“I know you’re different than most other doctors, and I’m hoping you can help me.”
The person speaking was a new patient, who I’ll call Barbara for now. Barbara’s sister worked at my clinic and mentioned that I have a somewhat unconventional approach to treating many ailments. And that’s what Barbara wanted.
“I was just diagnosed with diabetes, and I’m so confused! I hope you can help me make sense of it all,” she said, clearly on the verge of tears. “I’m only 44. I can’t believe I have to live the rest of my life with this disease hanging over my head. I’m already juggling being a working, single mom with elderly parents who need me more every day. I just don’t have time to do all the things the doctors are telling me I need to do.”
I could certainly understand Barbara’s concerns. Diabetes is a condition that needs to be taken seriously. But it is not the end of the world. In fact, I consider it a wake-up call, a signal from your body that it’s time for a change.
Barbara had brought copies of her medical records with her. After looking them over, I agreed with her physician – she did have diabetes. But other than that, Barbara was in good health. I assured her that, with some lifestyle changes, she would be able to turn the situation around.
And that’s when the tears came. With three children and parents in failing health, Barbara really did not need one more thing on her plate. I could relate to what Barbara was feeling; I have three children of my own and a very busy practice. Even with a husband who is happy to share the workload, it sometimes gets overwhelming. But I’ve found that good health practices – eating whole foods, exercising, getting enough rest, and finding ways to minimize stress – do not require any more time than the typical sedentary, fast food-based lifestyle. Good health requires rearranging priorities and taking care of what’s most important first.
As I explained to Barbara, chronic ailments mean your body is telling you that something is wrong, that something needs to change. Unfortunately, pharmaceutical companies too often insist that the only change you should make is to take medication – their medication! – to manage symptoms. They aren’t interested in cures; they much prefer that you buy their products indefinitely. And when the first medication creates uncomfortable side effects, they’ll sell you a second one to treat those, and on and on. (I don’t mean to demonize the entire pharmaceutical industry. Many of the drugs they’ve developed are lifesavers. But others are downright dangerous and appear to have been created with only profit in mind. That’s why I encourage patients to take as little prescription medication as possible and look for other ways – especially lifestyle changes and nutritional supplements – to manage illness.)
If you’ve been diagnosed with a chronic ailment – heart disease, cancer, diabetes, osteoarthritis, etc. – that means that what you’ve been doing isn’t working. Medication may be necessary – at least for a time. But please don’t expect a pill to correct years of sedentary lifestyle, poor diet, and all the rest. That, my friends, is something only you can do.
As you might imagine, Barbara was less than thrilled to hear my little speech. But she admitted she could do better. By the time Barbara left my office that day, she was in good spirits, with a new outlook on her life. Here’s a short version of what I told her.
Where Does Diabetes Come From?
Diabetes mellitus, also known as Type 2 or adult-onset diabetes, affects millions of Americans. Unlike Type 1, which is a far less common autoimmune disorder, Type 2 is generally caused by lifestyle. It signals a disruption in how the body responds to insulin, a hormone that helps the body’s cells extract a sugar known as glucose from the bloodstream and use it for energy.
For people who are physically active, either at work or play, glucose is fuel. For the sedentary, though, a little glucose goes a long way. Eat more calories than you burn off physically and the excess glucose has nowhere to go but into the fat cells. This is why bulging bellies and 40-inch waistlines are so common these days. It’s also why many people with insulin problems are locked in the vicious cycle of trying to reduce their weight and not just failing, but actually gaining instead!
Diets high in processed and fast foods, especially the empty carbs found in sweets, white rice, and white flour products like bread and pasta, are notorious for spiking insulin. Today’s super-sized portions only make matters worse, putting even more glucose into already overloaded systems.
How Diabetes Damages the Body
The pattern of producing excess glucose can go on for years, creating a condition known as pre-diabetes, also called metabolic syndrome or Syndrome X – a condition we’ll discuss in more depth in next week’s newsletter. But eventually, the steady stream of high blood glucose takes a toll, and full-blown diabetes develops.
Symptoms of diabetes include but are not limited to: noticeably increased thirst and urination; fatigue; food cravings; constant hunger; weight reduction or gain; nerve damage in feet or lower legs that causes tingling, burning or pain; and changes in vision. Long-term complications include: heart and/or kidney disease; damage to the eye’s retina that can cause blindness; and peripheral artery disease, which is linked to strokes, impotence, limb amputations, and much more. A new study, for example, found that individuals with diabetes are nearly twice as likely to develop certain types of cancer as people without diabetes.
