Causes of Diabetes: What’s Behind the Growing Number of Cases

With three types of diabetes—type 1, type 2, and gestational—you might think the causes of diabetes are varied. Not really. The underlying factors of obesity, genetics, poor diet, and a lack of exercise set the stage for all three. Diabetes is a serious, progressive disease with no known cure, although it can be treated and managed.

Sugar in Your Body

Your body converts carbohydrates in food to sugar, which your body’s cells use for energy. However, a sugar molecule cannot enter a cell on its own. It needs the hormone insulin to direct it. That’s where the pancreas comes in. The pancreas detects sugar in your blood and releases the appropriate amount of insulin to control the sugar. Insulin then either releases the sugar into the cells for immediate energy or sends it to the liver to store for future needs. However, sometimes insulin is unable to do its job.

When you take in more energy than your body requires—that is, you eat too much—your blood sugar level rises. Normally, the pancreas simply releases more insulin to handle the burden. But sometimes, that doesn’t work.

Whether it’s due to a lack of available natural insulin (type 1 diabetes) or because your cells have become insulin-resistant (type 2 and gestational), the excess sugar in your blood begins destroying your body, leading to diabetic complications, including:

  • Fatty liver disease
  • Cardiovascular disease
  • Hypertension
  • Neuropathy
  • Kidney disease
  • Cancer

You may also experience such symptoms as further weight gain, fatigue, decreased cognitive function, and aging skin.

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Causes of Diabetes: Type 1

Type 1 diabetes was called “juvenile diabetes” because it was largely the only type of diabetes children got (that is no longer the case). According to the American Diabetes Association, about 5 percent of people with diabetes have Type 1.

With type 1 diabetes, researchers believe the body’s immune cells attack the insulin-producing cells in the pancreas, so the pancreas cannot release enough insulin to control your sugar. That’s why someone with type 1 diabetes needs insulin shots.

While type 1 diabetes is not fully preventable, as it has a genetic component, remember that obesity and a lack of exercise can significantly raise your risk.

causes of diabetes

Being overweight and leading a sedentary lifestyle are two common causes of diabetes.

Causes of Diabetes: Type 2

Type 2 diabetes was called “adult-onset diabetes.” Unfortunately, this is no longer the case. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in 2009, more than 20,000 children under age the age of 20 had diabetes, growing at a predicted rate of 5,000 more cases per year. Simply put, more children are obese and not getting sufficient exercise. According to the American Heart Association, the obesity rate in children has risen from 4 percent to 6 percent in the early 1970s to a whopping 18 percent in 2010.

The same causes for diabetes come into play for most adults with type 2 diabetes. Although genetics raise your risk factor for getting type 2 diabetes, overeating, consuming a diet high in carbohydrates, and not getting regular sufficient exercise are undisputed causes. Although it is believed to be fully preventable, the American Diabetes Association estimates that 9.3 percent of adults have diabetes.

In type 2 diabetes, your body’s cells are resistant to insulin, so the hormone is unable to adequately do its job regulating the sugar in your blood. Basically, you have enough insulin, but it’s impotent. As blood sugar goes on uncontrolled, insulin resistance worsens. Researchers have not yet determined why cells become insulin resistant.



Some 12 percent of deaths in the U.S. today are due to diabetes. A 2017 study from the University of Pennsylvania shows that diabetes is the third-leading cause of death in the United States, after heart disease and cancer. “What our results point to,” said researcher Andrew Stokes, MD, “is the need for strategies at the population level to combat the epidemics of obesity and diabetes. We need something on a population scale because it’s a major issue.”

It’s a trend that’s been traveling in the wrong direction. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), in 1980, 5.53 million people in the United States had diabetes. By 2014, that number was 21.95 million—an increase of 300 percent.

“American life expectancy has been growing at a very slow rate for the past decade or so, even decreasing slightly in 2015,” said Samuel Preston, MD, co-author of the University of Pennsylvania study. “It hasn’t yet been established statistically, but it’s fairly likely that obesity and diabetes together are an important factor in this slowdown. We believe that these estimates will prove useful in helping to more precisely identify their roles.”

Causes of Gestational Diabetes

Gestational diabetes is usually temporary, caused by hormones in the placenta making the body’s cells resistant to insulin. Exactly why this occurs is not yet clear, but genetics, a poor diet, overeating, and a lack of exercise are strong causes. Gestational diabetes can result in pre-term birth, stillborn babies, and low blood sugar in infants.

Interesting research from Australia involving more than 60,000 births over a five-year period found that women carrying babies conceived in winter are more likely to experience gestational diabetes. The research was published in the journal BMJ Diabetes Research & Care in 2016.

“The mechanisms that cause gestational diabetes are still not fully understood,” lead author Petra Verburg, MD, says. “Previous studies have suggested that meteorological factors, physical activity, diet, and vitamin D are risk factors for gestational diabetes, all of which are impacted by the winter season.

“Not only should our results be confirmed in other populations,” Dr. Verburg adds, “future research should also investigate other factors that vary with season,” she says.

For further reading on diabetes and diabetes prevention, see the following University Health News posts:

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