Recently I realized, that people visiting this blog come from different backgrounds and are in very different stages regarding of how long they’ve had diabetes and how much do they know about it.

So, what for some of us may seem basics, for other recently diagnosed may be essential to know.

That’s why I decided to put together a list of the most common terms and vocabulary related to diabetes that you’ll find over and over again during your years with diabetes. I’ll try to define the terms as clearly and shortly as possible so that anyone can understand it.

I classified them into several categories to be easier to access, as well as sorted alphabetically.

If you happen to stumble upon a term or jargon not listed here, please let me know it in the comments section below, and I’ll do my best to find the answer and add it to the list.

And if you prefer to take a look at the list of most frequently asked questions about diabetes, you can do it here.

TERMS RELATED TO DIABETES

 

Basal rate: for people injecting insulin the basal rate is the amount of insulin needed to manage the daily insulin/sugar fluctuations. In this case, the long-acting insulin acts as basal insulin.
For people using an insulin pump, the basal rate is refered to as the small doses of short-acting insulin needed between meals to mantain blood sugar levels close to normal.

Blood glucose (BG) or blood sugar (BS): the amount of sugar (glucose) present in the blood of the body. A healthy body usually autoregulates the blood glucose between 64.8 and 104.4 mg/dL. The intestines or liver transport glucose to body cells via the bloodstream. Glucose is made available for cell absorption via the hormone insulin.

Blood glucose meter (glucometer): the device used to measure blood sugar level at any given point. It is encouraged that every person with diabetes (specially type 1) has a glucometer at home in order to measure and control his/her levels of sugar during the day. This is also called Home Blood Glucose Monitoring (HBGM). It just needs a small drop of blood placed on a disposable test strip to measure your level of sugar at that precisely moment.

glucometer device

Bolus: is the opposite to basal rate. Bolus is the dosage of fast-acting insulin given to handle the main meals’ supply of sugar.

Brittle diabetes (labile diabetes): this is a synonym of uncontrolled type 1 diabetes. Unformally, a brittle diabetes is like a roller coster, where you blood glucose levels swing continually from high to low blood sugar and viceversa. People with psychological problems (stress, depression…), with hypothyroidism or adrenal insufficiency are at more risk of suffering those highs and lows.

Dawn phenomenon: when you weak up in the morning with high blood sugar levels.

Fasting plasma glucose test (FPG): this is the most used test to check if a person has diabetes or not. It measures the blood sugar level after a period of at least 8 hours of fasting (usually in the morning, before having breakfast)

There are 3 ranges of results:

  • Under 100 milligrams per deciliter (mg/dL) = normal glucose levels (some sources place the cut-off point at 110 instead of 100)
  • Between 100-125 mg/dL = impaired fasting glucose. Not considered as diabetes but  people within these ranges don’t metabolize glucose normally.
  • Above 126 mg/dL = considered as having diabetes (it used to be 140 instead of 126, but the American Diabetes Association changed it)

Glucose tolerance test: this test measures if you have problems metabolizing sugar or not. When you visit your doctor for the test, you should have fasted at least 8 hours (better in the morning). You then are asked to drink a solution containing a high percentage of sugar. After 2 hours your blood sugar will be measured again in order to check whether your blood sugar levels are normal, high or low.

Glycated hemoglobin test (HbA1c): this is a very useful test to measure if you are controlling your diabetes properly. The result of the test shows the average amount of sugar in your blood over a period of 2-3 months (which is much more meaningful than a punctual blood test taken with the glucometer) For the test a blood sample is needed.

HbA1c ranges:

  • Under 5.7% = normal (no diabetes)
  • Between 5.7 – 6.4% = pre-diabetes
  • Over 6.5 = diabetes

If you have diabetes, the lower your Hemoglobin A1c the better (under 7% if possible)

Glycemic index (GI): ranking of carbohydrates or foods on a scale from 0-100 according to the extent to which they raise blood sugar levels after eating. Foods with a high glycemic index rise blood sugar levels quickly after eating them. Foods with a low glycemic index produce gradual rises in blood glucose, being more recommended for people with diabetes.

