In broad terms, diabetes refers to any of a number of disorders where excess sugar levels are found in both blood and urine.

The term “diabetes” derives from the Greek word ‘diabete’ which translates to as much as ‘siphon’ or ‘to pass through’ in English – and only really makes sense in context of the longer name it was originally given, diabetes mellitus – mellitus here comes from the Latin word meaning ‘honeyed’ or ‘sweet’.

The fact that in some humans, urine tasted sweeter than in others was noted by early physicians in the Middle East and Asia (particularly Egypt, Persia, China and India). Though the word ‘diabete’ was first used in Ancient Greece over 2000 years ago, the term diabetes mellitus was first adopted in the English language around 300 years ago, in 1675, by Thomas Willis, a founding member of the Royal Society and a pioneering physician in his time.

In fact, diabetes used to be referred to as “Willis’s disease” until he introduced the more generic term. Then in 1776, a physician named Matthew Dobson researched the sweet tasting urine phenomena and confirmed that it was indeed due to the presence of excessive levels of a certain type of sugar in the urine. A sugar we have now identified as glucose.

Why our body needs Insulin     

The organ responsible for secreting insulin, the pancreas, sits just under our stomachs. On top of secreting pancreatic juices containing enzymes that help digest our food, the main role of the pancreas is to produce certain key hormones used in many bodily functions. Insulin, produced by the beta-cells of the pancreas, is one of those essential hormones required for adequate fat and carbohydrate metabolism.

The pancreas releases insulin in response to glucose consumption and this in turn helps trigger our sense of satiety, so we know when it’s time to stop eating.

Insulin helps cells absorb glucose. This in turn promotes the growth and maintenance of various tissues and organs in the body (liver, muscles) to take up and store excess sugar (glucose) as glycogen for later use when glucose is in short supply.

The deal with Glucose

Glucose is important for energy production in the human body, but it is also one of those carbohydrates that require proper regulation. If levels of glucose in the blood rise too high, the glucose becomes toxic for our system and our body ends up in a state of high sugar levels (also known as hyperglycaemia), where damage can occur to the nerve endings in certain organs and also blood vessels providing those organs with nutrients and energy.

Researchers aren't entirely sure how excessive amounts of glucose impact the body, but it is believed that as glucose increases in the blood stream, a shift takes place that upsets the normal chemical balance – this unbalance in turn allows glucose to interact with other molecules it wouldn’t normally interact with, binding or attaching itself to vital proteins and enzymes that in turn become unreactive and cannot perform their usual functions, bringing about detrimental knock on effects in the body.

3 main Types, one name: Diabetes

There are three main types of diabetes that affect people, on top of these, there are several dozen ‘specific type’ conditions that have been characterised over the years but are much rarer in the total population.

Type 1 diabetes is characterised as an auto-immune disorder that occurs when immune cells recognise the insulin-producing (beta) cells in the pancreas as foreign and start attacking them, resulting in the body not producing any insulin at all (or very little). This form of diabetes ultimately requires the person to inject insulin or wear an insulin pump for life (this type of diabetes was originally referred to as juvenile diabetes or alternatively insulin dependent diabetes).

Usually, in type 2 diabetes, the pancreas is producing enough insulin for managing blood glucose levels, yet, for still unknown reasons, the body is unable to use this insulin effectively. Type 2 diabetes typically occurs when the body becomes resistant to insulin resulting in an overall insulin deficiency (also referred to as adult-onset diabetes) throughout the body.

The third main form of diabetes is referred to as ‘gestational diabetes’, it happens when pregnant women develop high blood sugar levels, without having had a prior diagnosis of diabetes. This type of diabetes occurs because the insulin receptors are not working properly due to interference by a placental hormone known as human placental lactogen, in decreased insulin sensitivity that leads to an increase in maternal blood glucose levels.

Natural Prevention and Treatments

Type 2 diabetes can cause major complications if it is left untreated. Adequate treatment of diabetes is important, as well as blood pressure control and lifestyle changes such as being aware of the glycaemic index of food, stopping smoking and maintaining a healthy body weight.

In some cases type 2 diabetes can be managed without medication, with a good dietary regime, exercise and regular monitoring of blood sugar levels.

There are certain natural health products that can help normalise blood sugar levels. But it’s always important to consult a GP or healthcare professional before embarking on using natural health alternatives to treat type 2 diabetes.

Licorice Root

It has been known for some time that licorice root is a natural glycaemic balancer, meaning it can help the body maintain steady blood sugar levels. But only recently, researchers at the Max Planck institute for Molecular Genetics in Germany proved how this is achieved. In 2012 they released findings from a comprehensive review of treating diabetic mice with previously unknown active ingredients in licorice, collectively referred to as the amorfrutins. As the researchers demonstrated, amorfrutin not only reduced blood sugar levels, but also appeared to harbour anti-inflammatory properties. On top of this amorfrutin also appeared to prevent fatty liver disease – a common side effect of diabetes.

