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The History of Diabetes Treatment: How We Got Here

The History of Diabetes Treatment: How We Got Here

Apria Editorial |

If you are living with diabetes, you might wonder how people in the past managed this condition and what advances have been made over the years. In this article, we will explore the history of diabetes treatment, from ancient times to the present day, and how we got to the current methods of managing blood sugar levels.

The History of Treatment of Diabetes

Diabetes is a chronic disease that affects how your body turns food into energy. Normally, your pancreas produces insulin, a hormone that helps glucose (sugar) from food get into your cells to be used for energy. But when you have diabetes, either your pancreas does not make enough insulin, or your cells do not respond well to it, or both. This causes glucose to build up in your blood, leading to various health problems.

Diabetes is not a new disease. It has been known since ancient times, but its causes and treatments have changed over the centuries. In this article, we will look at how different cultures and civilizations understood and treated this disease with a history of diabetes timeline, and how scientific discoveries and technological innovations have improved the quality of life for people with diabetes.

How was diabetes treated before insulin?

The earliest known reference to diabetes dates back to around 1500 BC in an Egyptian papyrus that mentions a condition characterized by frequent urination and weight loss. The term "diabetes" itself comes from the Greek word for "siphon", which was used by the physician Aretaeus of Cappadocia in the second century AD to describe the excessive thirst and urination of his patients.

The ancient Greeks and Romans believed that diabetes was caused by an imbalance of the four bodily fluids or humors: blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile. They also thought that diabetes was a rare and incurable disease that affected only the wealthy and elderly. They tried various remedies, such as bleeding, purging, fasting, drinking wine or vinegar, eating honey or dates, or applying herbal poultices to the genitals.

During the Middle Ages, diabetes was still considered a mysterious and fatal disease that had no effective treatment. Some medieval physicians followed the humoral theory of the ancient Greeks and Romans, while others attributed diabetes to demonic possession or divine punishment. Some even suggested that diabetes was contagious and advised people to avoid contact with those who had it.

One of the few advances in this period was the recognition that urine could be used to diagnose diabetes. In the 10th century, an Arab physician named Avicenna observed that diabetic urine had a sweet taste and smell and that ants were attracted to it. He also noted that diabetes could lead to complications such as gangrene, blindness, and impotence.

How was diabetes treated in the 1800s and before?

The Renaissance and Enlightenment periods saw a renewed interest in science and medicine, as well as a more empirical and experimental approach to understanding and treating diseases. Several physicians made important contributions to the knowledge of diabetes during this time.

In 1648, Thomas Willis, an English physician, coined the term "diabetes mellitus", which means "honey-sweet siphon", to distinguish it from another condition called "diabetes insipidus", which causes excessive urination but not high blood sugar. He also confirmed that diabetic urine had a sweet taste and suggested that diabetes was caused by a defect in the blood.

The next advancement was made a century later when Matthew Dobson, another English physician, proved that diabetic urine contained sugar by evaporating it and obtaining a white residue. He also measured the blood sugar levels of diabetic patients and found them to be higher than normal.

We now know that diet plays an important role in managing diabetes. This is in part thanks to John Rollo, a Scottish surgeon, who proposed one of the first dietary treatments for diabetes in 1788. He recommended a low-carbohydrate diet consisting mainly of meat and fat, which he claimed could reduce the symptoms of diabetes. He also prescribed opium as a painkiller and sedative for diabetic patients.

Low-carb diets still work, learn more about the right foods for diabetes

Treating diabetes in the 20th century

The 20th century was a breakthrough era for diabetes treatment, as insulin was isolated, purified, and made available for human use. It was also a time of great advances in the development of tools and methods for monitoring and managing diabetes.

In 1921, Frederick Banting and Charles Best, two Canadian researchers, successfully extracted insulin from the pancreas of dogs and injected it into diabetic dogs, restoring their normal blood sugar levels.

Banting and Best continued their research when they administered insulin to Leonard Thompson, a 14-year-old boy with type 1 diabetes, who became the first human to receive insulin therapy. His condition improved dramatically, and he lived for another 13 years.

The team later shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for their discovery of insulin.

In 1936, Sir Harold Percival Himsworth, a British physician, distinguished between two types of diabetes: type 1, which is caused by a lack of insulin production and requires insulin injections; and type 2, which is caused by insulin resistance and can be treated with diet and oral medications.

Technology’s role in managing diabetes

Soon the production of diabetes management tools began. In 1942, Ames Diagnostics introduced the first urine test strips for measuring glucose levels at home. Twenty years later the company introduced the first blood glucose meter for home use.

Synthetic insulin has played a crucial role in diabetes management. The first synthetic human insulin was generated in 1978 using recombinant DNA technology.

Since then, technology has evolved rapidly to help improve the lives of those suffering from diabetes, from insulin pens (introduced in 1983) to insulin pumps with continuous glucose monitors (produced in 1999).

Treating diabetes today

The 21st century has witnessed further improvements and innovations in diabetes treatment, as well as new challenges and opportunities. As innovations and technology continue to evolve, diabetes becomes an increasingly manageable disease for those who have it.

Diabetes is a complex and chronic disease that has been around for thousands of years. Throughout history, people have tried to understand and treat it with various methods and theories. Thanks to scientific research and technological innovation, we have come a long way from tasting urine to injecting synthetic insulin. Today, we have more options and tools than ever before to manage diabetes effectively and prevent or delay its complications. However, we still face many challenges and uncertainties in finding a cure or preventing diabetes altogether. As we look forward to the future of diabetes treatment, we should also remember and appreciate the past achievements that have made it possible.

As a leading supplier of durable and home medical equipment (DME and HME), ApriaHome sources and distributes a wide range of treatment solutions, including diabetes equipment and glucose monitoring solutions.

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