Glycemic index graph

Glycemic load (GL): it is calculated taking into account the Glycemic Index (GI). The formula is: GL = grams of available carbohydrate in the food x the food’s GI / 100.

One unit of GL is equivalent to consuming 1 gr. of glucose. In other words, the Glycemic Load estimates how much the carbohydrate or food will raise your blood glucose level after eating it.

GL ranges for 1 serving of a food:

  • GL under 10 = low
  • GL between 11-19 = medium
  • GL over 20 = high

I would suggest that you read more about Glycemic Load here.

Injection site rotation: rotation of places where you inject insulin in order to prevent damage to the skin and tissue. This can be within a body part (for instance injecting insulin in the abdomen with a 1-2 cm. distance between each other) or rotating among different parts of the body (for instance, insulin for breakfast in the abdomen, insulin for lunch in the front and side of thigh, insulin for dinner in the upper and outer arms and insulin for bedtime in the buttocks)

diabetes injection site rotation

Insulin pump: device that helps with the administration of insulin in order to control blood sugar levels. The pump can be programmed to deliver insuline at desired times of the day. Some of these devices even calculate how much fast-acting insulin you need according to what you eat and the exercise you do. Read here for advantages and disadvantages of insulin pumps.

Lancet: sharp needle used to prick the fingers in order to get a drop of blood. Some glucometers have already an integrated device (lancing device) where you can put lancets and operate them by clicking a button.

Lantus (insulin glargine or NPH): a man-made long-acting basal insulin. Lantus’ liquid should be clear and colorless. It is usually injected once a day and has a long effect (18-24 hours.) Lantus is given as an injection under your skin. A study published in Diabetologia 2009 claimed a higher risk of cancer when patients used high doses of lantus. The ADA and other Agencies stated that those studies were conflicting and confusing.

Levemir: another man-made long-acting basal insulin. Levemir’s liquid should be clear and colorless. It’s injected once or twice a day and has a long effect (18-24 hours.) Levemir is given as an injection under your skin. Both Lantus and Levemir are called analogues because their molecules are analogous to human insulin, but they are recombined with slight differences that slow their absorption. Levemir is also man-made and contains dissolved detemir, a different form of genetically modified insulin.

Oral diabetes medications: medications designed to control or low blood sugar levels for people with type 2 diabetes. They are usually in pill form.

Postprandial: generally means “after eating a meal”.  In diabetes, it is usually used to name the blood sugar levels after 2 hours of having had a meal.

Somogyi effect (a.k.a. rebound hyperglycemia): when an undetected low sugar level (hypoglycemia) is followed by a high blood sugar level (hyperglycemia). It usually happens while sleeping but it can also happen if insulin doses are not properly administered. If you want to know why you wake up in the morning with high blood sugar when you went to bed the night before with normal levels, wake up during the night (about 2-3 am) and check your blood sugar. If it’s low, you are probably experiencing the somogyi effect. This effect is caused by the body when it tries to unblock stored glucose in the body to contrarest the too high insulin levels present at that moment.

FOOD-RELATED TERMS

 

Carbohydrate (CHO): carbohydrates are turned into sugar in the body. They are one of the 3 most common sources of energy.

  • Foods high in carbohydrates include sugar & sweets, soft drinks, fruits, breads, pastas, cereals, beans, potatoes, bran, rice.
  • Most vegetables (specially greens) contain carbohydrates but very little.
  • Meat, fish and eggs do not contain carbs.

Fructose: is the sugar obtained from plants or fruits. It is very sweet, white and crystaline. Fructose is commercially derived from sugar cane, sugar beets and corn.

Glucose: simple sugar used by the cells to obtein energy. In diabetes glucose is a synonym for sugar.

