By Dr. Jen Morganti
November is “National Diabetes Month”, but as a Naturopathic Doctor, I would prefer to rename it “National Insulin Resistance Month.” Focusing on this condition is the most effective way to reduce the incidence of diabetes. Insulin resistance tends to lead to Type 2 diabetes, which is primarily developed in adulthood and accounts for over 90% of diabetic cases. Bad habits, such as fast food, sedentary lifestyle, and smoking are all contributors. The good news is that it is largely avoidable or correctable through basic diet and lifestyle modifications. Type 1 diabetes, typically diagnosed at a younger age, tends to be related to genetics or autoimmune disease. In both cases, there is not enough insulin being produced by the pancreas to handle glucose in the blood.
The role of insulin, produced by the pancreas, is to shuttle glucose (sugar) to tissue cells to store for use as energy. When cells’ insulin receptors are resistant to insulin, they ignore the glucose delivery, so blood levels increase. The pancreas is programmed to respond by producing more insulin. Eventually both insulin and glucose levels become elevated and the pancreas exhausts itself, yet cells aren’t getting the energy that they require. The excess glucose in the blood must be reduced by whatever means necessary; if it can’t be delivered to cells, it ultimately converts into fatty acids and stores in tissues as fat. Insulin resistance ultimately leads to weight gain, manifesting as a “spare tire” around the waist.
To put the brakes on the insulin/glucose culmination, let’s take one step back and ask what causes cells to stop responding to insulin in the first place? One of the key culprits is excessive inflammation, which has been created by fat cells, especially when there are a lot of them. Fat secretes inflammatory chemicals (called cytokines) that cause cells to become resistant to insulin. Insulin resistance in turn triggers sugar to be converted to more fat. The cycle perpetuates itself; fat cells cause insulin resistance, and insulin resistance contributes to fat cells and weight gain.
To break the vicious cycle, we need to question where the extra fat cells came from because they are responsible for producing inflammatory chemicals. The simple answer is the Standard American Diet (SAD). Those fast, convenient, processed meals are full of saturated fat and sugar, which increase the size and number of pro-inflammatory fat cells. So the unavoidable first step towards diabetes prevention requires switching to a nutrition-packed, moderate-calorie, anti-inflammatory, whole foods diet. The result will surely be weight loss and diminished inflammation, with cells regaining the ability to respond to insulin appropriately.
After establishing a solid foundation of healthy foods, add some herbs and nutrients that act to diminish inflammation and potentially improve insulin sensitivity. The herbal extract curcumin, derived from the tasty Indian spice turmeric, has been the subject of thousands of studies. One of the known super powers possessed by curcumin is it’s antiinflammatory activity, which, among other things, may effectively improve cells’ sensitivity to insulin and lower blood sugar levels.
A second delicious spice that helps prevent insulin resistance is cinnamon extract. There have been some conflicting studies about cinnamon’s role, but on a positive note, certain cinnamon extracts have been shown to reduce secretion of inflammatory cytokines from fat cells. By decreasing overall inflammation, cells become more sensitive to insulin. Cinnamon has also been shown in studies to reduce the amount of insulin released after eating, and helps keep blood sugar levels balanced. You can benefit from adding cinnamon to food on a daily basis, and take a standardized extract in pill form.
The recent plethora of vitamin D research has helped establish its potent anti-inflammatory actions, so it comes as no surprise to find that vitamin D deficiency is related to increased risk of developing Type 2 diabetes. A few studies have suggested that supplementing with vitamin D may improve insulin resistance. Anyone struggling to fend off diabetes should take a simple vitamin D blood test, setting a goal of over 50 dl/ml. That goal becomes more achievable when supplementing with 2,000- 5,000 IU of vitamin D a day.
Ultimately, inflammation is at the root of insulin resistance and diabetes. The key to prevention is dietary modification and supplementation to aid in weight loss and decreased inflammation. Under these conditions, insulin resistance can be reversed and blood sugar levels normalized.