Defying Diabetes
By Melissa Diane Smith

One of the fastest-growing diseases is something most people don't think much about: Type II diabetes. Long known as "adult-onset diabetes," it's a condition in which the body's ability to use carbohydrates is impaired by inefficient insulin function. Characterized by abnormally high blood sugar and insulin levels, Type II diabetes greatly increases the risk of coronary heart disease, stroke, blindness, nerve disorders, kidney disease, cancer and impotence. It is, in the minds of many scientists, an example of accelerated aging.

Type II diabetes differs from Type I diabetes. In Type II diabetes, adequate blood-sugar-lowering insulin is usually produced but it doesn't function efficiently. In Type I diabetes (or insulin-dependent diabetes), a malfunction of the immune system leads to destruction of the insulin-producing cells in the pancreas, so little or no insulin is produced. Type II diabetes accounts for 90 to 95 percent of all cases of diabetes.

Not too long ago this disease of aging only affected people in later years, but that situation has changed dramatically. Today, Type II diabetes has ballooned into an epidemic that now afflicts all age groups, including children as young as 10 years old.

The statistics certainly show that it's no longer a disease that should be considered out of sight and out of mind. Between 1990 and 1998, the overall incidence of diabetes among Americans increased by 33 percent. Among people in their 30s, the incidence jumped by an astounding 70 percent (Diabetes Care, 2000, vol. 23, no. 9).

What's more, many people who don't yet have diabetes are on the fast track to developing it. Being overweight is a major predisposing factor for Type II diabetes and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 61 percent of Americans are now overweight, and 27 percent are clinically obese. Weight around the middle is an especially bad sign, as are frequent thirst and frequent urination. In addition, heart disease risk factors, such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, low HDL (good) cholesterol and high triglycerides (a cluster of symptoms collectively known as Syndrome X), are warning signs that a person is at serious risk for diabetes.

Some of the earliest signs of prediabetes are fatigue, sleepiness after meals, sugar cravings and difficulty concentrating.

The common root problem in Type II diabetes and in prediabetic conditions is insulin resistance. Insulin resistance develops slowly, primarily from a diet high in carbohydrates, especially sweets, breads, and flour- and sugar-based snack foods. The more these blood-sugar-raising foods are eaten, the more the pancreas pumps out the hormone insulin, which shuttles glucose from the bloodstream into the cells. In time, though, the cells become resistant to the effects of so much insulin, and blood sugar levels eventually start to creep up into ranges that are considered diabetic.

Is there any good news? Absolutely. "Type II diabetes is a nutritional disease with a nutritional cure," says C. Leigh Broadhurst, Ph.D., author of Diabetes: Prevention and Cure (Kensington, 1999). "No one need suffer from this disease unless he or she chooses to do so."

The type of diet that offers protection against Type II diabetes is a protein-rich, low-carbohydrate plan in which the carbohydrates come primarily from nonstarchy vegetables such as salad greens, green beans, asparagus, celery and broccoli. Eating this type of diet and using supportive supplements shouldn't be considered alternative medicine but rather the treatment of choice for Type II diabetes, Broadhurst says.

The diet should also be rich in good fats, such as monounsaturated fats in olive oil and omega-3 fats in cold-water fish and fish oil, says Ron Rosedale, M.D., who nutritionally treats diabetics on a routine basis at the Colorado Center for Metabolic Medicine in Boulder. Although fat is considered taboo by many people, good fats really should be considered essential medicine for diabetics because they improve insulin sensitivity and don't raise insulin levels.

Physical activity, adequate sleep and stress reduction through various means can be helpful adjuncts to nutritional treatment. Physical activity directly improves diabetes by improving insulin efficiency, while stress reduction lowers cortisol levels, which in turn should lower insulin levels.

"Massage might be particularly helpful because it helps to increase circulation, which in turn should help improve insulin sensitivity," Rosedale says. "But anything that reduces stress should be beneficial."

Melissa Diane Smith, a nutrition counselor from Tucson, Ariz., is the co-author of Syndrome X: The Complete Nutritional Program to Prevent and Reverse Insulin Resistance (John Wiley & Sons, 2001).