Low-carb diet: diet containing very few carbohydrates in order to avoid high blood sugar levels. There’s much controversia around this topic (whether it is better to put the least amount of medicines and follow a low-carb diet or if it’s better to have a more balanced diet even though that means increasing the amount of medicines needed to lower blood glucose levels)

Saccharin: artificial sweetener or sugar substitute with no food energy or nutrients. It is widely used to sweeten drinks, candies, cookies, medicines, toothpaste… In Europe it’s also known as E954 (additive code)

Sorbitol (a.k.a. glucitol): a sugar alcohol that the body metabolizes slowly. It is found in peaches, apples, pears and prunes. It’s another sugar substitute but it provides calories. Large amounts of sorbitol can lead to abdominal pain, flatulence, and mild to severe diarrhea and may aggravate irritable bowel syndrome and similar gastrointestinal conditions.

Sucrose (a.k.a. saccharose): term commonly known as table sugar or refined sugar.

Xylitol: a natural carbohydrate found in fibrous vegetables and fruits. It also occurs naturally in the body. Pure xylitol is a white crystalline substance that looks and tastes like sugar but provides 1/3 of the calories compared to sugar. The body doesn’t need insulin to metabolize xylitol. Tests have also confirmed that it reduces tooth decay.

CONDITIONS/SYMPTOMS RELATED TO DIABETES

 

Adult-onset diabetes: this is the old terminology for type 2 diabetes. It was called adult-onset because until recently it was only adults above 40 who were diagnosed with this kind of diabetes.

Albuminuria: condition where protein (albumin) is present in the urine. This symptom can be caused by kidneys’ damage or high salt intake. Lowering red meat can help lowering the levels of albumin in urine.

Ketoacidosis: when fat is used as energy instead of glucose due to a lack of insulin. The fat breakdown produces acids called ketones, which build up in the body. High levels of ketones in the body are poisonous. It is usually the first sign that can predict type 1 diabetes. It can also be caused by an infection.

Gangrene: dangerous condition that arises when a considerable mass of body tissue dies. The most common cause of gangrene is reduced blood supply to the affected tissues resulting in cell death. It usually occurs in the lower extremities and the most common practice in the west to remove it is amputation.

Glaucoma: another eye disease where the optic nerve is damaged. If let untreated can lead to blindness.

High Density Lipoprotein (HDL): a.k.a the “good cholesterol” because it removes excess cholesterol from circulation and carry it back from tissues or organs to the liver, where cholesterol will be recycled.

Honeymoon period: time where the pancreas of type 1 diabetics still secrets its own insulin followed by stabilization of the patient. During the honeymoon period, most children require less insulin as usual or may even go into temporary remission. This period usually lasts less than 1 year.

Hyperglycemia: high blood sugar levels in the body.

Hypoglycemia: low blood sugar levels in the body.

Insulin resistance (metabolic syndrome): a combination of health problems that can lead to diabetes (type 2) and heart disease. With insulin resistance, your cells cannot react properly to the action of insulin and your pancreas keeps producing insulin which is not entirely being used. Some symptoms are impaired fasting blood sugar, obesity, high blood pressure, high triglycerides, low HDL (good cholesterol), kidney damage, heart problems.

Juvenile-onset diabetes: this refers to type 1 diabetes. Since it usually happens during childhood or to teenagers it was called juvenile-diabetes.

Late-onset diabetes: see Adult-onset diabetes

Latent Autoimmune Diabetes in Adults (LADA or type 1.5): this type of diabetes is a slow onset of type 1 diabetes, which means it appears in adulthood. Like in type 1, the autoimmune process destroys the beta cells(insulin producers) in the pancreas, eventually requiring insulin treatment. Sometimes LADA is mistakenly diagnosed and treated as type 2 diabetes.

The difference with type 2 diabetes is that with type 1.5 diabetes the body has islet (Beta cell) autoantibodies.

