Data from the National Diabetes Association 2011 report a total prevalence of diabetes in 25.8 million children and adults in the United States, over 8% of the total population. Diabetes is a group of diseases distinguished by high blood sugar (glucose) levels due to an inability to produce and/or use insulin.
There are a few types of diabetes. Type 1 diabetes, also known as insulin-dependent diabetes mellitus or juvenile-onset diabetes, occurs most often in childhood but can occur at any age. Type 1 diabetes results when the body's immune system wipes out pancreatic beta cells, the cells in the body that produce insulin. Insulin is a hormone made by the pancreas that is needed to convert glucose (sugar, starches and other food) into energy. When insulin production and/or action are impaired, the result is usually high blood glucose (blood sugar) and the diagnosis is either diabetes or pre-diabetes. Individuals with Type 1 diabetes require insulin injections or an insulin pump to deliver insulin on a regular basis. Type 2 diabetes, also known as non-insulin-dependent diabetes mellitus (NIDDM) or adult-onset diabetes, accounts for about 90 to 95 percent of diagnosed cases of diabetes.
Adult onset diabetes often starts as insulin resistance, which happens when the pancreas doesn't use insulin properly. As the need for insulin increases, the pancreas gradually loses its ability to produce it. Insulin resistance also goes hand in hand with metabolic syndrome - a sort of "buzz phrase" in the health industry these days. Abdominal obesity plus insulin resistance puts a person in the category of metabolic syndrome. Metabolic syndrome and insulin resistance set the stage for a myriad of additional health challenges - heart disease being at the top of the list. Inflammation, premature aging, and obesity are also symptoms associated with metabolic syndrome, insulin resistance, pre-diabetes and diabetes.
If left untreated, over time, either type of diabetes can lead to further health complications including heart disease, eye disease and blindness, nerve damage, kidney disease and kidney failure. Conventional medical treatment of type 2 diabetes initially involves lifestyle and dietary changes including aerobic and resistance exercise and avoiding excess carbohydrates, sweets and starches. If necessary, a glucose-lowering medication may be added.
Integrative medical practitioners view Type 2 diabetes and metabolic syndrome as often preventable and treatable with lifestyle modification; typically diet, exercise and often the addition of a few specific dietary supplements. Changing your diet can be one of the most challenging factors when it comes to successfully managing your blood sugar. No more donuts and coffee for breakfast, no more soda pop and cookies. No more skipping meals. The key to success is based on a whole foods diet that is low in sugar, high in fiber, complex carbohydrates and lean proteins. Healthy fats from fish, nuts, and seeds are also a great way to go. Avoiding all white flour, alcohol, ice-cream, cookies, cake, and candy is essential - this may seem obvious, but worth repeating. Steer clear of fast food and overly processed foods. Eating smaller meals spaced regularly (every 2-3 hours) throughout the day will also help maintain healthy blood sugar levels. Remember to eat breakfast every day!
A high-fiber diet is important to help improve the blood sugar and insulin response. Low fiber diets have been associated with an increased risk for diabetes. High fiber foods include flax seed, beans and legumes, wheat and oat bran and dark, leafy green veggies. Sweet potatoes, garnet yams, other winter squash and root veggies (burdock, Jerusalem artichokes) are all good choices. Don't forget whole grains like brown rice, wild rice, and quinoa. Focus on all the great foods you can and should eat and not on what you can't have.
It is generally recommended that individuals with diabetes, pre-diabetes or metabolic syndrome avoid dried fruit and fruit juice because they are very high in sugar. Whole fruit including apples, pears, and berries are the best choices, but in general, fruit consumption should be minimized to once a day - and it should be balanced with protein.
Chromium, one of the essential nutrients for proper insulin function, is found in potatoes, whole wheat, rye, lean beef, oysters, and Brewer's yeast. It is available in supplement form - either alone or as part of a multivitamin/mineral or combination product. Typical dosing is 200 micrograms (mcg) daily.
Coenzyme Q10, 60 to 100 milligrams (mg) daily is recommended to safeguard heart health. Magnesium is also very important for diabetics and essential for heart health. The recommended dose of magnesium is 500 milligrams daily. B-complex vitamins, specifically, vitamins B6, 12, niacin and biotin are all important for individuals with diabetes or pre-diabetes.
Zinc picolinate 30 mg daily or zinc-loaded foods including wheat germ, Brazil nuts, pecans, pumpkin seeds, oysters, split peas and other legumes, poultry, and dairy products, and ginger root, helps the immune system function and helps with wound healing, which can be an issue in individuals with diabetes. Zinc is also needed for the formation of insulin.
Adding fish to the diet may also be a great idea. Omega-3 fatty acids from fish can help decrease inflammation in the body and protect the heart and blood vessels. We always suggest checking with the Environmental Working Group's "Safe Fish" list to see what fish are currently being listed as high in mercury or endangered and thus should be avoided (www.ewg.org). We generally recommend wild salmon, sardines, halibut, and for vegetarian sources of omega-3 fatty acids, we like walnuts, soybeans, flax seed, hemp seed, and chia seed.
Herbs and spices that have been used in traditional medicine include cinnamon, cloves, turmeric, and bitter melon. Think curry - since many of these herbs are used in traditional curry dishes. Other plants or herbs that have been used medicinally in the treatment and/or prevention of diabetes include Devil's Club, Allium cepa (onion), Ginseng, Most notably of these medicinal plants are the Panax species which include Devil's Club (Oplopanax horridum) and Ginseng. Other therapeutic plants for DM include: Gymnema sylvestre, Fenugreek, and Bilberry.
When it comes to exercise, both cardiovascular and resistance training are necessary. Unfortunately a walk around the block isn't enough. You need to work up a serious sweat. Talk to your doctor first so that she/he can make sure you're up for the task. If you know you have heart challenges, for example, you may need to modify your workouts to meet your specific needs. If you have a significant amount of weight to lose, then you also need to make sure you are under the care of a doctor while you make efforts towards losing weight and increasing physical activity.
Because diabetes can go without symptoms, it is important to have your blood sugar levels monitored on a fairly regular basis. With no prior history of blood sugar issues, then once a year is appropriate. If you are pregnant, have a family history of diabetes, or have gained a significant amount of weight, then check in with your doctor more often and have her check your blood sugar levels more frequently.