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Diabetes Mellitus, Type I

Microscopic view of pancreatic islet cells. Courtesy Dr. José Sánchez Gonzales

Microscopic view of pancreatic islet cells. Courtesy Dr. José Sánchez Gonzales

What Is Type I Diabetes Mellitus?

Type 1 diabetes mellitus (T1DM), also termed type 1A, is an inherited autoimmune disorder in which anti-islet autoantibodies destroy the islet cells of the pancreas that secrete insulin hormone. Type 1 diabetes mellitus was formerly called juvenile diabetes because it usually afflicts persons under the age of 25 years.

Loss of insulin production results in failure to metabolize glucose. Glucose is a simple sugar that is a required source of energy for the body, especially the brain and muscles.

Type 1 diabetes mellitus is characterized by sustained fasting blood glucose levels above 126 mg/dL (hyperglycemia) with subsequent loss of glucose from the body by removal through the urine (glucosuria) as the body attempts to lower blood glucose, and cell starvation that follows.

That is, while glucose accumulates in blood, the body cannot access it. Without insulin treatment, this disorder quickly produces coma and ultimately results in death. In fact, it is 5th leading cause of death in the United States.

Q: How does insulin work?

A: Insulin moves glucose from the bloodstream into body cells where it is used or reformulated for high energy storage. For example, muscles can use glucose for immediate work or store it in the form of glygogen for later work, depending on need. Healthy insulin production keeps an 8 hour fasting blood glucose level to less than 100 mg/dL. Upon eating carbohydrate food, glucose is digested and absorbed from the small intestine into the bloodstream which then raises blood glucose levels. The elevated level is controlled by prompt action of insulin to lower it to below 140 mg/dL  within 2 hours of eating.

Insulin does not work alone. The islets of Langerhans manage glucose in the body. The islets are specialized formations located on the outer surface of the pancreas. The islets are composed of two different types of cells known as alpha and beta cells. These cells make the competing hormones that keep blood glucose within a healthy range.

Alpha cells secrete glucagon to raise blood glucose levels by triggering the body to release stored energy in the form of glycogen. In the opposite, beta cells secrete insulin to lower blood glucose by opening body cells so that glucose in blood can enter. Without insulin, glucose cannot enter cells but remains in the bloodstream where it accumulates.

Insulin is also needed to move magnesium into cells from the bloodstream. On the other side, magnesium is needed to produce insulin. Insulin has other functions such as building muscle and helping regulate cholesterol which directly impacts the sex hormones, estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone.

Onset of symptoms usually occurs over a period of days or weeks, although beta cell destruction can begin years earlier. The SEARCH for Diabetes in Youth multicenter study, funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH), has determined that based on data from 2002 to 2003, a total of 15,000 youth in the United States were newly diagnosed with type 1 diabetes each year. Non-Hispanic white youth had the highest rate of new cases of type 1 diabetes according to NIH.

Type 1A diabetes mellitus has become one of the most intensively studied autoimmune disorders. It is now possible to predict its development, beginning with HLA-encoded genetic susceptibility, followed by the development of a series of anti-islet autoantibodies.1

What Is Type I Diabetes Mellitus In Celiac Disease and/or Gluten Sensitivity?


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  1. Liu E, Eisenbarth GS. Type 1A diabetes mellitus-associated autoimmunity. Endocrinology and Metabolism Clinics of North America. Jun 2002;31(2):391-410, vii-viii. 

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