Diabetes. All of us have heard of it, and most of us know someone who has it. It is a disease that seems to be an integral part of our culture. How did it ever get to be so widespread, and is there anything we can do to change that? The good news is that this illness does not have to assault us. We can set reachable goals, both personally and as a society, to rid ourselves of this unnecessary blight that is due primarily to poor diet and an inactive lifestyle.
What is Diabetes?
Diabetes mellitus (muh-LAHY-tuhs) is a chronic disease that causes the body to incorrectly process glucose in the blood. An estimated 14 million Americans are thought to have diabetes, approximately 5% of the population. Many of them do not even know that they are diabetic. Diabetes is a very serious illness. Left unchecked, complications can develop that lead to kidney failure, stroke, heart disease, and blindness.
Every cell in our body needs energy to function, and the main source of that energy is a simple sugar called glucose. Insulin is a hormone produced by the pancreas that enables glucose throughout the body to enter into and energize the cells. When the body does not produce enough insulin, or when the insulin no longer works to open the cell doors and let glucose in, the system breaks down, and the glucose remains in the blood. Our body being the wonderful creation that it is, it will attempt to fix itself. It seeks to dilute the glucose by drawing water out of the cells and dumping the excess sugar into the urine. This is why many diabetics are constantly thirsty and urinate frequently. While all of this is going on, the body is sending itself conflicting messages. The cells cry out for glucose, and the best place they know to get it is from food, so extreme hunger is also a symptom. Again the body tries to help itself by seeking to convert fats and proteins into glucose. The byproducts of this process are acid compounds called ketones. When ketone levels in the blood are raised to toxic levels, ketoacidosisoccurs, a life-threatening condition that can lead to coma or death.
Diabetes is classified into two major categories: Type I Diabetes, also known as juvenile diabetes, and Type II Diabetes, by far the most common.
Type I or juvenile diabetes is technically known as Insulin-Dependent Diabetes Mellitus (IDDM). It mostly afflicts children and teens. It accounts for less than 10% of all diabetes cases in the U.S. This kind of diabetes causes the body to produce little or no insulin. Patients often must have lifelong insulin shots once or twice a day. Usually the onset comes on patients suddenly without any warning signs. It is found more often in folks with Northern European ancestries than in Southern Europeans, Middle-Easterners, or Asians. Brittle diabetes is a less common form of Type I whereby blood sugar levels tend to fluctuate greatly between hypoglycemia (low blood sugar) and hyperglycemia (high blood sugar). This form is more difficult to manage, and it is a challenge to maintain the glucose balance throughout the day.
Type II Diabetes is the culprit in over 90% of American diabetes cases, and is the most common form of diabetes worldwide. It is a more slowly developing form, often taking several years to mature. It is also called age-onset or adult-onset diabetes, and usually afflicts adults over 40 years of age. This form is almost completely preventable, as the major causes are obesity, poor diet, and lack of exercise. As much as I hate problems with no apparent answer, I love the ones that can be solved with a clear course of action. Type II diabetes is one of these.
Other types of diabetes include:
- Secondary diabetes: the secondary result of other conditions such as pancreatic disease, malnutrition, or alcoholism
- Gestational diabetes: usually a temporary form that afflicts approximately 2% of women during pregnancy and disappears after the child arrives. Gestational diabetes increases a woman’s risk of developing Type II diabetes approximately 5-10 years later. Incidentally, I ran across a study that concluded that women who eat junk food during pregnancy significantly increase their baby’s chances of being obese and/or getting diabetes. So put down the Cheetoes ladies, especially during pregnancy!
- Impaired glucose tolerance is considered a pre-diabetic or borderline diabetic condition.
What Are the Causes and Symptoms of Diabetes?
Researchers do not know for sure exactly what causes Type I diabetes, but the consensus is that it has something to do with an autoimmune response that causes the pancreatic cells that produce insulin to be destroyed. It is believed to be triggered by a virus or other type of microorganism.
With Type II diabetes, the dynamics of cause are quite well understood. Individuals have a greater risk if the one or more of the following factors are present:
- Obesity (more than 20% over ideal body weight). About 90% of all Type II patients are obese.
- A family history of the disease
- Member of a high-risk ethnic group, such as: Native American, Native Hawaiian, African-American, or Hispanic
- A personal history of gestational diabetes, or delivery of a baby greater than 9 pounds.
