First off, I think we need to talk a little about genetics and maybe more importantly, epigenetics. You were born with a specific genetic code that does not change. Your genome is fixed. However, epigenetics (meaning above genetics) involves how much or whether or not your specific genetic code is expressed. Epigenetics is heavily influenced by environmental factors. We can see living examples of this with many sets of identical twins. Fifty years down the road, despite their genomes continuing to be exactly the same and containing genetic code let’s say linked to heart disease or diabetes or cancer, often times only one of the twins will develop the disease while the other remains disease free. Two sets of exactly the same genes with different outcomes. The take away is to understand that just because you were born with certain genes that are linked to various diseases does not mean that you will necessarily develop those diseases. Now in rare cases there are diseases that are inevitable due to genetic mutations, like Haemophilia and Huntington’s disease. However, with regards to most common illnesses like heart disease, cancer, stroke and diabetes, even more important than genetics is your cells environment. Diet, lifestyle, gender, age, geographic location, climate, air quality, water quality and so forth all can potentially affect the expression of certain genes.
The same can be said with diabetes mellitus and its two different forms, type 1 diabetes and type 2 diabetes. While yes, there are various genetic variations that are linked to the development of either type of diabetes, these variations in a person’s genetic code do not determine absolutely the development of the disease.
TYPE 1 DIABETES
Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune disease increasing world wide, and like many other autoimmune diseases, what triggers its development is largely unknown. Type 1 diabetes is the result of the inability of the islets of Langerhans in the pancreas to produce insulin. Insulin is quite literally the key to unlock the door of the cell to glucose (the fuel that your body’s cells run on) and thus without insulin, glucose cannot enter the cells. Those unfortunate people who develop type 1 diabetes will need to take insulin injections the remainder of their lives (unless a miracle happens, which some people have reported, but I wouldn’t bet on it). Many falsely believe that type 1 diabetes is entirely genetic or inherited, this is not the case. Less than 10% of people with the genetic markers linked to type 1 diabetes actually develop type 1 diabetes. On top of the genetic tendency to develop type 1 diabetes, various environmental factors also exist that implicate the disease including viral infections, consumption of milk proteins early in childhood, pollutants, variations in gut flora and vitamin D exposure (1). Since type 1 diabetes only accounts for 4-5% of diabetic cases (approximately 1.25 million Americans) and not much can be done to treat the disease other than insulin injections, the focus of this post will be majorly on type 2 diabetes (2). That being said, many people have reported that improvements in their diet (switching to a whole foods diet and eliminating processed foods, be it vegan or paleo or whatever you want to call yourself) have reduced the amount of insulin needed to manage the disease.
TYPE 2 DIABETES
While type 1 diabetes is a result of the lack of insulin, type 2 diabetes is the result of increasing insulin resistance and develops over an extended period of time. What is insulin resistance? Let’s go back to the analogy of insulin acting as the key to open the door to the cell and allow glucose in. In the case of type 2 diabetes something is jamming the key hole, rendering insulin unable to open the door. That something is actually fatty deposits inside the cells (intramyocellular lipids) that act as insulin blockers, increasing the body’s resistance to insulin. What causes these fatty deposits in your cells? Lot’s of fat in the blood stream due to a high-fat diet (what most Americans, Canadians, European’s and other developed nations eat). Returning to your glucose starving cells, they ask the pancreas what the deal is and why it hasn’t sent insulin to help bring in all the glucose floating around in the blood. Your pancreas, probably somewhat confused because it knows it is sending sufficient insulin to handle the blood sugar levels, produces more insulin to fulfill the request. If this issue continues, your cells continue to go hungry and your pancreas gets overworked, which may eventually lead to insufficient insulin production. The goal then of type 2 diabetes treatment is to increase your cell’s sensitivity to insulin. Metformin is the most common drug prescribed for this purpose. Some type 2 diabetes patients pancreas has taken too much of a beating and will also need to take insulin injections to help cover the shortages. I have good news though folks, type 2 diabetes is almost entirely preventable and sometimes even reversible!
I’m not going to state that type 2 diabetes is 100% preventable, because I don’t believe that has been proven. That being said, I would say that close to 99% of the time it is. Just think about this for a minute. Approximately 10 percent of Americans (roughly the entire population of Canada) who suffer from type 2 diabetes essentially are suffering from a disease that could have been avoided. China also displays a similar statistic with approximately 10% (just over the entire population of the western United States) of its residents suffering from the disease. Just 40 years ago only 1% of Chinese had diabetes – that’s a 1000% increase (3)! How is that possible in such a short time? Rapid Westernization. I repeat, type 2 diabetes is almost entirely preventable and need not even exist. I don’t care if everyone in your family including your dog and cat have type 2 diabetes, that does not mean you too will inevitably develop the disease. It’s quite possible that you can break the chain!
