Type 2 Diabetes Basics - Everything You Need to Know for Health Empowerment

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What is diabetes?

Diabetes is a chronic health condition. There are multiple types of diabetes, but this article will focus on type 2 diabetes.

When someone has type 2 diabetes, their body’s relationship to a hormone called insulin is out of balance. Insulin is made by your pancreas, and it’s a hormone that helps you get energy from food.

When you eat food, that food is digested into simple sugars. Those sugars move from your digestive tract to your bloodstream, which causes a release of insulin. Insulin’s job is to move those sugars out of your blood and into your cells, where the sugar can be used for energy. Type 2 diabetes is a disease where insulin is not able to do its job, meaning insulin can’t move the sugars out of your blood. This causes the sugars to stay in your blood, which is why people with diabetes have high blood sugar. Sugar is useless to us in the blood, it must be moved into cells by insulin in order to give us energy. But why can’t insulin do its job when someone has diabetes? Let’s break it down further.

Insulin is the key

Literally! Insulin is a molecule that has a specific shape to perfectly fit into receptors on the surface of your cells. These receptors act as “locks” to the doors that allow sugar to go from your bloodstream to your cells. Only then can the sugar be used as energy.

(Shown above: insulin opening the locked gate on cells, allowing glucose/sugar in)
Diabetes occurs when:
  1. The locks on cells stop working as well, so the keys (insulin) can’t let the sugar into cells
  2. There are not enough keys (insulin) to open the locks on cells, so sugar can’t get into cells

Why does this happen?

A. The locks on cells stop working as well

This phenomenon is called “insulin resistance.” The “locks” on cells are not sensing that insulin is present. They are resistant to being unlocked by the “key.” When this happens, the sugar in your bloodstream (which we get from food), is unable to get into cells, where it needs to go to be used as energy. The sugar builds up in the blood.

B. There are not enough keys (insulin) to open the locks

In type 2 diabetes, insulin resistance occurs (described above). Insulin is released when the body senses that there is sugar in the blood after a meal. However, because insulin resistance is occurring, sugar builds up in the blood with nowhere to go. The body senses that there is still too much sugar in the blood, and so it releases more and more insulin in response. The pancreas, which is the organ that makes and releases insulin, ends up working overtime. Eventually, the pancreas gets tired and cannot keep up with the body’s demand for more and more insulin as blood sugar remains high, meal after meal. This is often referred to as “pancreatic exhaustion.” When this happens, the pancreas stops working as well, and not enough insulin can be produced. The cycle continues in this way, with sugar building up in the blood and not being able to move into the cells.

How does diabetes affect my body?

Bodies are not built to have high amounts of sugar present in the bloodstream for long lengths of time. Individual sugar molecules attach to red blood cells when there is excess sugar in the blood.

(Shown above: excess sugar in the bloodstream)

(Shown above: excess sugar in the bloodstream attaches to red blood cells over time)

Why is this a problem? Sugar molecules damage the delicate lining of the blood vessels as they flow through, sort of like something sharp scraping up against something fragile. This damage leads to long-term complications over time.

What factors increase risk for diabetes?

Multiple factors can increase your risks for developing diabetes including:

  • A history of pre-diabetes
  • Weight gain particularly if you are overweight or obese
  • Family History
  • Age people 45 years of age or older are at higher risk
  • Not getting enough exercise (sedentary lifestyle)
  • A history of gestational diabetes
  • Race: African American, Hispanic/Latino American, American Indian, or Alaska Native (some Pacific Islanders and Asian Americans are also at higher risk)

How can I manage type 2 diabetes?

Managing your blood sugar involves a multi-faceted approach that can include: 

  • Testing your blood sugar regularly and tracking over time
  • Communicating with your doctor about blood sugar readings and any symptoms you might be experiencing
  • Understanding your medications and taking them as prescribed
  • Making healthy food choices
  • Focusing on portion control
  • Increasing physical activity
  • Managing your stress
  • Maintaining a healthy weight

Many of these strategies are recommended by the Association of Diabetes Care & Education Specialists (ADCES) has outlined the ADCES 7 Self-Care Behaviors™ for diabetes self-management. Brook was designed to support the ADCES Self-Care Behaviors and support all aspects of health and wellness.

The bottom line

Everyone’s journey with diabetes is unique. Good health is a combination of many factors, some of which are in our control. You may find you are doing very well in some areas, whereas other areas might be a bit more challenging from time to time. That’s ok.

The good news is that you don’t have to do it alone. Brook offers a variety of programs that support everyone’s health journey, whether you are trying to avoid getting diabetes down the road, managing diabetes yourself, or working with your healthcare provider to improve blood sugar regulation.

P.S. Concerned about your risk, or want to know symptoms to look out for? Check out the ADA web page to learn more.


Reviewed by Kelsea Hoover, MS, RDN​

November 2023. Kelsea is a Registered Dietitian with her Master's degree in Nutrition from Bastyr University in Kenmore, WA, and is the Senior Marketing Manager at Brook.