- Hypertension (greater than 140/90 mmHg)
- High cholesterol and/or high triglycerides
Symptoms can develop quickly, within several weeks or months in Type I cases, or can take several years with Type II. Typical symptoms are as follows:
- Excessive thirst
- Increased frequency of urination
- Excessive hunger
- Blurred vision
- Chronic gingivitis
- Chronic urinary tract infections
- Numbness in the extremities
- Slow-healing wounds
There are definitive blood and urine tests that can establish a diagnosis of diabetes. Testing can measure the amount of sugar present in the blood as well as ketone and protein levels in the urine. Urine tests are especially handy for diabetics to self- monitor their status. These are easily taken with dipsticks that change color like in a litmus test (remember high school chemistry?).
What Treatments Are Available for Diabetes?
Treatment focuses on two main objectives: keeping glucose levels within tolerable range, and prevention of long-term complications. Perhaps the most powerful weapon against diabetes is a proper diet. This can help to accomplish both of the above goals, and most importantly it can also prevent the onset of diabetes in most people.
What kind if diet is recommended?
- Whole foods composed of complex carbohydrates should be a mainstay of any diabetic’s diet. Stay away from processed foods, so common in our American grocery stores. Incidence of diabetes is very low in undeveloped countries that eat a more “primitive” diet. But as they become more Westernized, diabetes and other curses of affluence such as heart disease, stroke, and cancer become more common.
- Large amounts of fresh fruits and vegetables, preferably organic and locally grown, should be consumed liberally. They are composed of complex carbohydrates and high in fiber.These are full of antioxidants that can boost the immune system and fight off free radical damage. They also help to keep the fat and cholesterol levels down.
- Avoid high fat foods, such as red meat and some dairy foods. Diabetics are at greater risk for coronary heart disease than the general population, so any foods that are heart-friendly are good for diabetics as well.
- Eating 4-6 small meals per day is an effective strategy for most diabetics. It is important to keep glucose levels as steady as possible throughout the day
- Certain foods help to stabilize blood sugar: brewers yeast, cheese, fish, eggs, garlic, olive oil, and sauerkraut.
- High fiber foods are generally lower in sugar than low fiber foods. Eat beans, fruit, and oat bran or oat meal.
Proper and consistent exercise is also critical for managing and preventing the onset of diabetes. Since obesity is such a crucial factor in diabetes risk, the one-two punch of diet and exercise is clearly a powerful ally against this disease. Weight loss has been proven to improve diabetes to such a great degree, that often the illness can be completely turned around in some individuals simply by losing enough weight and keeping it off through diet and exercise. The beauty of it is that for those of us who are not overweight or diabetic, diet and exercise will prevent us from developing diabetes in the first place (not to mention a host of other diseases as well).
Are There Any Natural Treatments Available for Diabetes?
There are many vitamins and herbal options that have helped to fight symptoms and manage diabetes:
- Cinnamon has shown itself to help stabilize blood sugar levels, as well as triglyceride and cholesterol levels. 1/4 teaspoon per day gets good results.
- Chromium picolinate: Studies have shown this substance to help reduce the need for insulin and other medications in some subjects by reducing glucose and serum triglyceride levels
- Magnesium is important to insulin formation and blood sugar control, so supplementation may be appropriate in some cases
- Vanadium usage has allowed some diabetics to reduce the amount of insulin they need. It has also been proven to normalize blood glucose levels in diabetic animals.
- Certain herbs may be helpful as well, as shown in clinical studies:
Ø Wormwood reduces blood glucose levels.
Ø Gurmar also reduces blood glucose, as well as the need for insulin.
Ø Coccinia indica improves glucose tolerance.
Ø Cayenne pepper helps with pain relief in peripheral nerves that are affected by diabetic neuropathy.
Ø Bitter melon reduces blood glucose and improves glucose tolerance
Ø Fenugreek seed powder also lowers glucose and boosts glucose tolerance.
Ø Gingko Biloba is a known to help with blood circulation.
Ø Garlic keeps both blood sugar and cholesterol down
Ø Onions can help to lower blood glucose.
Ø Bilberry is good for blood vessel health and may lower glucose as well.
Maintaining a healthy lifestyle is absolutely critical to good health. Not all the factors of diabetes, such as family history or ethnic origin, can be controlled. But the fact of the matter is that most diabetes can be totally prevented if we have the vision and initiative to make the necessary changes in our lives. Change is never easy, but it truly the path to life.