According to the CDC, over 30 million people in the US (about 10 percent of the population) have diabetes. 1 in 4 people with diabetes is unaware they have this chronic disease. An additional 84 million people (over 30 percent of the population) have prediabetes. 9 out of 10 people with prediabetes don’t know they have it, and 70 percent will develop full blown diabetes within 10 years.
Those are some startling statistics for a condition that is largely preventable. In fact, Type 2 diabetes is often referred to as a “lifestyle” disease, because the main causes are poor nutrition and lack of exercise. Diabetes occurs when the body either can’t produce enough insulin to manage blood sugar, or it stops responding to insulin. Both cause blood sugar to rise dangerously high, which can damage tissues and organs. Diabetes increases the risk of other serious health complications, including heart disease, blindness, stroke, and kidney failure.
With diabetes, your body has a hard time getting glucose, or sugar, out of the blood stream and into cells. When you eat a carbohydrate, your body breaks it down into glucose, which is then released into the blood. Since high blood sugar is dangerous, your pancreas releases the hormone insulin, which shuttles glucose out of the blood and into cells to be burned for energy.
There are two main types of diabetes: Type 1 and Type 2. Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune disease that damages the pancreas, so that not enough insulin is produced to manage blood sugar. Diet and lifestyle factors contribute to autoimmune diseases, but they also have a large genetic component. Most Type 1 diabetics will be on insulin the rest of their life, and need to closely monitor intake of sugar and carbohydrates.
Type 2 diabetes is the “lifestyle” version, where the main causes are poor diet and exercise habits. Type 2 diabetics can typically still produce insulin (often they produce too much insulin) but their body has become insulin resistant. Their cells have been bombarded by insulin for so long that they’ve started to “ignore” insulin’s signals. Without proper insulin response, blood sugar levels begin to rise. Chronically high blood sugar is what causes common side effects of diabetes, such as numbness, tingling, vision loss, poor circulation, and slow wound healing.
So how do people become insulin resistant? Part of the problem is the large amount of refined carbohydrates and sugar in our modern diet. But saying dietary carbohydrates cause diabetes is not entirely accurate. The argument looks something like this: “Eating carbs raises blood sugar, which raises insulin, which leads to insulin resistance, which causes diabetes.” Since carbohydrates break down into glucose, it makes sense that restricting carbohydrates (or certain types of carbohydrates) can help manage blood sugar in diabetics. This is true, but the type of carbohydrate and rate at which they are absorbed is also important.
Other factors that can increase risk of diabetes include:
- Sedentary lifestyle. Your body stores glucose in your muscles and liver. This storage form is called glycogen, and it provides a “back up” source of energy as needed for exercise or fasting. When glycogen stores are low, glucose gets pulled from the blood, keeping blood sugar levels in check. With a sedentary lifestyle, especially when paired with a high calorie diet, you never deplete glycogen stores. Once glycogen is full and you eat more carbs, the extra glucose has nowhere to go and remains in the blood.
- Lack of sleep. Too little sleep raises the stress hormone cortisol, which breaks down stored sugar. Cortisol raises blood sugar in anticipation of a stressful event. In evolutionary terms, this was extremely useful when you needed immediate fuel to run from a predator, but can be problematic when you’re not burning off that extra glucose. Too much cortisol over the long term can cause chronically high blood sugar.
- An unhealthy gut. The bacteria that live in your gut, known as your microbiome, effect the way you process dietary carbohydrates. People with a healthy microbiome digest carbs efficiently, while those with an unhealthy microbiome have trouble metabolizing them. Poor metabolization of carbohydrates leads to weight gain, blood sugar imbalances, and increased risk of diabetes.
- Chronic inflammation. There is a big difference between acute (short term) and chronic (long term) inflammation. Acute inflammation is a vital part of the immune system’s response to injury and infection. However, if the inflammatory response continues for too long, it becomes damaging and contributes to high blood sugar and insulin resistance. Processed foods, sugar, and stress all contribute to chronic inflammation.
The good news is, many cases of Type 2 diabetes are reversible. A whole foods, Paleo style eating plan can be helpful in supporting diabetes for several reasons, the most obvious being that it removes processed foods and added sugars. Other reasons going Paleo may work well for diabetics include:
- It replaces high glycemic (fast burning) carbs like grain products for low glycemic (slower burning) carbs like sweet potatoes and starchy vegetables. Low glycemic carbs have less impact on blood glucose levels, helping to lower your blood sugar, naturally.
- Paleo (when done properly) can help reverse insulin resistance. When your blood sugar normalizes, your body stops producing excess insulin. Since cells are no longer “bombarded” by insulin, they become more receptive to it’s signals. Over time, this allows diabetics to control their blood sugar and slowly add more complex carbs back into their diets.
- It eliminates many foods, such as processed vegetable oils, trans fat, and refined sugar that are known to promote inflammation. As mentioned previously, inflammation over the long term contributes to insulin resistance.
- It emphasizes foods that lead to better gut health and more “friendly” bacteria to metabolize carbohydrates properly. Probiotic foods, such as fermented vegetables, are full of gut-friendly bacteria. Bone broth is high in glutamine, collagen, and other amino acids that improve digestive health by healing the gut lining. Consumption of fruits and vegetables generally increases with a Paleo diet, providing more fiber to feed gut bacteria.
If you suspect you may have insulin resistance or diabetes, or need help managing a diagnosed medical condition, book your free Discovery Call with us today. Most cases of Type 2 diabetes can be managed, or even reversed, with the proper nutrition and lifestyle changes!