Diabetes - A Wholistic Perspective on an American Epidemic

Diabetes is a disease in which the amount of sugar (glucose) in the blood stays too high. The word translates as “passing through,” referring to the increased urination (polyuria) that happens from the kidneys having to deal with more sugar than they can handle.

This article has two sections:

  • Part One: what diabetes is, how common it is, what’s happening in the body, what causes it, and the conventional drugs-for-symptoms approach.
  • Part Two: how to prevent and reverse diabetes, something which I’ve done hundreds of times in practice, and which is pretty simple to do, if the person is willing to do it.

How to know if you have diabetes (diagnostic criteria)

Pre-diabetes is defined as having both fasting sugar (glucose) between 100 and 129, and hemoglobin A1C (glycosylated hemoglobin, sugar bound to hemoglobin inside the red blood cells) between 5.7 and 6.4. Diabetes is having both fasting glucose 130 or greater, and HGB A1C of 6.5 or greater.

I really like the A1C test because it provides a two-to four-month average of blood sugar, since the lifespan of red blood cells is about four months. I recommend that all adults over 40 and anyone of any age who is overweight to have these two tests done once each year, or every two years if in an excellent state of health and fitness.

Stats (epidemiology)

World incidence of diabetes has quadrupled in just 36 years, from 108 million in 1980 to 422 million in 2016. World population increased by 62% in the same period, so global per capita incidence has increased more than three times faster than population growth.

Diabetes, by any definition, is an epidemic in America. A ridiculous one-third of all Americans – that’s over 105 million people – are diabetic or pre-diabetic, which is high blood sugar short of the criteria for diabetes. Of those, about 30 million – almost 10% of the US population – are diabetic, and another 75 million – some 25% of the whole country – are pre-diabetic.

What’s happening in the body (pathophysiology)

There are two types of diabetes.

Type 1 (T1D) is a pancreas problem. The hormonal part of the pancreas, specifically the beta cells in the Islets of Langerhans, in the endocrine tail of the pancreas, produce little or no insulin, allowing blood sugar to stay too high. Causes include vaccines, eating bleached flour, chlorine exposure, chronic low-level infections, environmental toxins, gluten,

Hormones are messengers or signals, that regulate every system and function in your body. Insulin is a critical hormone that lowers blood sugar when it gets too high. It does this by telling your cells to open up and take in the excess sugar, preventing organ failure or brain damage from high blood sugar. Insulin does the same for your body’s other fuel, which is fatty acids.

Type 2 diabetes (T2D) is a liver problem. In this condition, the cells of the body, especially in the liver, muscles and fat, ignore the insulin message, leaving the sugar levels too high in the blood. This is called insulin resistance, insulin insensitivity, or insulin inefficiency. Having read some of the current research on aging, I can confidently state that you age according to how much insulin you produce. Here’s the flowchart: eating lots of sugar + refined foods + sedentary lifestyle → high insulin → insulin resistance → high blood sugar & triglycerides, chronic inflammation → diabetes, overweight & obesity, cardiovascular disease, dementia & Alzheimer’s disease, chronic pain, other chronic/degenerative disease, mitochondrial damage → cancer, autoimmune disease

In blood work, other than fasting blood glucose and HGB A1C, I like fasting insulin, a key marker for insulin resistance. The optimal range is 1-5. Borderline high is 6-9, and insulin resistance begins at 10. Unfortunately, the lab reference range (these are usually of limited value) often has an upper limit of 26.

A 2005 article in Annals of Medicine, Vol. 37, states, “Both obese and lipodystrophic [disturbed fat metabolism] patients... have an increase in the amount of fat hidden in the liver... An increase in liver fat content has been shown to predict type 2 diabetes, independently of other cardiovascular risk factors...”.

