By the year 2020, 50% of Americans will be diabetic or pre-diabetic according a Reuters article that includes estimates from health insurer UnitedHealth Group, Inc. Even if that projection is overly grim, there is no argument that we already have a diabetes crisis. The current path leads to intolerable human suffering and costs that could bankrupt our country. (Early warning signs are listed below.)
Fortunately, there proven ways that healthy people can avoid diabetes and feel better while they are doing it. There is also good news for Type 2 diabetics—they can, in many cases, return to good health. It is also exciting that Type 1 and Type 2 diabetics can avoid the devastating complications common to those diseases. Of course, these good results cannot be attained by sticking to the same Standard American Diet (SAD) and lifestyle practices that caused the current diabetes epidemic.
Benefits of stable blood sugar. Sometimes the idea of preventing a disease that may not develop until years down the road is just too abstract to motivate a change in behavior today. Luckily, taking steps to maintain stable levels of blood sugar (doctors call it “blood glucose”) pays noticeable dividends in the short run as well. The benefits on the following list illustrate my point. Stable healthy blood sugar promotes:
- Weight loss
- Improved energy
- Better moods
- Sharper mental focus
- Reduced cravings for starch and sugar
Effects of unstable blood sugar. When blood sugar levels are not maintained within healthy limits, the following are some of the problems can develop:
- Low blood sugar can lead to fatigue, inability to concentrate, headache, light headed feeling and other symptoms listed below.
- Extremely low blood sugar can be fatal.
- High blood sugar levels lead to pre-diabetes and to diabetes . There are a number of common symptoms of diabetes, but the condition can be present without the person being aware of any symptom.
- Chronically high blood sugar levels damage cells causing the debilitating complications of diabetes and heart disease. It should get our attention that two out of three people with diabetes die from heart disease or stroke . Other serious complications are kidney failure, blindness, nerve damage and amputation of limbs. As you can imagine, the typical long-term diabetic’s later years can be quite miserable.
- In fact, diabetics have a shorter life expectancy. A study showed that diabetic men live an average of 7.5 fewer years than the average and diabetic women’s life expectancy is reduced by an average of 8.2 years. The subjects of that study were age 50 or above when the scientists began their calculations. Today an increasing number of people develop diabetes, not in their late 40’s as was previously the case, but in their 30’s, 20’s or even teen years. Therefore, it stands to reason that life expectancy of diabetics will continue to drop because the accumulated insults to the body from diabetes start at such young ages.
Early warning signs of unstable blood sugar. Too often people enjoy a false sense of security until the doctor diagnoses “diabetes”. However, the body can tell us something just is amiss long before the lab tests do-with clues large and small. Here are some examples of early warning signs we should heed:
- A big waistline. This isn’t just a fashion problem. Recent studies tell us and the American Heart Association (AHA) confirms it, that abdominal obesity (especially with a high waist-to-hip ratio) is a strong independent risk factor for heart disease. The AHA warns that women with waists larger than 35 inches or men with waists over 40 inches have entered the danger zone. (Measure at the navel.)
- Skin tags. This is one of the small clues that is easy to dismiss. These tiny bumps or skin growths are rather like grains of rice. They usually appear around the neck and skin creases or where clothing rubs. Research shows that if a person has several they should be concerned.
- Carbohydrate cravings. When our blood sugar dips, it is a survival instinct to reach for something that will raise it quickly. Carbohydrates like sugars and starches do that and so are usually our go-to foods.
- Hypoglycemia . When blood sugar is lower than normal, the condition is called hypoglycemia . Without realizing the cause, you may have noticed the effects of low blood glucose. That’s when, while waiting for a meal, you develop a headache, have trouble organizing your words or feel weak, shaky, sweaty, foggy, drowsy, and cranky. Such problems arise because the brain doesn’t store glucose and acts erratically when its supply runs low.
- High blood pressure . According to the American Diabetes Association (ADA) that means a blood pressure reading at or above 140/90 mmHg.
