Do you know someone who has diabetes? It might be a family member, a friend or your next door neighbor. According to the American Diabetes Association, nearly 29.1 million Americans have been diagnosed with diabetes in the last few years – millions more are at risk for developing it.

Diabetes is a condition where your body can’t properly use the sugar you get from the foods you eat. When we eat, our body breaks down the food into many different parts. One of those parts is “glucose” or sugar which we use for energy. People who are not diabetic are able to use this sugar as energy without a problem. Someone who has diabetes cannot convert the sugar to energy and this depends on whether they have Type I or Type II diabetes.

If you currently have Type I diabetes, there’s a good chance you’ve had it most of your life since childhood. It used to be called Juvenile Diabetes years ago, but now, adults as well as children are diagnosed with Type I diabetes. With Type I diabetes, your body does not make a hormone called insulin made by an organ called the pancreas. After you’ve eaten something, the pancreas tells your body how to handle the sugar in your body. As you can imagine, if you don’t have insulin, your body will be confused about what to do with that sugar. When someone who is diabetic talks about having “high blood sugar” or “low blood sugar” they are talking about how much sugar is absorbed into their bloodstream after they’ve eaten. If your body does not make any insulin, you will have lots of sugar in your bloodstream that doesn’t know where it’s supposed to go and can make you very sick. That’s why people who have Type I diabetes are called “insulin-dependent.” In order to survive, they need to take shots or use a pump that will put insulin into their bodies so that they don’t have too much sugar in their blood.

Type II diabetes is a little bit different and it is more common for people to have. If you know someone with diabetes, chances are they have Type II who may experience some of these occurrences:

Insulin resistance occurs when your pancreas makes insulin, but your body doesn’t react to it. If your body makes plenty of insulin but your body is not able to use it to keep the level of sugar in your blood in the normal range. Over time higher than normal blood sugar can damage the eyes, heart and kidneys.

· Hypoglycemia occurs when your blood sugar gets too low. When you have hypoglycemia you may need to eat a snack or take a sugar tablet (called a glucose tablet) in order to make your blood sugar level go up quickly so you feel better.

· Hyperglycemia may occur when you have overly high levels of blood sugar and you may have to inject insulin into your body to help make the levels normal again, especially after you’ve eaten a meal.

· Glucose meter. If a person isn’t feeling well because their blood sugar is too high or too low, they will often test their blood sugar levels with a glucose meter before their symptoms start. A small needle is used to prick your finger to let a small blood drop onto a testing strip. The strip goes into a meter which tells you how much sugar is in your blood. If the number is higher than normal, you may need to take insulin. If it’s too low, you may need to have a snack. Your doctor will help you learn about checking your blood sugar. Some people do it every day; others only do it a few times a week.

At Pen Bay Medical Center, there are lots of ways that you can learn about diabetes and how to manage your symptoms. Our very own Diabetes & Nutrition Care Center offers classes by certified diabetes educators (CDE) who can help you learn how to take care of yourself when you have diabetes. CDEs teach you how to check your blood sugar, what types of food to eat and how exercise can help keep your blood sugar levels in a healthy range.

A new pilot program at several hospitals in Maine is under way this year including at Pen Bay to help newly diabetic patients learn how to live with their diagnosis. This grant-funded program employs nurses called “health coaches” to work with patients in the doctor’s office to help them understand how to fit the new lifestyle changes of diabetes into their daily lives. Health coaches are assisted by health guides who help to connect patients with resources in the community like diabetes education classes.

Call the Pen Bay’s Diabetes & Nutrition Care Center at 207-701-3999 to find out about education classes. And ask your doctor if a Health Coach will be coming to their office in the future.

Abby Norman is Pen Bay Medical Center’s Health Guide. She is also a freelance science writer and has contributed to many publications, including The National Medical Records Briefing and The Almost Doctor’s Channel (online).