What Is Diabetes?
Diabetes is characterized by chronic elevated levels of blood sugar (glucose) and insulin. Glucose is the body’s principal fuel, and insulin helps shuttle it into cells where it is burned for energy. However, high glucose levels are toxic to the kidneys, and diabetes is associated with a significantly increased risk of heart disease, cancer, kidney failure, blindness, and other diseases. In essence, diabetes accelerates the aging process, so diseases associated with old age occur during middle age.
Although glucose is blamed for many of the complications of diabetes, growing evidence also points to insulin. For example, people with diabetes who receive large amounts of insulin injections develop vascular disease more rapidly and extensively than do people who use less insulin.
Compelling research suggests that insulin is the oldest, or one of the oldest, hormones in living creatures on Earth. As such, its role is far more fundamental than simply regulating blood sugar levels. It turns on and off various genes and increases the production of body fat and, under different conditions, muscle.
What messes up things? People evolved eating low-carbohydrate foods, which only moderately raise glucose and insulin levels. The consumption of refined carbohydrates and sugars rapidly boosts glucose levels, and the body responds by secreting large amounts of insulin to move the glucose from the blood to cells. However, after a number of years of dealing with large amounts of glucose, cells become resistant to insulin’s actions, with the consequence being chronic elevation of both glucose and insulin levels. Insulin resistance is the chief characteristic of diabetes.
Some genetically related groups of people, such as Native Americans, are especially sensitive genetically to insulin resistance and diabetes. But this genetic propensity only means that they develop the disease sooner rather than later when exposed to modern Western-style food. Genes aside, the real cause of type 2 (adult-onset) diabetes is dietary.
How Common Is Diabetes?
Full-blown adult-onset diabetes affects an estimated 15 million Americans, about half of whom have not been officially diagnosed with the disease. (Juvenile-onset diabetes is an autoimmune disease that is rarely reversible.) However, as many as 70 million Americans have some degree of insulin resistance or Syndrome X. Syndrome X refers to a cluster of insulin resistance, high blood pressure, abdominal obesity, and elevated cholesterol and triglycerides. (For more information see my previous book Syndrome X.) Basically, anyone eating the typical American diet is consuming foods that increase the risk of insulin resistance, Syndrome X, and diabetes.
Nutrients That Can Help
Many supplements can lessen the inflammation in diabetes, but in this case, supplements can be like bailing water in a sinking boat: It is essential that the underlying diet be corrected. That said, a key objective of supplementation should be to lower glucose levels and improve insulin function, which should in turn reduce inflammation.
The chief supplements for improving glucose tolerance and insulin function are alpha-lipoic acid, chromium picolinate, vitamin E, vitamin C, and silymarin (an antioxidant extract of the herb milk thistle). If you are taking any drug for controlling glucose, be aware that your medication requirements may decrease.
Alpha-lipoic acid, a natural substance made by the body and found in beef and spinach, is used extensively in Germany to treat diabetic nerve disorders. In daily dosages of 600 mg it can improve insulin function and lower glucose levels in people with diabetes. It also is a powerful antioxidant.
A lack of chromium results in diabetes-like symptoms. Not surprisingly, therefore, supplements of chromium picolinate, a common form of chromium, have been shown to improve insulin function and lower glucose levels. Sometimes the effects can be significant after several months.
In one U.S./Chinese study diabetic subjects were described as having a “spectacular” improvement after taking 1,000 mcg daily of chromium picolinate for several months. Diachrome, a proprietary combination of chromium picolinate and biotin, a B vitamin, have been shown to further enhance glucose control.
Vitamins E and C improve glucose tolerance and have the added benefit of lowering levels of CRP and interleukin-6. The effect of these vitamins on easing diabetic complications may be greater than their glucose-lowering properties.
Silymarin can have significant glucose-lowering effects in people with diabetes. An Italian study found major improvements in blood sugar levels and many other symptoms of diabetes after patients took silymarin supplements for one year.
By their nature, antioxidants have anti-inflammatory properties. Some antioxidants also influence the production of cytokines, so they reduce inflammation via another means. Based on insulin’s fundamental role in biology, it is likely that the hormone controls the activity of some pro-inflammatory cytokines. It is worthwhile targeting a fasting glucose of between 75 and 85 mg/dl and a fasting insulin under 7 mcIU/ml.
What Else Might Help?
A person with diabetes must recognize that he or she has a potentially terminal disease, but one that usually can be modified and even reversed through diet. A relatively low glycemic diet, such as the Anti-Inflammation Syndrome Diet Plan, can moderate the spikes in glucose and insulin that result from refined carbohydrates and sugars. Protein will stabilize glucose and insulin levels, and the fiber in vegetables will have a similar effect because it blunts the absorption of carbohydrates.
It would be worthwhile as well for people with adult-onset diabetes to undergo testing for allergy like food sensitivities. For example, in one case, a person had no significant rise in glucose after eating ice cream, but had a several hundred point increase in glucose after having Scotch whiskey. A rise or decline of more than 50 points (mg/dl) in one hour is a sign of serious glucose-tolerance problems.