- Low HDL (good) cholesterol. The ADA says that levels of 35 mg/dl or lower are of concern.
- High triglycerides . Per the ADA , levels of this blood fat at 250 mg/dl or higher are a problem.
- Acid reflux . This is also known as heartburn or GERD. (My book covers this subject in depth.)
- Sleep apnea . This is a condition wherein oxygen intake is lowered during sleep due to changes in the tissues of the airway and/or in the nerve signals to the airway. The results of sleep apnea can be snoring, poor sleep quality, daytime fatigue and increased cardiovascular risk. Sleep apnea is linked to overweight. (But does that mean one causes the other or are both caused by some third factor? Based on my experience with clients, I believe both are caused by the same dietary factor-excess fast-acting carbohydrates also known as high glycemic foods.)
- Polycystic ovary syndrome . A woman with fertility issues, weight gain, irregular periods, acne or facial hair might suspect polycystic ovary syndrome and therefore blood glucose issues.
- Gallbladder trouble, recurrent infections, cuts that are slow to heal, dry skin, gum disease and so on are more of the many signs.
Of course, there could be other factors involved in causing each of the above conditions. For example, yeast overgrowth, low levels of serotonin (the happy hormone) or a mineral deficiency can cause carbohydrate cravings. As another example, certain medications can cause heartburn. But clearly, if you have any of these clues, and especially if you have more than one, it couldn’t hurt to check your blood sugar.
How does the blood sugar system work? Blood sugar is a very good thing—an absolute necessity in fact. Glucose in the blood fuels the activity of our cells and is the main source of energy for the brain. The healthy body has an elegant feedback system for assuring a steady supply of glucose to cells and for avoiding excess. When blood sugar increases (e.g. after a meal), the pancreas gland releases insulin , a hormone that among other roles, tells the body to store blood sugar. Insulin causes some sugar to be stored in the liver and muscles as a starchy substance called glycogen . However, insulin also signals the body to store lots of blood sugar as body fat .
Our normal metabolism, brain function and physical activities use up the supply of circulating blood sugar. Before we raise it again by eating, the lowered blood sugar level signals the pancreas to send out another hormone, glucagon . It does basically the opposite of what insulin does—cause blood sugar to come out of storage and go back into circulation. It’s more complex than that, but you get the idea.
How does the system get in trouble? Ideally, blood sugar rises gradually as a whole food such as a vegetable slowly digests. However, we play a wicked trick on the system when we suddenly flood it with sugar as might happen with a soft drink or “high-glycemic” food. High glycemic means the food is known to break down and absorb quickly causing blood sugar spikes.) In turn, that burst of sugar sends a signal to the pancreas that an abnormally high amount of insulin is needed. That resulting rush of insulin may cause an overreaction forcing g blood sugar too low (i.e. hypoglycemia ). Studies and many experts say (and it just makes sense) that years of frequent blood sugar spikes can cause cells all over the body to stop heeding the insulin signals. This continual excess demand may even damage cells in the pancreas, virtually wearing out its ability to make insulin.
Let food be your medicine. In the simplest terms, to enjoy stable blood sugar, we must eat foods that don’t cause blood sugar spikes (i.e. eat low-glycemic foods). In fact, it is logical that most anyone, except perhaps some sprint-type athletes who need instant fuel, would benefit from eating lower glycemic meals. Read my page on this website, Blood Sugar Spikes, for detailed lists of specific low glycemic foods as well as high glycemic foods to avoid. (There is also a description there of a supplement that greatly helps with blood sugar management and weight loss.)
The carbohydrate component of food is what has the biggest effect on blood sugar. In simple terms, the sweeter and/or starchier the food is, typically the more it spikes blood sugar. Also, the more processing a food has, the more likely that it isn’t good for you. For example, rice cakes are higher glycemic than steamed rice because once puffed, the rice dissolves quickly in your mouth and can be absorbed faster. Also, always consider portion size. A tablespoon of maple syrup might have a medium glycemic effect, but with if you literally soak your pancake with it, all bets are off. (Oh, never mind. If you are eating a pancake, you probably aren’t watching glycemic factors anyway.)