An astounding 90 million Americans – that’s 28% of the whole US population, have a fatty liver, where fat fills up and injures the liver cells (hepatocytes), usually from excess sugar. The liver, in general, converts excess sugar into fat. Too much sugar, especially the ultra-nasty high fructose corn syrup, leads to a fatty liver and insulin resistance. This causes insulin levels to rise to compensate – higher levels are needed to do the job of controlling blood sugar. T2D accounts for 90-95% of all diabetes in the US.

Causes of diabetes (etiology)

When a person has a poor diet and doesn’t exercise, their cells start to ignore the insulin, and so blood sugar, triglyceride (fat) and insulin levels go up. Eventually the pancreas can’t keep up with the demand for all this insulin, and it gets tired and weak, leaving the person with not enough insulin to keep blood sugar low enough. So, in advanced T2D, there’s both insulin resistance and insulin deficiency.

T2D shows up more as we age, due to the cumulative effects of a sedentary, high-sugar lifestyle. The most common age for a diabetes diagnosis is between 45 and 64.

Why all the diabetes? Did you know that about 150 years ago, the average American ate between two and five pounds of sugar per year? Today it’s between 120 and 170 pounds of sugar per person per year. That means that some Americans eat a half-pound of sugar per day! All that sugar creates insulin resistance and therefore diabetes. This is a big reason why about 10% of Americans are diabetic, and another 25% are pre-diabetic.

What’s worse is that much of that sugar intake (about 30%) is high-fructose corn syrup (HCFS), a dangerous, mercury-containing sweetener which did not exist 100 years ago. At least half of HFCS is synthetic glucose. The other half is usually extracted from genetically-modified corn, itself a toxic and carcinogenic “food.” HCFS can cause a fatty liver, a condition which now affects an amazing 28% of the entire US population (that’s 90 million people!). Your liver converts HCFS directly to fat. What’s more, eating HCFS has been shown to cause high insulin, sugar, triglycerides (blood fats) and high blood pressure.

Dangerous, useless statin drugs which lower cholesterol, dramatically increase one’s risk of diabetes, which is great if you’re a drug company. These drugs, like most drugs, do far more harm than good.

Sweetened drinks

Jack, a 45-year-old diabetic patient, came in as a new patient for nutritional care. I asked him about his diet, and to keep a seven-day food diary. Jack replied that he couldn’t understand why he was diabetic, because he didn’t eat that much sugar. When I looked at his food log, I saw that he drank about a six pack of soda daily. Each of those cans of soda contains about seven tablespoons of sugar. That’s almost ½ cup of sugar from each can. Jack didn’t realize that most of his sugar (and I’ve seen this dozens of times over the years) came from what he drank, not what he ate. Jack’s chosen diet contained about four cups (that’s two pounds) of sugar per day, an unbearable burden for anyone’s pancreas, liver and adrenals. His diabetes was inevitable.

Jack was a common and tragic example of the truth of the words of the late, great Dr. Royal Lee, one of the greatest nutritionists of all time. Dr Lee lamented that Americans, with their diet of what he called “counterfeit” foods, were “digging their graves with their teeth,” every time they ate.

A recent observational study of 2,800 people found that those who consumed more than two servings of sugar-sweetened beverages per day had a 20% increased risk of developing T2D. And another study found that overweight adults who swapped diet sodas with water, experienced a decrease in insulin resistance and lower fasting blood sugar and insulin levels. It's no surprise that drinking added-sugar beverages like sweetened tea, soda, or coffee with sugar increases diabetes risk.

Sugar replaced fat

About 100 years ago, fat made up about 50% of the calories in the American diet. Real, protective fat, mostly animal fat, and none of it hydrogenated (artificially saturated) fat. Heart disease and diabetes were present but uncommon. Today, American fat intake has dropped by a third to about 34% of calories, and lifetime heart disease risk is 50%, with one-third of American adults diagnosed with some form of cardiovascular disease. This includes 1.6 million heart attacks per year. One third of those are fatal, which is one US heart attack death per minute. It also includes 800,000 strokes per year, one-fifth of which are fatal.

