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What Causes Diabetes?


Story at-a-glance -

  • The cause of Type 1 diabetes is unknown, although there’s a strong family link associated with this disease, as around 18 genetic regions are associated with Type 1 diabetes
  • Type 2 diabetes isn't a disease of blood sugar levels, but is rather a disorder of insulin and leptin signaling
  • The cause of gestational diabetes, which usually develops during a pregnancy, can be traced to hormonal changes, alongside genetic and lifestyle factors

What people have to know about diabetes is that there are many possible causes of this disease. If you're wondering what the causes of Type 1 diabetes, Type 2 diabetes, gestational diabetes or other types of diabetes are, continue reading this page.

What Causes Type 1 Diabetes?

Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune disease wherein the immune system attacks and destroys beta cells of the pancreas, which are responsible for producing insulin.1 However, it’s unknown why the immune system attacks these cells in the first place.2

What causes Type 1 diabetes is unknown, although there’s a strong family link associated with this disease,3 as around 18 genetic regions are associated with Type 1 diabetes.4

According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information, human leukocyte antigen (HLA) genes in chromosome 6 are well-studied for their link to Type 1 diabetes, while insulin (INS) genes in chromosome 11 were suggested to prompt the onset of Type 1 diabetes.5

Other environmental factors may also influence Type 1 diabetes development. These include:6

  • Viral infections — Enteroviruses, such as Coxsackievirus B (CVB), rotavirus, mumps virus and cytomegalovirus, are suspected to be responsible for Type 1 diabetes.7
  • Early childhood diet — Controversial studies suggested that children who drink cow’s milk can have a higher Type 1 diabetes risk. This is due to the milk’s bovine insulin content, which can raise the amount of insulin-binding antibodies.8,9
  • Autoimmune conditions — Some autoimmune disorders are known to share the same HLA complex found in Type 1 diabetes. As such, patients with Graves’ disease, multiple sclerosis and pernicious anemia may have a higher Type 1 diabetes risk.10
  • Low vitamin D levels: A shortage of this all-important vitamin, which can assist with strengthening the immune system and enhancing insulin production, can increase a person’s risk for this type of diabetes.11
  • Increased insulin production — The body tends to release higher amounts of insulin during a person’s teenage years, potentially stressing the beta cells and triggering the immune system to attack these cells. This can pave the way for development of Type 1 diabetes.12

Type 1 diabetes isn’t preventable, and it's not a disease that has something to do with the person's lifestyle, although it’s said that maintaining healthy habits can have a significant impact in managing this disease.13

What Causes Type 2 Diabetes?

On the other hand, Type 2 diabetes can develop because of:14

Being overweight, obesity or physical inactivity — A patient who isn’t physically active or is overweight or obese is more likely to develop Type 2 diabetes.

The extra weight can sometimes lead to insulin resistance. In fact, insulin resistance is common among Type 2 diabetes patients.

Body fat location can also make a difference — it’s said that extra belly fat is linked to insulin resistance, Type 2 diabetes and heart and blood vessel disease.

Genetics and family history — These can be another cause of Type 2 diabetes. This disease can run in families and occurs more often in these racial and ethnic groups:


Alaska Natives



Hispanics or Latinos

Native Hawaiians

Pacific Islanders

Furthermore, some genes may raise the risk for Type 2 diabetes by increasing a patient’s tendency to become overweight or obese.

Insulin resistance — This is a condition wherein the muscle, liver and fat cells fail to use insulin well, prompting the body to require more insulin to help glucose enter cells.

While the pancreas creates more insulin to keep up with the additional demand at first, over time the pancreas may fail to produce enough insulin and cause your blood glucose levels to rise.

Essentially, Type 2 diabetes isn't a disease of blood sugar levels, but is rather a disorder of insulin and leptin signaling. If you have Type 2 diabetes, it would be best to address your insulin sensitivity.

Insulin acts as an energy source for your cells  and without it, you may not live. Your pancreas does its job of providing the body with just the right amount. Insulin's main role is to store extra energy (glycogen — a starch) for present and future consumption. Lowering blood sugar levels is not insulin's primary role, but more of a side effect of the energy storage process.

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What Causes Gestational Diabetes?

Researchers believe that the cause of gestational diabetes, which usually develops during a pregnancy, can be traced to hormonal changes, alongside genetic and lifestyle factors, namely:15

Insulin resistance — Hormones produced by the placenta are known to contribute to insulin resistance. This typically develops in all women during the late stages of their pregnancy.

Most pregnant women are able to produce enough insulin to alleviate insulin resistance, but some cannot. Gestational diabetes develops when the pancreas fails to make enough insulin.

Excess weight can also be linked to gestational diabetes. Overweight or obese women may already have an insulin resistance when they become pregnant. Another factor that can lead to gestational diabetes is gaining too much weight during pregnancy.

Genetics and a family history — It’s believed that having a family history of diabetes can make a woman more likely to develop gestational diabetes. These genes may explain why gestational diabetes occurs more often in African-American, Native American, Asian and Hispanic women.

Other Possible Causes of Diabetes

Apart from the mentioned diabetes causes, there are also other reasons why a patient can develop diabetes. Some cases of diabetes occur because of genetic mutations and illnesses like:16

  • Monogenic diabetes — This is caused by mutations in a single gene. Oftentimes, gene changes are passed through families, although sometimes the gene mutation occurs on its own. Most of these gene mutations trigger diabetes by making the pancreas less capable of producing insulin.

    Neonatal diabetes and maturity-onset diabetes (MODY) are the two most common types of monogenic diabetes.

  • Cystic fibrosis — In patients with cystic fibrosis, the body produces thick mucus that leads to scarring in the pancreas, consequently preventing the pancreas from making enough insulin.
  • Hemochromatosis — This prompts the body to store too much iron. Failure to treat this disease can cause an iron build up in, and damage to the pancreas and other organs.

Hormonal diseases may cause the body to produce excess amounts of hormones, some of which can lead to insulin resistance and diabetes :

  • Cushing’s syndrome — This happens when the body produces too much cortisol, or “stress hormones.”
  • Acromegaly: — This refers to a condition wherein the body produces too much growth hormones.
  • Hyperthyroidism — This is a disorder where the thyroid gland produces too much of the thyroid hormone.

In some cases, damage to or removal of the pancreas can be precursors of diabetes. For instance, pancreatitis, pancreatic cancer and trauma can harm the beta cells or lessen their ability to produce insulin. Meanwhile, if a damaged pancreas is removed, the loss of beta cells can cause diabetes to develop.

Can Medications Lead to Diabetes?

There are medicines that can harm insulin-producing beta cells or disrupt the way insulin works in the body, potentially leading to diabetes. Some of the drugs you should watch out for include:17

Niacin (vitamin B3)

Certain types of diuretics called water pills

Anti seizure drugs

Psychiatric drugs

Drugs used to treat human immunodeficiency virus (HIV)

Pentamidine used to treat a type of pneumonia

Glucocorticoids (used to treat inflammatory diseases like rheumatoid arthritis, asthma, lupus and ulcerative colitis)

Anti rejection medicines (used in helping stop the body from rejecting a transplanted organ)

Statins (utilized to lower LDL or bad cholesterol levels and prevent heart disease and stroke)

If you’ve been diagnosed with diabetes and are concerned about the possible side effects of these medicines, talk to your doctor or physician immediately to address complications as early as possible.

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