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Type 1 Diabetes: How Is It Treated?

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Your teachers follow a lesson plan that outlines what you'll study each day. Your parents may have a plan to help you pay for college. And your weekend social plans determine whether you're seeing a movie, heading to a concert, or playing basketball at the gym.

What Happens in Diabetes?

People with type 1 diabetes need to follow a different type of plan. A treatment plan, also called a diabetes management plan, helps people to manage their diabetes and stay healthy and active. Everyone's plan is different, based on a person's health needs and the suggestions of the diabetes health care team.

Diabetes Treatment Basics

The first thing to understand when it comes to treating diabetes is your blood glucose level, which is the amount of glucose in the blood. Glucose is a sugar that comes from the foods we eat and also is formed and stored inside the body. It's the main source of energy for the cells of the body, and is carried to each cell through the blood. Glucose gets into the cells with the help of the hormone insulin.

So how do blood glucose levels relate to type 1 diabetes? People with type 1 diabetes can no longer produce insulin. This means that glucose stays in the bloodstream and doesn't get into the cells, causing blood glucose levels to go too high.

High blood sugar levels can make people with type 1 diabetes feel sick, so their treatment plan involves keeping their blood sugar levels within a healthy range, while making sure they grow and develop normally. To do that, people with type 1 diabetes need to:

  • take insulin every day
  • eat a healthy, balanced diet and stick to a diabetes meal plan
  • check their blood sugar levels several times a day
  • get regular physical activity

Following the treatment plan can help a person stay healthy, but it's not a cure for diabetes. Right now, there's no cure for diabetes, so people with type 1 diabetes will need treatment for the rest of their lives. The good news is that sticking to the plan can help people feel healthy and avoid diabetes problems later.

Take Insulin Every Day

People who have type 1 diabetes must take insulin as part of their treatment. Because their bodies can't make insulin anymore, they need to get the right amount to keep their blood sugar levels in a healthy range.

The only way to get insulin into the body now is by injection with a needle or with an insulin pump. If someone tried to take insulin as a pill, the acids and digestive juices in the stomach and intestines would break down the medicine, and it wouldn't work. Luckily, these days insulin shots are almost painless, thanks to smaller needles.

Different kinds of insulin are used for different purposes. The types of insulin you use and the number of shots you take each day will depend on what's best for you and your daily schedule. As you grow and change, the amount of insulin you will need to take can change, too.

Once you've had your insulin injection, you can't stop the medicine from working. If you take an insulin shot but forget to eat, your blood sugar levels can get too low. So try to avoid skipping meals or snacks. If your parents remind you to eat when you take your insulin, it's probably because they worry about you, not because they're trying to nag you!

Your diabetes health care team will teach you how and when to give yourself insulin shots.

Eat a Healthy, Balanced Diet

People with type 1 diabetes have to pay a little more attention to their meals and snacks than people who don't have diabetes. They need to eat a balanced, healthy diet and pay closer attention to what they eat and when they eat it.

They also have to balance the food they eat with the amount of insulin they take and their activity level. That's because eating some foods will cause blood sugar levels to go up more than others, whereas insulin and exercise will make blood sugar go down. How much the blood sugar level goes up after eating depends on the type of nutrients the food contains.

The three main types of nutrients found in foods are carbohydrates (or carbs), proteins, and fats, which all provide energy in the form of calories. Foods containing carbs cause blood sugar levels to go up the most. Foods that contain mostly protein and/or fat don't affect blood sugar levels as much. Our bodies need all of these nutrients — in different amounts — to function normally.

As part of your diabetes treatment, you and the diabetes health care team will create a written diabetes meal plan that will include foods with all of the essential nutrients. Meal plans typically consist of breakfast, lunch, and dinner with scheduled between-meal snacks.

The diabetes meal plan won't tell you specific foods to eat, but it will guide you in selecting choices from the basic food groups and help you eat nutritious, balanced meals. Each meal and snack in the plan contains a certain amount of carbs and works with the types and amount of insulin you take.

Your meal plan is made just for you, based on your age, activity level, schedule, and food likes and dislikes. It also should be flexible so you know how to handle diabetes in special situations like at parties and on holidays. Following your meal plan should make it easier to keep your blood sugar levels within a healthy range.

In addition to giving you some ideas about what to eat, the plan also might recommend limiting foods that contain lots of fat or calories and that don't contain vitamins and minerals. Everyone who eats a healthy diet should limit these foods anyway, because eating too much of them can lead to too much weight gain or long-term health problems like heart disease.

Check Blood Sugar Levels

Checking your blood sugar levels is another part of your diabetes treatment plan. It lets you know how well the other parts of your treatment — like your insulin injections and meal plan — are working.

By keeping your blood sugar levels in a healthy range, you'll feel better and reduce the risk that you'll develop diabetes problems later. Testing your blood sugar level is the only way to know how you are doing with your diabetes control.

Your diabetes health care team will let you know what your blood sugar levels should be and when to test. In general, people with type 1 diabetes should test blood sugar levels with a blood glucose meter at least twice a day, but preferably three or four times a day.

A blood glucose meter tells you what your blood sugar level is at the moment you test. Your doctor may also send you for another type of blood sugar test that tells you how your blood sugar levels have been for the few months before the test.

Exercise Regularly

Exercise is also an important part of diabetes treatment. Regular physical activity helps keep blood sugar levels in a healthy range. It also can reduce the risk of other health problems that people with diabetes may be more likely to get, like heart disease.

Most types of exercise are great for people with type 1 diabetes — from walking the dog or riding a bike to playing team sports. Try to exercise every day for maximum benefit.

You can talk to your diabetes health care team about planning your exercise along with your meals and insulin. They'll offer specific suggestions to help you get ready for exercise or join a sport and give you written instructions to help you respond to any diabetes problems that may occur during exercise, like hypoglycemia (low blood sugar), or hyperglycemia (high blood sugar).

Putting It All Together

Treating and managing diabetes can seem complicated at times. But your diabetes health care team is there for you. Your diabetes management plan should be easy to understand, detailed, and written down for you so that you can refer to it whenever you need to.

You also might hear about alternative treatments for diabetes, such as herbal remedies and vitamin or mineral supplements. These practices can be risky, especially when people stop following the treatment plan their doctor has given them. So get the facts by talking to your diabetes health care team.

Reviewed by: Steven Dowshen, MD
Date reviewed: May 2011

Kids Health

Note: All information is for educational purposes only. For specific medical advice, diagnoses, and treatment, consult your doctor.

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