need insulin, just like people with type 1. About 90 percent of people with diabetes have type 2.

There are also some other less common types of diabetes where you need different types of medicines, but type 1 and type 2 are the most common.

What is a pancreas?

The pancreas is a corn cob shaped organ that's about six inches long, and sits behind the stomach. The pancreas makes the hormones insulin and glucagon (which regulate blood sugars), and it also makes things called enzymes that help you break down the food you eat. The insulin allows you to turn food into energy, and the enzymes help you absorb other nutrients from the foods that your body needs.

How do you treat diabetes?

People with type 1 diabetes have to take insulin everyday, given by a shot or an insulin pump. People with diabetes also need to check their blood sugar at least a few times a day, and they can use a blood glucose meter (pricking their finger as needed), or wear a continuous glucose monitor to check their blood sugar levels.

There are a lot of other medicines to help the insulin get into the body’s cells. Usually kids with type 2 diabetes start with something called metformin, which makes the cells more open to letting the insulin in. It also helps the liver keep the sugar it stores in the liver instead of being put out into the bloodstream.

What is insulin?

Insulin is a hormone made by special cells called beta cells in the pancreas. It has three main tasks: unlock cells so that glucose can get inside; stop the body from making extra sugar; and stop the body from using fat for energy.

Insulin was discovered by Sir Frederick G Banting, Charles H. Best, and JJR Macleod at the University of Toronto in 1921, then purified by James B Collip. Before Banting and team's discovery, people with type 1 diabetes didn't live more than a year or two after their diagnosis. Insulin is still the only way to treat type 1 diabetes.

Did you know that insulin was discovered in 1921?

How do you find other people with diabetes?

Insulin is needed to live well with diabetes. That’s a fact. But it’s really helpful to find a group of fellow people with diabetes to connect with, too, and that’s where Children with Diabetes comes in. Our Friends for Life conferences help people with diabetes get together, learn, support each other, and become friends for life. Diabetes is easier when we do it together - find out more about our conferences and virtual events!

WEIRD FACT: Did doctors really drink urine samples to detect diabetes?

According to the Science History Institute, in 1674, a doctor at Oxford University, Thomas Willis, was the first western doctor to “connect the sweetness of urine to the condition of its owner, a person suffering the effects of diabetes.”  Willis was surprised by his findings and told his story in Pharmaceutice rationalis:

But why that it is wonderfully sweet like sugar or honey, this difficulty is worthy of explanation.

Willis never figured out why the urine was sweet, but his writing of the finding helped scientists learn more about diabetes.