Proteins can turn into sugar, but do so very slowly. (Diabetics on insulin have to factor in this slow rise in determining medication dose.) Fats do not spike blood sugar and, because they slow stomach emptying, may actually help reduce the glycemic impact of carbohydrates.
Other steps to reduce diabetes risk:
- Speaking of steps, physical activity is an excellent place to start. Experts recommend wearing a pedometer and gradually working up to walking 10,000 steps a day. Strength or resistance training is also of benefit because a higher ratio of muscle to fat is protective against diabetes.
- A surprising number of medications increase the risk of diabetes. Read the package insert on any medications you take. If a drug lists “blood glucose increase” as a potential side effect, ask your physician to help you find a natural approach or at least a safer alternative drug.
- Reduce unnecessary stress. Tai chi and yoga have been found to be helpful and besides movement, the relaxation and improved breathing are beneficial elements.
- Over half of those diagnosed with diabetes are obese. Whether the obesity causes the diabetes or both are caused by some third factor (high glycemic meals?) is still being debated, but there are obviously many reasons to be mindful of portion sizes.
- Supplement with a complex of nutrients designed to improve the body’s blood sugar handling system and sensitivity to insulin. A well thought out combination I recommend is Glucose Optimizer by Jarrow. It contains vitamins, minerals, herbs and other nutrients shown to help the body better handle its blood sugar.
- Reduce the toxic burden on your body, e.g. don’t smoke. The controversial plasticizer BPA has been linked to increased incidence of diabetes. Even an excess storage of iron in your body might be an issue.
- Hormone imbalances increase risk. For example, low testosterone is a risk for men and abnormally high testosterone is a risk for women. Low DHEA increases risk for both and it is a hormone that steadily decreases with age. Supplementing with a topical cream is more effective than pills . Twist25 is perhaps the most reliable brand and the company also offers a DHEA test. (They automatically give Healthy by Nature customers a 10% discount if they come through they link above.)
- The literature at least hints that proper hydration may be a factor in preventing diabetes and other chronic diseases.8 If the water is cleaner and tastes better , it is easier to drink more of it.
Measuring blood sugar. Blood tests can help us understand whether or not we’ve been eating meals that were low in glycemic impact and how well the whole blood sugar system is working. Below are the standard medical tests for blood sugar and what they are usually understood to mean. Keep in mind that these benchmarks were created using the scores of average people. According to this report from the US Centers for Disease Control, half of the people in this country have a chronic illness. So, why in the world would we want to aim for average? I believe the “norms” allow blood sugars to get too high before alarm bells go off. For example, in a study of non-diabetic children, it was shown that even before reaching the borderline level of 100, the youngsters already had significant impairment of their blood sugar systems.
• Fasting Blood Glucose (FBG). This test is performed when the person has not eaten for 8-10 hours and so it reveals something of a base line:
90-100 mg/dL = Healthy (many nutritionists would say this is too high)
100-125 mg/dL = Pre-diabetes (50% increased risk of diabetes )
126 mg/dL or greater = Diabetes
• Glucose tested 2 hours after beginning a meal (PPG)
100-140 mg/dL = “ Normal ”
Up to 180 mg/dL considered by some normal for diabetics
• HbA1c test. When blood sugar is frequently high, glucose becomes bound to cellular proteins. That “sugar-coating” of proteins is called “glycosylation” and is linked to disease and premature aging. This test measures a glycosylated blood protein called hemoglobin. It shows what the average blood sugar has been over 2-3 months.
Below 6 = Normal (many nutritionists would say that over 5 too high)
Below 7 = “Controlled” diabetic (per ADA )
Copyright 2011-2014 by Martie Whittekin, CCN