Everything You Need to Know About Diabetes

02/27/2020 | 13 min. read

Dr. Julian Whitaker

Dr. Julian Whitaker

Diabetes mellitus is defined as a chronic disease characterized by an increased concentration of glucose in the blood.

You have diabetes mellitus (diabetes for short) when your blood sugar (or blood glucose) level rises above normal and stays elevated.

Glucose is a simple sugar that is a major source of fuel for cells and energy for the entire body. Our body converts most of the food we consume into glucose. The pancreas, an organ near the stomach, makes the hormone insulin, which helps glucose and other nutrients enter the cells. However, when there is either not enough insulin in the bloodstream to open the cells so that nutrients can get in, or the cells stop responding to the insulin, the cells literally starve to death.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than 30 million American adults (roughly 9.4% of the US population) have diabetes. Another 84 million have prediabetes, a condition that, if left unchecked, can lead to diabetes in five years. What’s even scarier is that the majority of Americans who fall in the prediabetes group don’t even know it!

These statistics underscore that more needs to be done to prevent and control diabetes. Left untreated, it can cause significant complications, including damage to nerves, blood vessels, and eyes.

Types of Diabetes

There are several types of diabetes

  • Prediabetes
  • Type 1 Diabetes
  • Type 2 Diabetes
  • Gestational Diabetes

Prediabetes

If your doctor tells you that you have prediabetes, it means your blood glucose level is higher than normal but not yet high enough to fall in the type 2 diabetes category.

Sadly, prediabetes often comes on without warning signs or symptoms but rather is detected by a doctor when an oral glucose tolerance, fasting blood sugar, or hemoglobin A1C test comes in higher than normal, but lower than range for type 2 diabetes.

Fortunately, lifestyle changes, including diet and exercise, can be an effective treatment for prediabetes.

Type 1 Diabetes

Type 1 diabetes is caused by the inability of the pancreas to make insulin. This form of diabetes is also known as juvenile or insulin-dependent diabetes because it most frequently appears before age 20.

Type 1 diabetes is defined as an autoimmune attack on the insulin-producing cells in the pancreas. Researchers can’t pinpoint exactly what causes the autoimmune destruction, but viral infections are one potential cause. Since Type 1 diabetes is caused by the inability of the pancreas to produce adequate insulin, it cannot be prevented.

Symptoms include:

  • Feeling very thirsty and/or hungry
  • Fruity or sweet-smelling breath
  • Frequent bathroom visits
  • Sudden or unusual changes in weight
  • Increased fatigue
  • Blurred vision

Yet, in most cases, type 1 diabetes comes on suddenly and with no warning signs. Many people are not diagnosed until they end up in the emergency room with severe dehydration and extremely elevated blood glucose levels.

It is very important to see a doctor if you suspect you’re experiencing any of the symptoms of type 1 diabetes.

Type 2 Diabetes

Once known as adult-onset non-insulin dependent diabetes, type 2 diabetes is usually diagnosed with an elevated fast blood glucose test, typically somewhere in the 150 to 300 mg/dL range. With type 2 diabetes, the body responds by either resisting the effects of insulin or not producing enough insulin to maintain a normal glucose level.

Starting around age 40, years of making poor lifestyle choices can start to catch up with you. Things like an unhealthy diet, extra weight, and lack of exercise suddenly turn into diabetes risk factors and begin to take a toll on your body. 

Symptoms include:

  • Cuts or wounds that are slow to heal
  • Persistent infections
  • Tingling or numbness in feet due
  • Heart problems
  • Blurry vision
  • Frequent urination
  • Excessive thirst

There are also some surprising warning signs of type 2 diabetes that are easy to overlook because they aren't commonly associated with the condition. These include:

  • Skin discoloration
  • Changes in hearing
  • Uncontrollable itchiness of hands, legs, and feet
  • Unexpected improvement in eyesight
  • Sleep disordered breathing or loud snoring

You have a greater risk of developing type 2 diabetes if you have prediabetes, are overweight, older, lead a sedentary lifestyle, or if diabetes runs in your family.

If your parent has (or had) type 2 diabetes, it doesn’t mean you will absolutely develop it down the road, but it does mean you have an increased likelihood. While researchers know there is a genetic factor that predisposes certain people to type 2 diabetes, it’s difficult to ascertain the specific gene that carries the risk. Fortunately, scientific research is underway to figure out the certain genetic mutations that lead to a risk of type 2 diabetes.

Gestational Diabetes

Gestational diabetes develops during pregnancy. Unlike other forms of diabetes, gestational diabetes rarely causes noticeable signs or symptoms, which is why the only way to detect it is through a screening test. Healthcare practitioners typically recommend a glucose screening test (also known as a glucose challenge test or GCT) between 24 and 28 weeks of pregnancy.

