Diabetes is a chronic disease that affects millions people around the world. In this article, we will look at how diabetes affects the health of your whole body and how diet and exercise can control, prevent, and even reverse diabetes.
Everyone knows about diabetes, right? This chronic disease has become a global pandemic, found in countries worldwide and affecting adults, adolescents, and even children. But if you hear the word diabetes and immediately think ‘blood sugar’, you are only seeing the tip of the iceberg.
In a person without diabetes, the pancreas releases insulin in response to changes in blood sugar. The insulin works almost like a key, opening the body’s cells to take in the glucose they need to function healthily. In someone with type 1 diabetes, the pancreas can’t make insulin at all. But in type 2 diabetes, your pancreas does produce insulin – sometimes too much. The problem is with your cells’ insulin receptors, which don’t respond to the insulin as they should, stopping your cells from efficiently absorbing glucose from the blood. This has consequences for the healthy function of your organs and vascular system. Diabetes should, therefore, be viewed as a whole-body disease. Left unchecked, it can have critical consequences for our health.
Warning signs of diabetes include increased thirst (and therefore frequent urination), increased appetite, blurred vision, tiredness, tingling in the hands and feet, and – in men – erectile dysfunction. Tests to confirm diabetes will look at your blood sugar levels over time; levels of 100- 125 mg/dl indicate pre-diabetes, while above 125 mg/dl is a sign of full-blown diabetes.
Traditional Western doctors will suggest managing diabetes with medication. But studies have shown that type 2 diabetes has a strong link to lifestyle, particularly being overweight. It is rarer in populations that eat a diet that is high in plant-based foods, but more common in people who eat a typical Western diet. Saturated fat, especially, plays a significant role in type 2 diabetes, blocking the cells’ insulin receptors and contributing to other health issues, such as heart problems and high blood pressure. Diet changes are therefore a powerful way to prevent, manage, or even reduce the symptoms of diabetes.
Many people think that carbohydrates are the enemy, so you might hear that a low-carb diet is the way to go. This depends on the type of carbohydrates. The carbs that make up a big part of the standard Western diet are highly processed, but the carbs that come from a whole-food, plant-based diet are beneficial, not harmful. Understanding good nutrition is a key part of managing diabetes, which is why our Complete Health Improvement Program (CHIP) focuses on giving you the education and tools you need to make successful changes.
Physical activity also has a major role to play in fighting diabetes. Exercise improves the effectiveness of insulin within our bodies, aiding the absorption of glucose into our cells. The effect can be remarkable – just one session of aerobic exercise can improve insulin effectiveness for up to three days. Additionally, research is increasingly telling us that regular resistance training can be as effective as medication in managing diabetes. And, of course, exercise and the Optimal Diet support our body’s health in many other ways, reducing high blood pressure and risk of heart disease, and increasing muscle and bone strength. These are particularly important for anyone suffering from diabetes, which can increase the severity of heart and vascular diseases.
For more on how the lifestyle medicine approach helps manage and prevent chronic disease, join us live every Wednesday at 3pm for our ‘Ask Dr. Sal’ series with Dr. Sal Lacagnina, Medical Director of the Lifestyle Medicine Institute. Previous sessions are available via the CHIP website.
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