We’ve replaced protective animal fats like lard, butter and beef tallow, with sugar, and hydrogenated, genetically-modified fats like corn and soybean oil. All this is causing much of the metabolic syndrome (insulin resistance) diseases, which include cardiovascular disease, diabetes, obesity and more.

Drugs for symptoms (conventional medical management)

This is all great news for the drug industry, which has pharmaceutical drugs for managing the symptoms of all these conditions. Big pHarma makes an estimated $200 billion each year from diabetes and related drugs alone. And many diabetes drugs significantly increase risk of cardiovascular disease, heart attack, stroke and overall mortality.

I had a new patient come in one day saying she “used to have high blood pressure,” until she started taking a drug for it. I explained that she still had hypertension, and that the drug was simply suppressing that symptom of a deeper problem. I explained if a rock got into her shoe and caused foot pain. If she went to a drug-happy medical doctor, she would get a prescription for a pain-relieving drug (analgesic). If she went to a wholistic practitioner like myself, I would help her get the rock out of her shoe. Two hallmarks of wholistic healthcare are root cause resolution, and the principle of “nature first, drugs last.”

We could accurately say that the food industry makes billions of dollars creating disease, the drug industry makes billions managing those diseases, and the government makes all that deadly profiteering legal. In 2002, the ten drug companies in the Fortune 500 were more profitable than the other 490 companies combined. I’m all for conscious capitalism, and love to see success in businesses that serve the “fourfold bottom line” of people, planet, presence and profit. Drug companies have proven repeatedly to pursue profits at any expense, including ethics. Government agencies like EPA, FDA and CDC are cozy with, or, more accurately, controlled by, these industries. This is part of why my mission is to help create a world of vital, resilient people who boldly make their positive contribution in the world, and stay out of the medical system entirely, except in emergencies.

How to prevent and reverse diabetes

Regular exercise, and eating an organic, nutrient-dense diet of mostly vegetables and protein, with little sugar and grains, is a great way to stay well, prevent disease, and stay drug-free. Greens and protein at every meal is a simple and effective tip.

What about coffee?

Studies show that people who regularly drink coffee (caffeinated or decaffeinated) have a 23-50% lower risk of developing T2D. While the association is still being investigated, what is it about coffee that makes it helpful in preventing T2D?

This is an interesting association – the idea that drinking coffee, even seven cups per day in one study, reduces your risk of developing diabetes. To a coffee drinker, this sounds great, and may even encourage them to not only feel justified in drinking coffee, but drinking even more.

There are two issues here. One, association does not prove causation. In other words, the coffee drinking may not be the cause of the reduction in diabetes risk. Second, and more important, is that coffee, regardless of its possible preventative effects in diabetes, comes with considerable adverse effects for many people. This is because coffee contains relatively large amounts of the world’s most popular drug: caffeine. In the words of research scientist and author Candace Pert, PhD, discoverer of endorphins, “any honest scientist or pharmacologist will tell you that caffeine is indeed a drug.”

Caffeine, as a drug, is what we call a neuroendocrine stimulant. This means that it will give you a short-term lift, at a long-term cost. By continuously stimulating your brain and hormonal system, caffeine wears you out, just like turning up the brightness on a flashlight uses up the batteries faster. In 27 years of practice seeing many thousands of patients, I have seen what daily coffee consumption does to many people – eventually producing fatigue, anxiety, insomnia, and a dependence on that drug (caffeine). There are far safer ways to reduce diabetes risk than with coffee. Also consider that coffee, unless organic, is a highly sprayed crop which carries pesticide and herbicide residues. And many people drink flavored coffee, which is usually high in sugar, or add their own sugar (or, even worse, artificial sweeteners) to their coffee, causing more problems. To adapt a Frank Zappa metaphor, drinking coffee to prevent diabetes is like treating a headache with decapitation.

Fruit vs fruit juice

A study published in the British Medical Journal found that people who consume whole fruits such as blueberries, grapes and apples foods have a lowered risk of developing T2D, where those who consumed fruit juice instead had a higher risk.