Between 2 and 5 percent of expectant mothers develop gestational diabetes. If you develop gestational diabetes, you may need more frequent checkups. These are most likely to occur during the last three months of pregnancy, when your doctor will monitor your blood sugar level and your baby's health.

It is important to get treatment for gestational diabetes. Having undiagnosed and untreated gestational diabetes can cause the baby to have high blood pressure and preeclampsia, both of which can be life threatening to you and your baby.

If you develop diabetes while pregnant, glucose and other nutrients cross the placenta, giving your baby high blood glucose levels. As a result, the baby’s pancreas makes extra insulin and gets more energy than it needs to grow and develop. The extra energy that the baby doesn’t need is stored as fat which can lead to macrosomia, or a "fat" baby.

Babies with macrosomia may experience health problems later in life, including damage to their shoulders during birth and breathing problems. Plus, they are at greater risk for obesity and developing type 2 diabetes as an adult.

The best way to prevent and treat gestational diabetes it to control your blood sugar by eating a healthy diet and getting plenty of exercise. If you are pregnant, diagnosing and controlling your gestational diabetes is an important first step for your health and the future health of your baby.

Gut Bacteria Could Signal Diabetes

Some research has shown that your gut bacteria can reveal whether or not you have type 2 diabetes—perhaps even before other signs and symptoms emerge.

A team of researchers at the University of Copenhagen and the Beijing Genomics Institute analyzed approximately 60,000 bacterial markers in people with and without symptoms of type 2 diabetes. Results showed that people with type 2 diabetes have different gut bacteria than those without diabetes. However, the researchers weren’t able to determine if those bacteria cause the disease or just reflect that the disease is present.

This connection between gut flora and diabetes isn’t surprising since we know that the microbial milieu in individuals with asthma, inflammatory and irritable bowel disease, and obesity is markedly different from that of healthy people. Differences are also seen in psoriasis, rheumatoid arthritis, and mood disorders.

Although this particular study didn’t establish that your gut bacteria could cause diabetes, other research has demonstrated that supplementing with the probiotic strain L. acidophius has positive effects on insulin sensitivity. That’s why it makes sense to do what you can to nurture your gut bacteria by eating plenty of probiotic-rich food (fermented foods such as yogurt, kefir, miso, sauerkraut, kimchi, and pickled vegetables) and taking a probiotic supplement for extra support.

What Are the Complications of Diabetes?

There are many complications of diabetes that you need to be aware of if you have this condition. Some of the most typical ones include:

Diabetic Neuropathy

Diabetic neuropathy is one of the most common complications of diabetes. Diabetic neuropathy is damage to nerves due to elevated levels of blood glucose over long periods of time. It is estimated that 60 to 70 percent of people with diabetes have some form of neuropathy.

Diabetic Retinopathy

Diabetic retinopathy is a disease that occurs when the small blood vessels in the retina (the nerve-filled part of the eye that helps us see) become damaged. It is the leading cause of irreversible blindness and visual disability in the industrialized world today. Numerous studies have suggested that after having diabetes for 15 years or more, approximately 2 percent of people become blind, while about 10 percent develop severe vision problems.

Cataracts and glaucoma are two other common eye problems that people with diabetes are at a higher risk of developing. If you have diabetes, it is important to get regular eye exams to avoid diabetic eye problems and protect your eyesight.

Diabetic Nephropathy

Diabetic nephropathy is a serious kidney disease caused by diabetes that affects approximately 40 percent diabetics. Diabetes can damage blood vessels as well as other cells in your kidneys. In addition, high blood sugar associated with untreated diabetes causes high blood pressure, which in turn can damage the kidneys and their ability to do their job of removing waste products from the blood. Over time, the condition can slowly damage the kidneys and can eventually progress to kidney failure, or end-stage kidney disease. 

Sleep Apnea

If you have type 2 diabetes, you are at greater risk for developing obstructive sleep apnea, the periodic cessation of breathing for 10 or more seconds while asleep. Obstructive sleep apnea is caused by a partial or complete blockage of the airway by the tissues in the back of the throat. Oxygen levels in the blood drop and carbon dioxide rises, waking you up just enough to start breathing again.

There is a significant relationship between sleep apnea, elevated blood sugar and insulin, and insulin resistance. Severe sleep apnea confers an increased risk of developing type 2 diabetes.

Low Testosterone

Low testosterone is a common problem and is closely linked to diabetes. In fact, men with type 2 diabetes are twice as likely to suffer from low testosterone as men without diabetes. Low testosterone can lead to erectile problems among other issues.

However, the connection between these two conditions does not necessarily mean we can conclude that low testosterone causes diabetes because some of the lifestyle factors that increase the risk of diabetes also increase the risk of low testosterone levels.

Heart Disease

Heart disease and diabetes are closely related. Over time, high blood glucose from diabetes builds up in your blood, rather than being absorbed by your cells, and can damage your blood vessels and nerves that control your heart.

