Even if you don’t have diabetes yourself, you know someone who does. In fact, you know several. Diabetes is increasing so rapidly that public health officials call it an epidemic. They predict that because of this disease and its complications, children born today will have shorter life spans than their parents.
What Is Diabetes?
Diabetes is a disease of high blood sugar. Type 1 (previously known as insulin-dependent diabetes mellitus, IDDM, or juvenile diabetes) develops when the pancreas fails to produce the insulin needed for blood sugar balance. Although this form of diabetes can occur at any age, it usually affects children and young adults. Blood sugarlevels are controlled by insulin injections or an insulin pump in combination with a diet that avoids sugar.
Type 2 (previously known as non-insulin-dependent diabetes mellitus, NIDDM, or adult-onset diabetes) affects 90 to 95 percent of all patients diagnosed with diabetes. This is the form that has public health officials worried. Type 2 diabetes usually begins with insulin resistance, a disorder in which cells in the body fail to properly utilize available insulin. As insulin requirements increase, the pancreas loses its ability to produce sufficient insulin. Risk factors for type 2 diabetes include older age, obesity, family history, physical inactivity, and race or ethnicity. In the United States, groups at high risk include African Americans, Latinos, American Indians, Pacific Islanders, and some Asian Americans.
A condition called prediabetes, which results in high blood sugar levels and increases the risk of developing type 2 diabetes, is associated with impaired fasting glucose (IFG), impaired glucose tolerance (IGT), or both. In 2000, 41 million Americans had prediabetes, and the number is growing.
Gestational diabetes, which occurs during pregnancy, affects the unborn child and increases the mother’s risk of developing diabetes. This form of glucose intolerance is most common in overweight women and those with a family history of diabetes.
An estimated 800,000 adult New Yorkers—more than one in eight—have diabetes. Nearly half of all patients in some area hospitals, like Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx, are there because of conditions caused by diabetes. Peter Muennig, MD, assistant professor of health policy and management at Columbia University, warns that if current trends continue, the city’s health system won’t be able to respond to emergencies because all of its hospital beds will be filled with diabetic patients.
The main problem facing health officials trying to educate the public is that Type 2 diabetes is a quiet illness, with no alarming symptoms. Most people with diabetes don’t know they have the disease, and many who do believe they aren’t seriously ill.
Diabetes rates are increasing worldwide. In China and India, which have more diabetic patients than other countries, diabetes is an illness of affluence and modernization. Those who can afford sweets and a sedentary lifestyle are most affected. In the United States, diabetes is an illness of poverty because inexpensive sweet and fattening processed foods, a lack of exercise, and inferior healthcare contribute to this disease.
Symptoms and Prognosis
Signs of diabetes include increased thirst, increased urination, weight loss, and blurred vision. Over time, high blood sugar can lead to heart and kidney disease, blindness, edema (fluid retention), nerve damage, skin sores that fail to heal properly, infections of the skin and mucous membranes, and poor circulation, eventually leading to gangrene and limb amputation. Fortunately, Type 2 diabetes does not have to be a death sentence. It can be slowed, reversed, or prevented. People with diabetes and those at risk should avoid sweet foods (particularly candies, cookies, pastries, and sodas), refined carbohydrates (like white bread and many processed foods), alcohol, and caffeine. A natural diet high in fiber, whole grains (complex carbohydrates), fresh fruits and vegetables, and high-quality fats helps protect against or treat diabetes.
The Right Fats
Although most health experts warn patients away from saturated fats, a growing number now recommend coconut oil for those with or at risk for diabetes. For example, Bruce Fife, ND, says that coconut oil reduces stress on the pancreas, helps supply energy to cells, is easily absorbed, enhances insulin action, and increases metabolic rate. “Because it helps stabilize blood glucose levels and aids in shedding excess body weight,” he adds, “coconut oil is probably the only oil a diabetic patient should eat.”
Look for organic virgin coconut oil at your natural foods market. The recommended dose for adults is 2 to 3 tablespoons per day, added to food or used in its preparation. Start with a small amount, such as 1 teaspoon daily, and gradually increase to the recommended amount.
Other nutrition experts, including Michael Murray, ND, also recommend olive and macadamia nut oils to prevent Type 2 diabetes, because scientific research suggests the usefulness of these oils to replace dangerous trans fats and highly refined vegetable oils. “Macadamia nut oil, like olive oil, is also very high in natural antioxidants,” says Dr. Murray. “In fact, it contains more than 4.5 times the amount of vitamin E in olive oil,” he adds.
Useful Herbs and Supplements
Sweet and hot spices including cinnamon, cloves, cayenne pepper, and ginger have been shown to keep blood sugar levels balanced. Adding chili peppers and some sweet spices to food on a daily basis can help prevent blood sugar spikes.
A number of nutritional supplements also work to reduce diabetic complications. James F. Balch, MD, recommends the following:
up to 1,000 micrograms (mcg) of chromium to increase glucose tolerance and balance blood sugar levels
up to 400 milligrams (mg) Gymnema sylvestre, an herb from India that improves insulin production and blood sugar levels
300 to 1,200 mg alpha lipoic acid, which enhances insulin sensitivity and decreases the symptoms of diabetic neuropathy
100 to 300 mg vanadyl sulfate, which improves glucose tolerance in Type 2 diabetes.
Holistic practitioners also recommend vitamin C (1,000 mg two or three times daily), magnesium (500 to 750 mg; reduce dosage if loose stools result), CoQ10 (according to label directions), vitamin E (800 to 1,200 IU daily), psyllium (up to 5 grams daily with plenty of fluids), bitter melon (Momordica charantia, 5 ml twice daily in tincture form or 200 mg in capsules), garlic (300 to 450 mg twice daily), and bilberry (Vaccinium myrtillus, 160 mg twice daily).
A randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study of Canadians with well-controlled Type 2 diabetes finds that Korean red ginseng (Panax ginseng) improves blood sugar and insulin regulation safely. And a new randomized clinical trial in Iran suggests that daily supplementation with milk thistle (Silybum marianum) significantly lowers fasting blood sugar levels.
Recent research shows that complementary and alternative therapies in adults with diabetes don’t interfere with “preventive care services or use of conventional medicinal services.” And a growing body of research suggests they’re helpful, although it’s always important to tell your healthcare provider what supplements you’re taking.
Preventing diabetes requires effort, but nutrition and exercise are proven strategies that save legs, eyes, and lives. Even if you’re at high risk, you can avoid the diabetes epidemic starting today.