Three Steps to Dealing with Diabetes
Clearly, anyone diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes should give serious thought to changing his or her diet. Many patients find this upsetting, believing they’ll never have a decent meal again. Not true! The ideal diet for a person with diabetes is the same diet we should all be eating – plenty of vegetables, fruit, whole grains, good fats, and lean protein. If, like Barbara, you’re in the habit of eating a half bag of lemon drops to get through the afternoon slump, that will have to change. But you still can enjoy flavorful snacks, tasty meals, desserts, and even a moderate amount of wine. Plus, I think you’ll notice that the afternoon slump is not nearly as awful when blood sugar is well managed.
To help make sense of dietary suggestions, I recommend every patient dealing with blood sugar issues learn about the glycemic index. That term may sound intimidating, but trust me – it’s a simple, effective concept that streamlines blood sugar management. Since my space here is limited, I suggest checking out some of the excellent books and websites on the topic. Education is very good medicine!
A second change for individuals with diabetes is activity level. For that, I recommend at least 30 minutes of movement, preferably something you enjoy that’s active enough for you to break a sweat, nearly every day of the week. Exercise is a topic near and dear to my heart because I’ve seen it turn so many lives around, and I plan to address it in a newsletter soon. For now, I’ll just say this: If your doctor approves, go ahead and get moving.
The third area that may need change is sleep. For diabetics, too little sleep can disrupt blood sugar levels. And people who aren’t sleeping well are prone to make poor food choices, like a 400-calorie coffee drink to make up for lost sleep. Nearly everyone I speak to has trouble sleeping, so if this is true for you, too, please see the previous Newport Natural Health Letter for more on getting a great night’s sleep. And keep in mind that the hormone melatonin, known for its link to sleep, can be helpful for older individuals with diabetes, as well.
Diet Dos and Don’ts
One of the most difficult aspects of living with diabetes is figuring out what to eat, especially for anyone new to healthy meals. I’m happy to report that researchers are turning up some good news on that front. For example, one study found that a diet of fresh vegetables, legumes, nuts, fruit, and lean protein prevented soaring glucose levels and insulin resistance after eating. The reason? High levels of health-promoting antioxidants in the food. More good news: those same antioxidants also help protect us against some of the most serious diseases out there, including heart disease, dementia, and cancer.
I highly recommend using fresh or frozen fruits and vegetables, rather than canned. Most canned goods contain Bisphenol-A (BPA), the hormone-disrupting chemical also found in plastic. Researchers believe there is a link between BPA and elevated blood glucose levels.
Meanwhile, on the snack front, consider trading high-carbohydrate fare like chips, cookies, and crackers for two ounces of mixed nuts, preferably unsalted, non-irradiated, dry roasted, or raw. A recent clinical trial found that mixed nut snacks significantly reduced blood glucose levels, something a candy bar will never do for you.
Forbidden Foods: Not Any Longer
Oftentimes, people who are newly diagnosed with diabetes worry about how they’ll deal with being deprived of desserts, sweets, and alcoholic beverages. Fortunately, there are some excellent solutions to that problem. When Barbara, for example, mentioned that she already missed her sugary morning cereal, I told her about a new study showing that maple syrup helps inhibit an enzyme linked to diabetes. So she could have a whole-grain cereal with maple syrup to sweeten it and get much better blood sugar results.
Furthermore, I encouraged her to indulge in some of the gourmet cinnamons now on the market, as a way of adding flavor to simple fruit desserts. Cinnamon has remarkable health benefits, including decreasing blood glucose levels between and after meals.
Understandably, Barbara was also very happy to hear that researchers have discovered that one daily glass of red wine (men can have two glasses) benefits blood sugar levels as much as conventional diabetes medications. The only caution is that consuming the extra calories in the red wine means giving up an equivalent number of calories from somewhere else.
And what about those occasions when – for one reason or another – you end up eating food you shouldn’t, like less-than-healthy white bread? Don’t despair! Down a couple teaspoons of apple cider vinegar or eat a salad with vinegar and oil salad dressing. Studies have shown that ingesting a small amount of vinegar before or during high carbohydrate meals not only reduces insulin and glucose levels, but also increases satisfaction afterward, making snacks and hunger pangs less likely.
As a physician, I’m well aware that it can be difficult for people to change lifelong habits, particularly when diet and exercise are involved. Taking a pill would be so much easier. But the truth is, there’s no pill that can cure an unhealthy lifestyle – and I doubt there ever will be one. It’s up to each and every one of us to be our own best friends and do everything we can to stay healthy. As Barbara discovered, change may be hard, but the end result is definitely worth it. “I’m truly surprised by how much more energy I have now that my blood sugar is under control,” Barbara confessed recently. “I actually feel like a different, much healthier person.”