Low blood sugar: low levels of sugar in the blood (less than 70 mg/dL)

Low Density Lipoprotein (LDL): a.k.a. the “bad cholesterol”. It’s called bad because it sticks to the walls of the vessels/arteries forming blockages of atherosclerosis, leading to a higher risk of heart attack when LDL levels are high enough.

Ranges of LDL:

  • Under 100 milligrams per deciliter (mg/dL) = optimal
  • Between 100 – 129 mg/dL = near-optimal
  • Between 130 – 159 mg/dL = borderline high
  • Between 160 – 189 mg/dL = high
  • Over 190 mg/dL = very high

Nephropathy: condition where kidneys are substantially damaged. This happens when nephrons (the small units forming the kidneys) thicken and slowly become scarred. An usual combination leading to nephropathy is uncontrolled blood sugar with high blood pressure. Kidney damage can begin 5-10 years before symptoms start.

Neuropathy (diabetic): a nerve disorder caused by diabetes. Risk of neuropathy rises with age and longer duration of diabetes, specially if it’s uncontrolled, or high blood pressure or obesity are present. It’s a nerve damage with symptoms such as pain, tingling numbness-loss of feeling-in the hands, arms, feet, and legs.

Polydipsia: medical word that refers to a strong thirst, needing the person to drink large amounts of fluids. It usually happens when sugar levels are uncontrolled or when you first get to know that you might have diabetes. Since blood sugar is high, the kidneys do over-work to get rid of the excess of sugar in the body. To do this they produce more urine. Since the body is loosing a lot of fluid with the urine, the person feels really thirsty in an attempt to replace all the lost fluid.

Polyphagia: medical word that refers to a person who eat excessive amounts of food. If sugar is uncontrolled (high), some of the sugar (calories) is lost with the urine. The person then feels that he has to eat a lot of food, in order to recover the lost calories.

Polyuria: abnormally large production of urine (at least 2.5 or 3 L. per day) The main cause of polyuria is uncontrolled diabetes. It may also be caused by diuretics, caffeine or alcohol.

Retinopathy: damage to the blood vessels in the retina (eye). It’s the leading cause of blindness in America and the most common diabetic eye disease.

Type 1 diabetes: a.k.a. Diabetes Mellitus Type 1 (DMT1), Insulin-Dependent Diabetes Mellitus (IDDM) or juvenile diabetes, since it is usually diagnosed in children and young adults (nowadays it’s being diagnosed to adults as well). Although the real cause is unknown, there’s a wide consensus concerning the main problem in T1 diabetes: it is a chronic autoimmune condition where the body mistakenly attacks his own beta cells (insulin-producing cells) in the pancreas, therefore having a problem of lack of insulin and high blood sugar levels. Insulin has to be injected in order to control the blood sugar in the body.

It is officially considered that type 1 diabetes has no cure. The treatment for diabetes consists of insulin, diet and sport.

Type 1 diabetes symptoms:

  • Being thirsty and drinking lots of liquids
  • Large quantities of urine throughout the day
  • Feeling hungry and eating large amounts of food
  • Losing weight
  • Feeling very tired
  • Blurry eyesight
  • Headache
  • Palpitations…

You can read more about the possible causes of diabetes in this post.

Type 2 diabetes: a.k.a. Non-Insulin Dependent Diabetes (NIDD) or adult-onset diabetes, because it used to be diagnosed to adult people (nowadays children are being diagnosed with this condition as well). It is the most common type of diabetes. The result of this condition is the same as with type 1 diabetes, that is, high blood sugar levels, but the cause might be different. Here, insulin is produced and present in the body but is not properly used. Having this condition means that your liver, muscle cells and fat don’t respond correctly to insulin (insulin resistance)

It is said that this is a lifestyle disease. Researchers and some doctors now declare that type 2 diabetes can be controlled or reversed with a lifestyle change, which means that you could no longer need drugs if you commit yourself to a healthier diet, regular sport, avoiding stress, alcohol…

Other causes of the adult-onset diabetes can be genes, lack of activity or sports, obesity, poor diet…

The symptoms are very similar to the ones in juvenile diabetes, adding to those: tissue infections, erectile dysfunction, numbness in extremities.