Not only have the researchers demonstrated the blood sugar lowering phenomenon in animal models, they have also mapped the exact chemical pathway by which the molecule achieves this balancing effect. Clinical trials with amorfrutin are now under way and researchers are optimistic about a new treatment paradigm opening up for people with diabetes.

Chamomile

Chamomile is one of the oldest medicinal herbs known to humankind. Its extract has also been under investigation in animal models of diabetes. It appears that chamomile may suppress blood sugar levels and increase the storage of glycogen (the form in which glucose is stored) in the liver. Further clinical trials with chamomile are also being pursued in patients with type 2 diabetes.

According to a study performed in 2005, the blood-sugar-lowering effect by chamomile appears to be independent to the amount of insulin secreted. The study investigated the effects in people with diabetes and those without, and noted the same decrease in overall blood sugar.

Chromium

Another potential for improving symptoms in people with type 2 diabetes is the trace element chromium, which has been under investigation by researchers for some years now. Chromium is originally found in plants, specifically grains. It forms part of a protein complex called chromodulin.

Chromodulin appears to increase the signalling of insulin receptors, and this activity increases as more chromium binds to the complex.

As far back as 1959 chromium was heralded to be an active ingredient in the so-called “glucose tolerance factor” – a molecule believed to have benefits in promoting the role of insulin in managing blood glucose levels. Since then several studies have reported that chromium may improve the way people with type 2 diabetes respond to insulin. Some of these studies have shown that supplementing with chromium may reduce the amount of insulin people with type 2 diabetes need to maintain overall blood sugar levels.

Many foods contain chromium, but others have higher than usual amounts. Broccoli, grape juice and red wine all have a greater proportion of chromium than other food sources.

Ginseng

Clinical studies have shown promising stabilising effects of ginseng on blood sugar levels. In one study, people with type 2 diabetes who consumed ginseng together with a diet high in fibre showed a notable reduction in blood sugar levels.

In another study, ginseng improved insulin sensitivity when compared with placebo.

Food matters

Replacing sugary drinks with water is quite possibly the most important start one can make to addressing life style changes that will work towards stable blood sugar levels. In fact, reducing overall sugar intake is advisable if you have, or are at risk of, developing diabetes.

Another way to stabilise blood sugar levels in the morning is to consume a moderate amount of protein for breakfast. A little bit of fish with spinach once or twice a week, a handful of nuts, or perhaps protein in the form of protein powder (whey powder for example) added to low-fat yogurt or buttermilk with fresh or frozen berries, may fit your lifestyle better.

Being aware of the Glycaemic Index (GI) of the food consumed is another way to be mindful of blood sugar levels. Various carbohydrate foods have differing effects on blood glucose levels in the body; this is what is measured by the Glycaemic Index. It ranks food on a scale from 0 – 100 according to the total impact they have on overall blood glucose levels. Foods with an index number of 70 or more are considered to be high GI, and those with an index number ranging between 55-70 are ranked as ‘medium’ GI and ones with 55 or less as low GI.

Most legumes such as beans, peas and lentils have a very low GI (<50). Eating foods high in fibre is good because these help slow digestion and absorption of most carbohydrates.

Regular Exercise starts with Walking

Historically, Greek physicians prescribed exercise to alleviate the excess urination from diabetes.

They weren’t far off the mark, as nowadays, the common consensus among physicians is that the best way to treat type 2 diabetes, is to prevent it from ever appearing. A great way to prevent and help treat type 2 diabetes is to start a regular exercise regime. If a proper exercise regime is too much initially, then walking more is a great way to start.

Walking is a great way to improve overall cardiovascular performance and to get into shape gradually.

Walking between 5000 and 10 000 steps a day seems to be the ideal. This doesn’t have to be all in one go. Even if you drive a lot or take public transport, consider parking a block away from your destination or getting off one stop earlier. It all adds up.

Activity maintains insulin sensitivity in the body as well as maintaining optimum cardiovascular and heart health. A major risk factor in type 2 diabetes is obesity, so decreasing overall body fat and increasing lean muscle through exercise is thoroughly recommended.

It is not easy living with diabetes, thankfully the internet has provided many support groups and chat forums for people who are learning to manage it. Support from close family and friends helps as well.

A fantastic resource for more information about living with diabetes in New Zealand is the non-profit organisation Diabetes New Zealand.

by Christopher von Roy BSc, MSc, DCP Immunology

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