How diabetes got its name

Learn about where diabetes' name originated as part of Diabetes Awareness Month.

November is Diabetes Awareness month. Taking time in November to get tested and learn something new about diabetes might turn out to be a real life saver for yourself or someone you love!

In today’s society, most of us have heard of diabetes. And most of us can define that having diabetes means controlling foods you eat especially those containing sugar. If we go back and take a look at the origin of the word diabetes, it can give you two important clues for your health.

Diabetes has been around for awhile

Diabetes has been around for centuries. In fact, cases of diabetes can be traced as far back as the ancient Egyptians. In the 1800s, dogs helped scientist study and determine how the pancreas and lack of the hormone insulin revealed signs of diabetes. In the 1930s up through the 1970s, society commonly referred to individuals with diabetes as having “sugar,” but the correct medical term for diabetes is ‘diabetes mellitus’. Today, healthcare teams most commonly refer to it as ‘diabetes’.

The words “diabetes” and “mellitus” have two very separate meanings. They are, however, linked together and have a meaningful connection.


Mellitus means, “pleasant tasting, like honey.” Ancient Chinese and Japanese physicians noticed dogs were particularly drawn to some people’s urine. When the urine was examined they found the urine had a sweet taste. What made the urine sweet were high levels of glucose, or sugar.That is how this discovery of sweet urine became part of the name, diabetes mellitus.


The ancient Greek word for diabetes means, “passing though; a large discharge of urine.” The meaning is associated with frequent urination, which is a symptom of diabetes. Both frequent urination and excess, sweet glucoses levels expelled in our urine can be signs of diabetes.

Having Diabetes is anything but sweet

Even though glucose is sweet, there is nothing sweet about having high blood glucose. It is a serious issue facing many people in the U.S.. If you are glucose intolerant your body may not be able to adequately break down glucose (sugar). Without this natural breakdown of the foods we eat being turned into energy for our cells, glucose may build up in your blood. The body will need to rid itself of excess sugar in the blood stream by passing it though the kidneys and bladder out through urination.

Knowing the origin of diabetes mellitus helps give us a better understanding of symptoms related to the disease – high blood sugar and frequent urination. If you or your child has frequent thirst and/or urination you should contact your healthcare provider to be tested for diabetes. Getting tested for diabetes is the only way to know if you have the disease.

Both diabetes type 1 and type 2 are highly treatable under the care of your healthcare team. The group of diseases associated with diabetes (type 1 & type 2, gestational and pre-diabetes) is on the rise. Lifestyle, genetic, and the environment all share a role in your risk for developing diabetes.

Diagnosis, care and treatment as well as learning how to be an active self-manager can make living with diabetes a sweet story. For more on diabetes prevention, diagnosis and care plans visit your health care provider.

To understand the benefits of diabetes self-management and to enroll in a diabetes self-management workshop near you visit Michigan State Unversity Extension

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