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What is Diabetes?

Diseases are of two types: (1) Infectious and (2) Constitutional. Infectious diseases are caused by bacteria or viruses coming from without; constitutional diseases are caused by untoward changes occurring within the body.

Until the end of the first decade of this century, infectious diseases predominated. During epidemics, such diseases spread like wild-fires and took a heavy toll of human life. However, with the advent of antibiotics and effective vaccines against polio, smallpox, diphtheria, etc., the incidence of infectious diseases started to wane. On the other hand diseases of civilisation (or urbanisation) like high blood pressure, coronary heart disease and cancer increased steadily.

Diabetes Mellitus is also such a constitutional disease. It is an outcome of leading a sedentary life and eating processed foods. The incidence of diabetes varies directly with the consumption of processed foods like biscuits, bread, cakes, chocolates, pudding, ice-cream, etc.

The number of people afflicted by diabetes is increasing each day. Today, 9 to 12 percent of the population of the world has either established diabetes or a tendency of contracting it in the near future. At present, about 18 million indians suffer from diabetes.

Losing weight is the main factor in reducing the risk of diabetes for raised-risk, obese patients, a recent study suggests. In brief, Weight Loss helps lower the risks of becoming a sufferer of Diabetes. Thus, the problem of diabetes is monstrous in magnitude.

The incidence of diabetes is greater in our cities than in our villages.

The following statistical data clearly brings home this fact:

However, the disease is now making inroads into the indian villages as well. There, due to the absence of adequate diagnostic or treatment facilities, the situation is very grim.

Though it is true that diabetes is extremely rampant today, it is not a new disease. Well-known Ayurvedic physicians Maharshi Charaka (600 BC) and Sushruta (400 BC) correctly described almost all the symptoms of this disease. They called the disease Madhu-meha (a shower of honey). Ancient Ayurvedic text 'Sushruta-Samhita' clearly states that diabetes is a familiar disease. Inspite of total absence of the basic knowledge about human anatomy, physiology and biochemistry, Charaka and Sushruta have displayed remarkable understanding of the disease.

A methodical study of human anatomy and physiology began about 200 years back. In 1869 AD, Paul Langerhans discovered the islet cells responsible for the metabolism of sugar inside the body. These islets were later named, after their discoverer, as islets of Langerhans. In 1889 AD, Won Mering and Oscar Minkowski succeeded in artificially producing diabetes in a dog, by removing its pancreas gland. This experiment brought great laurels to the two scientists because the relation between diabetes and pancreas was revealed. In 1909 AD, D'Mayer named the extract of pancreas as insulin. In 1920 AD, Fredrick Banting and Charles Best managed to isolate pure insulin from the pancreatic extract. They also showed that when insulin is injected into the bodies of diabetic animals the concentration of sugar in their blood rapidly falls. These important findings fetched the two scientists, the coveted Nobel Prize.

After the discovery of insulin, people had started believing that diabetes will soon be banished from the earth. This belief has however proved fallacious. The reasons for this have been explained in the chapters to come.

However, it can be said that insulin has robbed diabetes of its fatality. Fifty years ago, the treatment of diabetes was totally unsatisfactory. Diabetes gave rise to more and severe complications. If a child was diagnosed as a diabetic on his birthday, he seldom lived to celebrate his next birthday. On the other hand, with the advance of medical science and advent of a number of antidiabetic drugs, a diabetic can today look forward to leading an almost normal and creative life.

Even then, it has to be conceded that though with present knowledge and treatment, the concentration of glucose in the blood can be maintained within the normal range, or glucose can be prevented from escaping in the urine, the long-term complications of diabetes cannot be fully checked. In other words, drugs have been able to prolong life; but they have not contributed to the enhancement of the quality of life. That is the reason why diabetes should be prevented.

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