The Prevalence of Diabetes. The United Nations predicts diabetes will increase by 72% world wide between 2003 and 2025. More disturbing is the 33% increase in the incidence among children the past decade in the US. While diabetes is the 6th leading cause of death in Canada, its most common complication heart disease is our number one killer.
Unnecessary and Preventable Disease. In my experience, diabetes is one of the most poorly controlled and managed illnesses. This is partly due to lack of information and partly due to the use of outdated perspectives on the underlying causes. Of all the many risk factors for diabetes, only one of them is not preventable or reversible, and that is genetics. However, we now know while we can’t change our genes, we can change their expression.
Interesting Risk Factors. You probably know that sedentary lifestyle, poor muscle mass, excess calorie intake and obesity cause diabetes. But did you know that inflammation and chronic environmental toxic exposure may too! A number of fascinating studies link the levels of persistent organic pollutants (POPs) in our bodies to our risk of developing diabetes. One in particular showed that only obese people with high levels of POPs developed diabetes. This is landmark! Some common sources of POPs are heavy metals (for example, mercury from amalgam fillings), bysphenol-A (for example, from water bottles) and xenobiotics (mostly found in non-organic animal foods). This means that cleansing, a method by which we aid the removal of toxins from our bodies, may help prevent and treat diabetes. Some special lab tests I use can help identify your levels of POPs.
Missed Opportunity to Prevent. Most diabetes could be prevented during the many years prior to its diagnosis if we routinely screened everyone with excess abdominal fat for insulin levels. We can be on the road to diabetes despite normal blood sugar levels. Why? For many years high insulin levels can help compensate to bring sugar levels down to normal. A fasting insulin test can pick up on this insidious disease years ahead, although current lab values don’t fully reflect the risks. By the time blood sugar levels are high it means insulin can no longer compensate, and you now have insulin resistance.
Medications Should Not Be Step One. It is unfortunate that most people diagnosed with diabetes are put on a medication immediately, with little to no attempt to manage or reverse it through lifestyle. The most common medication used called Metformin can reduce an important diabetes marker Hgb-A1C by 31% (the higher this marker the worse the diabetes). However, lifestyle intervention can reduce this marker by up to 58%! Diet alone can lower Hgb-A1C by more than 1.5% which is what Thiazolidinedione drugs do. Without a serious attempt to change lifestyle, there is no justification for medications, or their side effects. For those using oral hypoglycemic agents such as sulfonylurea, you should know that this medication can burn out the remaining functional cells that produce insulin, eventually leading to the necessity for insulin shots.
Treatment Goals for Diabetics. While there are numerous herbal treatments for diabetes, these would be futile in the long run without exercise, a good diet and detoxification. While the list of diets abound, the Mediterranean diet really has the most evidence behind it for general disease prevention and longevity. I recommend a modified Mediterranean Diet for diabetics, which can be referred to as the Paleo-Mediteranian Diet. Aerobic training is key and doesn’t need to be intense. Unfortunately, strength training is deemphasized by most people. Did you know that while doing strength training your muscles require up to 19 times more sugar than during aerobic activities. In general, one hour of activity is recommended daily. Two of those weekly hours should be at a more intense level.
Consult a doctor first if you have not exercise is a long time, have not done a stress test and are overweight, and/or have a heart condition.
Important Tests and Evaluations. All diabetics should have thorough blood tests to rule out contributing factors such as thyroid dysfunction, low vitamin D, toxicity, nutrient deficiencies (B12 is commonly low if on the Metformin), inflammation (CRP is a good marker), insulin resistance, liver and kidney dysfunction. Make sure you get a regular ECG (for heart function), are referred to an Ophthalmologist (eye specialist), have regular feet exams (if you have neuropathy) and get your blood pressure checked.
Naturopathic Supports. In addition to all the aforementioned advice, herbs, supplements and acupuncture can be used to correct nutrient deficiencies, prevent dangerous side effects of diabetes, balance blood sugar levels, reduce insulin insensitivity, help with weight loss and cravings, and in some cases reverse existing damage to eyes, kidneys and nerves. Supplements that lower blood sugar should be introduced by a professional as when combined with existing medications that can cause dangerously low blood sugar levels.
Home Remedies. Some foods that all diabetics should consider medicinal mainstays of their life are garlic, onions, bilberries, blueberries, cinnamon, fenugreek, artichokes, dandelion leafs, brewer’s yeast and bitter melon. Incorporate these into your diet as they all have benefits on blood sugar levels. Bitter melon can be found in most Asian Grocery stores and it an acquired taste.
Other Supplements. Most diabetics should at the minimum be on a good multivitamin, a range of essential oils, and vitamin D at the appropriate dose based on blood tests.
Lim JS, et al. Clin Chem. 2007 Jun;53(6):1092-8. A strong interaction between serum gamma-glutamyltransferase and obesity on the risk of prevalent type 2 diabetes: results from the Third National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey.
JAMA. 2008 Sep 17;300(11):1353-5. Epub 2008 Sep 16. Bisphenol A and risk of metabolic disorders. vom Saal FS, Myers JP. JAMA. 2008 Sep 17;300(11):1303-10.
This article was written by naturopathic doctor Thalia Charney who practises naturopathic medicine, homeopathy, nutrition, acupuncture, herbal medicine, intravenous therapy and mesotherapy in Toronto.