America’s rate of diabetes is ballooning along with its obesity crisis. The number of people with the disease has risen from 1.5 million in 1958 to an epidemic 17.9 million in 2007. Each year, an additional 1.6 million adult cases are diagnosed. Complications include increased risk for heart disease, high blood pressure, and cognitive decline. In fact, recent studies show that insulin resistance inherent in diabetes increases the risk of Alzheimer’s by accelerating the growth of the plaque deposits that destroy the brain; researchers also believe that insulin resistance in itself may be an early marker of Alzheimer’s.
It’s no wonder, then, that the annual cost of treating diabetes hovers around $174 billion. What’s more, 57 million Americans age 20 and older have prediabetes, a constellation of factors that indicates their risk for this serious—and costly—condition.
What Exactly Is Diabetes?
There are several different forms of diabetes, but all are marked by too much glucose in the bloodstream. Glucose is a form of sugar that the body’s cells need to produce energy. To help the glucose enter cells, the pancreas secretes a hormone called insulin.
Type 1 diabetes—which typically occurs in childhood or young adulthood—develops when the pancreas fails to produce enough insulin to balance blood sugar levels. This type of diabetes affects about 5 to 10 percent of those with the disease.
Type 2 diabetes, previously called adult-onset diabetes, affects 90 to 95 percent of all patients with diabetes. This form typically begins with insulin resistance, a condition in which cells can’t properly use the hormone. Eventually, the pancreas loses its ability to produce sufficient insulin. Risk factors for Type 2 diabetes include age, obesity, family history, a sedentary lifestyle, and race or ethnicity. While this form of diabetes usually occurs in those over age 45, an increasing number of children are also developing it, due in large part to obesity.
Meds in the News
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration recently placed restrictions on a diabetes drug called Avandia because data suggests it increases the risk of heart attack and stroke. A restricted access program will now limit new prescriptions only to patients who cannot manage their diabetes on other medications. The sale of this medicine has been suspended in Europe due to safety concerns. Fortunately, there are many holistic ways to approach diabetes control.
“Obesity is sometimes a sign of a prediabetic state,” explains nutritionist Gary Null, PhD, “especially when the excess weight is concentrated at the waistline or just above.”
The good news is that losing weight and exercising can help ward off this disease. Healthcare experts recommend being physically active for 30 to 60 minutes each day, and that the most benefit comes from a mixture of resistance training and aerobic exercise. One major government study showed that overweight adults who lost even a modest amount of weight (5 to 7 percent of their initial body weight) could delay and possibly prevent Type 2 diabetes.
The typical American diet lacks essential vitamins, minerals, and fiber. One of the most important improvements you can make is to increase consumption of whole grains, which improves blood sugar levels and reduces risk of developing Type 2 diabetes. You’ll also want to swear off soft drinks; each sugary serving you drink per day increases your odds of becoming obese 1.6 times. In addition to eating better, several supplements may help prevent or at least postpone this disease.
Alpha-lipoic acid is a potent antioxidant that enhances insulin sensitivity and may alleviate diabetic neuropathy, a condition that develops when high blood sugar levels damage nerve endings, resulting in leg, foot, and hand pain, particularly at night. In Germany, the supplement is prescribed as a medicine to combat this complication. Although alpha-lipoic acid is found in some foods—like spinach and meat—the amount recommended by experts (600 to 1,200 mg daily) can come only from supplementation.
Bitter melon (Momordica charantia) is a popular Chinese vegetable that can significantly lower blood sugar. It can be taken twice daily as a tea, juice, or in capsules after meals.
In addition to insulin, sufficient levels of the mineral chromium are needed to allow sugar to enter cells for energy production. Supplementation of 200 to 400 micrograms (mcg) a day may prove helpful for those with low levels. Niacin-bound chromium may be most effective.
Cinnamon (Cinnamomum verum) can help keep blood sugar levels balanced. Adding just 1 teaspoon of this sweet spice to your daily diet can help prevent blood sugar spikes.
Fenugreek (Trigonella foenum-graecum) stimulates the release of insulin; in one human study, 15 grams daily “significantly reduced glucose levels after meals.” Clinical and experimental studies find that fenugreek seeds help treat both Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes, significantly improving insulin sensitivity.
Fiber is important in maintaining weight and helping control blood sugar levels. The super grain Salba, which contains omega-3 fats and fiber, works to improve blood sugar control and reduces triglycerides and waist circumference. Psyllium is another useful fiber supplement. Both can help you feel full, which can lead to weight loss. Take care to increase fiber intake slowly and drink more water when taking fiber supplements to avoid gastrointestinal discomfort.
A recent study found that green tea (Camellia sinensis) may help prevent and reverse glucose intolerance and help fight diet-induced Type 2 diabetes. Those who sip green tea regularly also lower their risk for metabolic syndrome, which is linked to the development of Type 2 diabetes. Metabolic syndrome is characterized by an impaired ability to balance blood sugar, low HDL (good) cholesterol, large waist circumference, elevated blood fats, and high blood pressure.
Gymnema (Gymnema sylvestre), a popular herb from India, fights sugar cravings and improves insulin production and blood sugar levels.
Studies show that as many as one-third of people with Type 2 diabetes are low in magnesium. As magnesium levels increase, the risk of developing the disease decreases.
Medicinal mushrooms—in particular maitake (Grifola frondosa)—help control blood sugar levels by reducing insulin resistance.
And don’t overlook the value of vitamins C, D, and E. C significantly improves blood-sugar balance, D is necessary for normal insulin secretion and may keep diabetes at bay for adults with glucose intolerance, and E improves insulin activity.
Do You Have Diabetes?
Many people have diabetes but don’t know it. Ask yourself the following questions, and be sure to make an appointment with your healthcare provider if you answer “yes.”
1. Do you have to urinate frequently?
2. Are you often thirsty?
3. Have you been losing weight despite an increased appetite?
4. Are you often tired?
5. Is your vision blurry?
6. Do sores and infections heal slowly?