Type 1 diabetes can be a challenging condition to manage, placing a lot of responsibility and, often, a heavy burden on those living with the condition.
It is no surprise, however, that interest has been ongoing on whether there is a cure for type 1 diabetes.
While it is not as simple as taking medication or changing your lifestyle, some scientists are working on a cure for diabetes in the hope that sometime in the future, people who have the condition can live a life free from insulin injections.
What is type 1 diabetes?
Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune disease that is usually diagnosed in childhood. Unlike many (but not all) cases of type 2 diabetes, type 1 diabetes is not caused by lifestyle factors.
An autoimmune disease is a condition whereby your immune system mistakenly ‘attacks’ your body. In those without autoimmune diseases, their immune system is protective against illnesses, for example, those caused by germs and bacteria.
When someone has type 1 diabetes, the insulin-producing cells (the beta cells) in the pancreas eventually become worn out and stop producing insulin (a hormone that helps your body convert sugar into energy).
If your blood sugar cannot be effectively converted into energy, it can build up to dangerous levels in the blood and cause damage to your organs, for example, your eyes, heart and kidneys, causing diabetes complications such as heart disease.
It is not fully understood what causes type 1 diabetes, and research is ongoing. According to data from Diabetes UK, type 1 diabetes affects around 8% of those with diabetes. Although type 1 diabetes is far less common than type 2 diabetes, most children living with diabetes have type 1.
In type 1 diabetes, when your insulin-producing beta cells no longer produce any insulin, causing persistent high blood sugar levels, symptoms of diabetes begin to show. As already mentioned, in type 1 diabetes, this typically happens in childhood.
A person with undiagnosed type 1 diabetes may experience the following diabetes symptoms before diagnosis:
- Extreme thirst
- Frequent need to urinate (this can show as regular, unexplained bedwetting or toilet accidents in children)
- Vision changes
- Mood changes
Can you reverse or cure type 1 diabetes?
There is common confusion around diabetes, such as the differences between the main types (including type 1, type 2, and gestational diabetes), the best treatments, and whether there is a cure.
While there is some evidence that type 2 diabetes can be reversed, or more accurately, put into remission, this is unfortunately not the case for type 1 diabetes. Type 1 diabetes can be managed with insulin injections, diet and exercise, but unfortunately, there is currently no cure.
Yet, thanks to the fantastic scientists working in the field of diabetes, people are working on treatments to reverse the disease. The aim of these treatments is so that, eventually, people living with type 1 diabetes will be able to move toward and experience lives where they don’t have to take diabetes medication to control their blood glucose levels.
Clinical trials that are currently underway are aiming to find a way to reverse type 1 diabetes, allowing those with the condition to no longer need to take insulin injections. This is sometimes referred to as a biological cure, and the research is focused on islet cell transplantation.
Islets are clusters of pancreatic cells that work together to regulate blood sugar levels. And islet cell transplantation procedure provides islet cells, taken from an organ donor, and then implanted into the liver of someone with type 1 diabetes.
Islet cell transplantation has already proven effective in those who have had it, either drastically reducing or completely eliminating the need for insulin injections to control blood glucose levels and manage diabetes complications.
Work is ongoing now to try and make islet cell transplantation more widespread so that more people can benefit from this life-changing treatment.
How to manage type 1 diabetes
As previously mentioned, those with type 1 diabetes who are not undergoing treatment such as islet cell transplantation will need to take insulin, either via injections or through an insulin pump.
There are several different types of insulin, as well as other modes of delivery. The different types of insulin can be broadly categorized into three groups.
Each of these three types of insulin varies based on the time it takes them to begin working. The three main types of insulin are:
- Short-acting insulin
- Intermediate-acting insulin
- Long-acting insulin
Additionally, mixed insulin is a mixture of short and long-acting insulin. It is taken before meals but takes away the need for a basal (background) or intermediate-acting insulin.
People with type 1 diabetes may also need to take other diabetes medications aside from insulin. This is to manage the additional risk factors of living with the condition, such as heart disease.
People with diabetes fall into a particularly high risk factor group in terms of their predisposition to heart disease. As such, blood pressure medications such as ACE inhibitors, or cholesterol-lowering drugs such as statins are commonly recommended.
Additionally to insulin and diabetes medications, those with diabetes should consider if they could benefit from making some lifestyle changes. This is particularly important for people with a high risk of heart disease or other diabetes complications.
Lifestyle changes that can help include:
- Taking regular exercise. Aim for 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise per week, or build up gradually from where you currently are.
- Eating a healthy diet
- Quitting smoking and cutting back on alcohol.
- Maintaining a healthy body weight or aiming for safe weight loss (with the right professional support).
On the whole, most people (including those with diabetes) would benefit from eating more fruit and vegetables, more whole grain foods and other high fiber foods such as beans, lentils, and pulses, more oily fish, less processed meat, fewer foods high in saturated fat and choosing fats from unsaturated sources, and fewer added sugars.
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Many sources of information exist regarding the best diet for diabetes. Making some simple, health-promoting diet changes like those just listed, can have a big impact. Speak with your doctor, who can refer you to a registered dietitian or nutritionist if you are interested to learn more about changes you can make to your diet when you have diabetes.
Insulin injections remain the mainstay of treatments for those with type 1 diabetes. However, research is emerging all the time.
Some people are already benefitting from these exciting treatments and are living a life with a significantly reduced need for insulin injections, and in some cases, none at all. This presents hope for many others.