A critical factor found in fruit but not in fruit juice, is fiber. Fiber, a type of carbohydrate found in most foods, is not digestible, or able to be broken down in your gut. About 75% of your stool is made up of fiber. Fiber has remarkable and powerful benefits to your entire system, and dramatically reduces the impact of sugars that you eat.

There are two types of fiber – soluble and insoluble, each with its own unique benefits. Water-soluble fiber, like that found in fruit, slows down sugar absorption and reduces the sugar “spike” after eating that stimulates insulin release. Remember that the more insulin you make, the more your cells can become resistant to it, and the more likely that the insulin-producing part of your pancreas (the beta cells) will wear out over time. Soluble fiber also helps you feel full, reducing how much food you eat. This may explain why eating soluble fiber helps you lose weight. Soluble fiber is also a prebiotic, which means that it can be fermented by bacteria in your gut to produce many beneficial compounds, keep your colon acidic (very important), and support the critical gut microbiome. Fruit juice contains little or no fiber, so you get all the sugar without the protective benefit of the fiber.

What about fruit juice?

Fruit juice, or even worse, high fructose corn syrup added to drinks, can increase one’s risk of diabetes, by adding sugar – about 8 teaspoons(!) in an eight-ounce glass – without the sugar-balancing effects of soluble fiber. A typical serving of fruit (about a half-cup) provides a little more than 1/3 teaspoon (1.1 grams) of soluble fiber. Many authorities recommend eating 20-35 grams of fiber per day and the average American only eats about half that. This helps explain why one-third of all Americans are diabetic or pre-diabetic (high blood sugar, short of being diagnosed as diabetic) Though I recommend eating at least twice as much vegetables as fruit, I don’t believe that eating fruit can cause diabetes in most people, for this reason.

How much fruit to eat?

There are a few considerations here. One is eating almost all organic fruits, as non-organic fruits are sprayed with toxic farm chemicals that end up in your body. Two, eating seasonally, in other words what is growing in your region, is ideal. For most people, this means eating more fruit in the summer, and less in the winter. Three, eat twice as many vegetables as fruit. Finally, focus on the highly-protective fruits, like berries, which have a range of body-protective compounds beyond the soluble fiber. At the end of the day, I generally recommend eating about one cup per day of berries or other low-glycemic foods. Remember that eating fruit is not the same as drinking fruit juice or eating added-sugar foods. Now go get some organic berries and enjoy!

Hydrate

Increasing water intake may help prevent or reverse diabetes. Correcting dehydration can increase blood volume and therefore dilute blood sugar. It also helps the kidneys flush sugar through the urine. How much water to drink? Two good criteria are drinking according to thirst, and making sure you pass pale yellow urine at least three times each day. Ideally drink spring or reverse osmosis-filtered water.

Eat moderately

Given that most people eat a high-glycemic, high-sugar diet, it makes sense that the more you eat, the more sugar your body must deal with. Those pre-diabetic people were likely already used to eating sugary foods. Again, the greatest source of “hidden” sugar in one’s diet is not what you eat, but what you drink! For example, a bottle of sweetened tea or a can of soda contains about seven tablespoons of sugar. So, eating less reduces the glycemic load on the three main organs of blood sugar balance – your liver, pancreas, and adrenal glands.

Eating less also contains a key to health aging – conserving organ reserve. This principle has been part of Chinese medicine for thousands of years – that preserving organ capacity, through moderation in lifestyle choices and taking strengthening herbs, can lead to a long and healthy life largely free of disease.

The simplest approach is to portion control is to develop the healthful habit of pushing the plate away and finish eating before you are full. Leave the table with a little room in your tummy. Except for times like Thanksgiving dinner, don’t eat to fullness. Second, chew well and put the fork down between bites. The goal is to eat consciously, and slow down your eating to give your stomach time to expand, so that you feel full. Eating fast leads to eating more, and not chewing well leads to poor digestion.

A two-year study of prediabetic people found that those who reduced food portions had a 46% lower risk of diabetes than those who made no lifestyle changes. Another study found that controlling portion size was one factor in reducing the risk of T2D.