The main treatment is diet and sport, although most people with type 2 diabetes are taking prescription drugs to lower blood glucose levels.

BODY-RELATED DIABETES TERMS

 

Acetone: the simplest example of the ketones, which are usually present in the blood and urine. It is related to diabetes because people with this disease produce it in large amounts. A sign of this is the acetone breath (strong fruity smell). This can indicate that your diabetes is not well controlled.

Alpha cell (α-cells): is an endocrine cell in charge of synthesizing and secreting the hormone glucagon, which elevates the blood glucose levels when experiencing hypoglycemia (low sugar) or when the body thinks it is going to need extra energy to face a flight or fight situation.

Antibodies: our body’s defense against foreign substances in the body, such as viruses and bacteria. When antibodies malfunction, they sometimes attack parts of the body’s own system (called then autoantibodies) like beta cells in the case of type 1 diabetes. The antibodies found related to diabetes are Glutamic Acid Decarboxylase 65 Antibodies (GADA) and Islet Cell Antibodies (ICA).

Beta cell (β-cells): is an endocrine cell of the pancreas located in the islets of Langerhans. They are in charge of producing, storing and releasing insulin into the blood in order to have controlled levels of sugar. Beta cells also release C-Peptide into the bloodstream which prevent neuropathy and other diabetes symptoms related to vascular deterioration. In the case of insulin-dependent diabetes, beta cells are destroyed by the cells of the immune system.

Biphasic insulin: insulin formulation consisting of a mixture of intermediate- and fast-acting insulin.

C-peptide: a protein that prevent neuropathy and other diabetes symptoms related to vascular deterioration. People recently diagnosed with diabetes often get their C-peptide levels measured in order to distinguish if they have T1 diabetes or T2 diabetes (specially in patients injecting insulin can help to determine how much of their own insulin these patients are still producing, or if they produce any at all)

Glucagon: hormone produced by the alpha cells in the pancreas that raises the level of glucose in the blood when glucose levels fall too low. Its effect is opposite to insulin. An injectable form of glucagon is a vital first aid in cases of severe hypoglycemia when the victim is unconscious or for other reasons cannot take glucose orally.

Glycogen: molecule that storages glucose in the liver and muscles for later use. In diabetes, due to abnormal amounts of insulin, liver glycogen can be abnormally accumulated or depleted.

Glycogenesis: process of glycogen synthesis, where glucose is added to chains of glycogen for storage, for instance after a meal containing carbohydrates.

Insulin: hormone secreted by the beta cells in the pancreas to lower blood glucose levels. Its main function is to regulate carbohydrate and fat metabolism. Insulin is the key that allows sugar to enter cells. Without this hormone, cells don’t get their energy (glucose) and starve. The lack of enough available insulin in the body is the main cause of diabetes. In these cases, synthetic insulins are prescripted in order to control the glucose metabolism.

Most common synthetic insulins:

  • Long-acting insulin
  • Intermediate-acting insulin
  • Rapid-acting insulin

For a list of types of insulin for diabetes treatment check out this page.

Pancreas: endocrine gland which produces the hormones insulin and glucagon among others. The endocrine function of the pancreas is made up of approx. a million cell clusters called islets of Langerhans. In diabetes, the pancreas is the main damaged organ.

location of the pancreas

Triglycerides: mechanism for storing unused calories in the body. The high concentration of triglycerides in blood correlates with the consumption of starchy and other high carbohydrate foods. High levels of triglycerides in the bloodstream have been linked to atherosclerosis and higher risk of heart disease and stroke.

 

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