If you have diabetes, you are more likely to develop heart disease at a younger age than someone without diabetes. You are also nearly twice as likely to die from heart disease or stroke as people without diabetes. 

Diabetes and Stroke Risk

If you have diabetes, you are 1.5 times more likely to have a stroke than someone without diabetes. Over time, the excess sugar from high blood glucose levels can lead to the buildup of clots or fat deposits inside vessels that supply blood to your neck and brain.

Diabetes can cause a stroke if the deposits reach a point where they build up and cause a narrowing of the blood vessel wall or even a complete blockage. When blood flow to your brain is suddenly interrupted for any reason, a stroke occurs.

Gastroparesis

Gastroparesis is also referred to as delayed gastric emptying. Over time, high levels of blood sugar in the body can cause the vagus nerve, which controls how quickly your stomach empties, to become damaged and stop working normally.

Gastroparesis prevents the flow of food from the stomach to the small intestine. Normally, the muscles of the stomach contract to break up food and allow it to move through the gastrointestinal (GI) tract. When diabetics with gastroparesis eat, the food then moves slowly from the stomach to the small intestine or stops moving altogether. This condition can cause you to feel queasy and vomit.

Gum Disease 

Gum disease is another complication of diabetes. Diabetics are more likely to get periodontal gum disease than people without diabetes. If your blood sugar levels are poorly controlled, you are nearly three times more likely to have severe forms of gum disease, and to lose more teeth than people without diabetes.

Gum disease can also make it more difficult for people with diabetes to control their blood sugar. That’s because severe gum disease can increase blood sugar levels, contributing to increased periods of time when the body functions with elevated glucose.

Managing Diabetes

There are many options when it comes to managing diabetes, including:

  • Medication
  • Diet
  • Exercise
  • Supplements

Medications Should Be Used with Caution

For the insulin-dependent or type I diabetic (about 10 percent of cases), insulin replacement is usually necessary. The amount of insulin needed, however, can often be reduced through appropriate diet, exercise, and nutritional supplements. These measures can also significantly decrease the likelihood of complications.

If you have type 2 diabetes, however, I believe taking injectable insulin is not your best course of action because it can cause weight gain. This is the last thing you want!

Before you resort to taking any prescription medication to treat your diabetes, you should be sure you understand the risks. While medications to treat diabetes are effective at lowering blood sugar, they are more dangerous than you think.

If you’re not up to speed on the Action to Control Cardiovascular Risk in Diabetes (ACCORD) study, you should be because it sheds light on the real risks of many blood sugar-lowering medications.

While I believe metformin is by far the safest of the diabetes drugs on the market, it still comes with a whole host of side effects including nausea, stomach upset, vomiting, diarrhea, rare hypoglycemia and lactic acidosis, and vitamin B12 deficiency.

After decades of treating diabetes in patients, I know for a fact that usually, drugs don’t hold a candle to natural therapies. Because of the inherent risks associated with diabetes medications, I recommend a more natural approach to treating diabetes.

Diet and Exercise 

I can’t stress enough how important diet is for maintaining healthy blood sugar levels. When I saw patients at my clinic, I worked to instill the habits of exercising regularly and eating a low-glycemic diet with plenty of lean protein, high-fiber vegetables, healthy fats, and a minimum of sugars and starches.

It’s important to understand how quickly your body breaks down certain foods into glucose. One way to evaluate this is with the glycemic index (GI). Foods with a high GI, such as refined carbohydrates and sugars, are rapidly converted into glucose, driving up blood sugar levels. Glycemic load (GL) is another important factor. GL is based on the same concept as the GI, but it takes into account the quality and quantity of a food. It’s determined by the GI of a food plus the amount of available, or net, carbohydrates in a standard serving.

I also advise all my patients with type 2 diabetes to follow try intermittent fasting, along with aerobic exercise, to lose weight and manage blood sugar.

Supplements to Maintain Healthy Blood Sugar

I can’t stress enough the importance of nutritional supplements. High blood sugar acts like a diuretic and causes a substantial loss of nutrients in the urine. This is the reason why people with type 2 diabetes are often deficient in important water-soluble vitamins and minerals.

The other reason blood sugar control supplements play a critical role is because certain nutrients work to support your body’s ability to use insulin, which is important in helping you maintain healthy blood sugar levels.

For starters, you should incorporate a high-quality multivitamin and mineral supplement to your daily regimen. Some of the top supplements I have recommended for decades for diabetes include:

While diabetes can have a devastating effect on virtually every system in the body, the good news is, thanks to natural remedies and treatments, you can keep diabetes and its complications at bay and live a healthier, more vibrant life.

Dr. Julian Whitaker

Meet Dr. Julian Whitaker

For more than 30 years, Dr. Julian Whitaker has helped people regain their health with a combination of therapeutic lifestyle changes, targeted nutritional support, and other cutting-edge natural therapies. He is widely known for treating diabetes, but also routinely treats heart disease and other degenerative diseases.

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