Exercise

A study in people with prediabetes found that moderate-intensity exercise increased insulin sensitivity by 51% and high-intensity exercise increased it by 85% on days they worked out.

A January 2000 study in the International Journal of Sports Medicine concluded that “…physical training can be considered to play an important, if not essential role in the treatment and prevention of insulin insensitivity.”

Your brain is the biggest consumer of blood sugar, creating about 20% of your total body energy per day. The second biggest sugar-burners are your muscles. By improving circulation, using up available sugar and increasing your sugar-handling efficiency, physical exercise is one of the best ways to reduce your risk of diabetes and its sibling, cardiovascular disease.

Current research suggests that the best combination of exercise is resistive (working against gravity or weights) and high-intensity interval training (short bursts of intense exertion). Aerobic exercise is also helpful, to be sure, and any exercise is better than no exercise. Exercising 30 minutes per day, or four hours per week, is effective.

My favorite three tips for finding an exercise routine you love, and sticking with it, are:

  • Do exercises you enjoy, and change it up – variety is fun!

  • Exercise with a partner or group – the social connection can be as nourishing as the workout

  • Do some or most of it outside, unless weather makes it unsafe

Meditation

We know that cortisol, one of the main stress hormones, leads to insulin resistance and diabetes. We also know that conscious relaxation reduces cortisol levels. Meditate, or at least do slow breathing.

The simplest method, backed by an impressive stack of research, is seated slow breathing. Sit upright, and do seven breath cycles (a complete in and out breath) per minute for five minutes, upon rising and before sleep. This is one breath every eight or nine seconds. Once you are comfortable with that, slow that to six and even five breaths per minute. That’s one breath every 10-12 seconds. I guarantee that within a month you and therefore your life will change for the better, and you’ll become a happier, calmer person who is nicer to be around. And you’ll reduce your risk of diabetes and cardiovascular disease to boot.

Supplementation

The “mineral triad” for good glycemic control is:

  1. Zinc. The zinc content in the insulin-secreting pancreatic beta cell is among the highest in the body. Zinc protects the beta cells. Zinc deficiency alone can cause type I or II diabetes, because the body cannot store and release insulin properly. Zinc directly reduces the inflammatory signals that damage the beta cells, a process that leads to type I diabetes. I take and have had clinical success with Zinc Liver Chelate from Standard Process, which has been around for 30 years, and also provides the benefit of organic beet, carrot and sweet potato.

  2. Magnesium. A 2004 article in Magnesium Research, Vol. 17 #2, states that “Magnesium is required for both proper glucose utilization and insulin signaling. Metabolic alterations in cellular magnesium, which may play the role of a second messenger for insulin action, contribute to insulin resistance.” I recommend Magnesium Lactate, which has also been used in clinical practice for 30 years, from Standard Process.

  3. Chromium. Many studies, including a 2004 article in Diabetes Education, entitled “A scientific review: the role of chromium in insulin resistance” confirm the role of chromium in regulating insulin action. Chromium supplements can lower insulin resistance and reduce some of the metabolic disturbances associated with metabolic syndrome. It’s important to avoid the common but dangerous chromium picolinate. When the body cleaves the chromium off this compound, the resulting free picolinic acid appears to be carcinogenic through DNA damage and mutation, especially in the presence of synthetic ascorbic acid (nearly all so-called vitamin C supplements). This was confirmed by John Vincent, PhD and colleagues at the University of Alabama. I have had success with Cataplex GTF by Standard Process, a food-sourced trivalent, or Glucose Tolerance Factor, chromium, which has been used successfully for 36 years, also includes beneficial buckwheat and liver.

Buckwheat

A true superfood, buckwheat is not actually a grain, and is not wheat. It is also gluten-free, for those who have concerns about gluten. Buckwheat, especially a combination of both buckwheat seed and leaf, improves insulin sensitivity, lowers blood sugar, improves vascular health (reduces varicose veins, blood clots and more), and provides a complete protein and natural multi-mineral.