The single most important thing that influences the development of type 2 diabetes is diet. More specifically, a diet high in fat. The Chinese make a great example. Once they started adopting the western diet high in fat with lots of meat, dairy, oils, and processed foods, diabetes rates, using the words of the World Health Organization, “exploded”. Over 90% of those suffering from type 2 diabetes all over the world are overweight or obese (again, not a surprise as it is the accumulation of fat in the cells that lead to insulin resistance). And diet more than exercising helps maintain a healthy body weight. Shawn Talbott, PhD holder and nutritional biochemist stated that weight loss is typically 75% diet and 25% exercise (4). Simply put, you can not outrun a bad diet. But I hope you don’t get caught up in just reducing calories. I’ll admit that reducing calories heavily influences weight loss, but doesn’t necessarily lead to health. Extremely low calorie diets run the risk of nutritional deficiencies. And maybe just as important as how much you eat is what you eat. Your diet should be full of healthy, whole, life-giving food. 1000 calories from white bread are very different than 1000 calories from raw fruit, veggies and sprouted beans and seeds. You are probably thinking, “Here we go again. Mitch, will probably state that a vegan diet is the most adequate at preventing and managing type 2 diabetes.” You called it my friend. A study posted on the website of the American Diabetes Association (ADA -not to be confused with the American Dental Association, the American Dairy Association, the American Disability Act, the American Dietetic Association and a host of other possible definitions) found that a low-fat vegan diet when compared to the recommended ADA diet was 2x as effective at reducing the need for medication, 3x more effective at lowering blood sugar levels and 2x more effective at losing weight (5). Those results are great, but I think even better results could have been obtained. The low-fat vegan diet followed in the study did not eliminate processed food nor was it based on raw, living fruits and vegetables. I believe this is key to attaining optimal health. The diet I recommend to help manage diabetes and potentially reverse type 2 diabetes is a whole food, low protein, fruit-and-veggie-based vegan diet, void of all animal products and any processed garbage called food. Just recently two of my clients suffering from insulin resistance and using the drug Metformin no longer have any need for the medication and their blood sugar levels that once were in the 300-450 range without the drug are now consistently at normal levels around 100. One client had been taking Metformin for several years! This has all been achieved in under a month. I can’t promise you these results, but I have seen similar results over and over again with a whole food, fruit-and-veggie based vegan diet. If you have doubts, I suggest you give the diet a try for a month and see how you feel.
The second most important thing is lifestyle. The human body needs to MOVE. You don’t have to get a gym membership or spend thousands of dollars on a fancy road bike (although those sexy tights are very attractive) or start training for a marathon to reap the benefits of bodily movement. If you want to engage in more intensive forms of exercise like the ones mentioned, all the power to you. But moving doesn’t have to be complicated, leave you sore or require lots of time. It can be as simple as going for a walk in the morning, practicing yoga, gardening, hiking in nature, taking the stairs instead of the elevator (unless you work or live on the 47th floor or something ridiculous like that), walk or ride your bike to work if possible, jumping on a trampoline and so forth. The benefits of exercise for diabetics are three fold: 1. helps lower blood glucose levels as muscles during exercise can utilize glucose without the need for insulin; 2. increases the effectiveness of insulin, thus lowering a person’s insulin resistance and 3. influences weight loss which in turn will help lower insulin resistance. Instead of Nike’s slogan of just do it, your new slogan is just move.
Also an important aspect of lifestyle, one that greatly influences your risk at developing type 2 diabetes or helps manage it is STRESS. It is absolutely frightening the level of stress most people live under in our modern age. The majority of my health clients report stress levels of 10/10 and very rarely does anyone report lower than 8. Your brain consumes a lot of glucose, in fact, your brain accounts for approximately 20% of total calories burned in a day. Thus, mental stress can actually raise blood glucose levels which is exactly what diabetics are trying to control. Also, the stress hormones of adrenaline and cortisol typically released in response to stress directly affect blood glucose levels. Submitting the body to stress on occasion is not much of a threat to health, but chronic stress can severely wear you down, influencing the development of diabetes, heart disease, stroke, weight gain and a host of other ailments. If you are constantly under stress, do yourself a favor and seek out ways to reduce it. Some effective forms of stress reduction are deep breathing exercises, yoga, exercise, reading, being in nature, going for a walk, gardening, meditation and engaging in a favorite hobby. If you think you don’t have time for any of these stress management activities, your wrong. Make time now when you have the choice, because sooner or later, the negative effects of chronic stress will make you slow down, if not stop you completely.
Herbal Support and Supplements. There are some wonderful herbs that God has given us that may help you in the management of diabetes. If you are on current diabetic medication, you may want to consult your doctor before taking any kind of supplement as it could have negative drug interactions.
– Bitter melon (momordica charantia) appears to have insulin-like properties and is popular in Asian and Indian cooking.
– Cinnamon (cinnamomum aromaticum) appears to increase insulin receptor sensitivity. Cinnamon also helps tone and balance the pancreas which can also aid in diabetes management. And since cinnamon is down right delicious – I’m thinking of banana cinnamon nice-cream right now – why not try making an effort to get more of it in your current diet?
– Goldenseal and licorice, especially in combination help regulate the pancreas and the production of insulin.
– Chromium deficiencies are linked to glucose tolerance, hyperglycemia, glycosuria (a fancy word given to a decrease in insulin receptors) and lowered insulin binding (8). Chromium is essential in carbohydrate metabolism. Before you start taking large amounts of a chromium supplement however, if possible, I would first get your chromium levels tested to make sure you even have a deficiency.
And that’s it folks. I know this post is super long, and if you are still reading you’ve just won a golden ticket and you are on your way to Willy Wonka’s! But honestly, I think we covered some really important stuff here and I hope it was worth your time.