A Chinese Pharmacological Bulletin study from June 2001 confirmed that “…Buckwheat seed has the effect of reducing serum lipid, glucose, increasing insulin sensitivity and anti-lipid peroxidation...”

A 2007 paper in Clinical and Experimental Pharmacology and Physiology, Volume 34, found that “…consumption of buckwheat seed may be a preventative factor for hypertension, dyslipidemia and hyperglycemia...”

In addition to including buckwheat in the diet, I take and recommend Cyruta and Cyruta Plus, organic buckwheat seed and leaf concentrates, from Standard Process.

Herbal therapy

Many herbs can lower high blood sugar and improve insulin sensitivity. Here are a few of my favorites:

Gymnema sylvestre leaf: reduces dietary sugar absorption, lowers blood sugar, and appears to actually regenerate and heal damaged insulin-producing beta cells in the pancreas. I recommend Gymnema tablets from MediHerb. I have found it to work within weeks, and it appears to have cumulative benefit, with peak effects coming within two years.

Herbs that improve insulin resistance by increasing insulin sensitivity include:

Milk Thistle seed. A placebo-controlled clinical trial published in 2006 in Phytotherapy Research, Vol. 20, found that taking Silymarin (milk thistle extract) for 4 months produced significant reductions in HGB-A1C (13%), fasting blood glucose (15%), and triglycerides (25%).

This wonderful herb also protects the liver from damage from chemical exposure (which affects everyone these days), helps regenerate a damaged liver, and improves bile production and flow. I have been quite impressed by the formula I use in practice, the Silymarin tablets from MediHerb.

Panax Ginseng root. A randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study published in a 2008 edition of Nutrition, Metabolism and Cardiovascular Diseases, Vol, 18, found that panax (Korean) ginseng reduced fasting insulin (an excellent marker for measuring insulin resistance) by an impressive 34%.

This herb is the king of the tonic adaptogen herbs, used for millennia to promote vitality and longevity. The formulas I use clinically that contain this herb include HerbaVital, Rhodiola and Ginseng Complex, and Korean Ginseng 1:2 liquid, all from MediHerb.

Ginkgo Biloba leaf. Ginkgo is an astounding herb that improves circulation, vascular health, memory, radiation resistance and much more. An animal study published in a 2011 edition of Acta Pharmaceutica Sinica B, Volume 1, found that ginkgo leaf reduces insulin resistance. A 2011 Journal of Medicinal Plants Research, Vol. 5, published a study that revealed “Ginkgo biloba extract can improve glucolipid [sugar and fat] metabolism and may have protective effects on hepatocytes [liver cells] and endothelial [lining of blood vessels] function of blood vessels & partly or remarkably reverse endothelial dysfunction and steatohepatitis [inflamed and fatty liver] due to IR [insulin resistance]”.

I consider ginkgo to be one of the most important preventative and therapeutic botanicals in the world, take it daily myself, and use it constantly in practice. The formulas I use clinically that contain this herb include Ginkgo Forte, HerbaVital, Gotu Kola Complex, Horsechestnut Complex and PulmaCo, all from MediHerb.

Final thoughts

Though it looks like diabetes incidence and deaths will get worse before they get better, I am hopeful. People are waking up to the proven dangers of sugar, corn syrup, genetically-modified foods, vaccines, cholesterol-lowering drugs, and lack of physical activity. Every day, more people are choosing a low-glycemic, nutrient-dense diet, taking natural (not synthetic) supplements, and getting off their butts to exercise.

Your main job is you. Take care of yourself, and become an example to others who will want to know the secrets to your vitality.

About the Author

Dr. Michael Gaeta

Michael Gaeta, DAc, MS, CDN is a visionary educator, clinician and writer in the field of natural healthcare. Michael works with thousands of natural health professionals who want to improve their patient care and practice success, through his one-year mentoring program, live seminars and webinars, and distance learning programs.

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