DIABETES: Exploring Alternatives to Insulin

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The discovery of insulin for treating diabetes has had the effect of soothing public alarm over this increasingly widespread disease despite it being the fifth highest cause of death in North America. The good news is that many cases of diabetes can be handled by natural methods alone, without the use of insulin.

Definition

The type of diabetes we will deal with in this article is the most common kind, diabetes mellitus. It will be referred to simply as diabetes or DM. DM is usually an inability of the pancreas to produce sufficient insulin. This results in high blood sugar levels and disturbances in carbohydrate, protein and fat metabolism. In certain cases there is sufficient insulin but the body cells do not respond to it. From a naturopathic point of view, diabetes involves other glandular organs and body tissues as well, most commonly the liver and adrenal glands.

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It is important at this stage to mention the difference between adult-onset and juvenile diabetes. As the terms imply, they tend to manifest at different ages. However, them is also a difference in severity. Juvenile diabetes usually has a sudden onset with life-threatening symptoms if not treated with insulin. Adult-onset diabetes creeps up gradually and can generally be treated without insulin, especially if discovered early. There is a higher incidence of genetic and lifestyle influence in adult-onset diabetes and the pancreas is primarily affected. Juvenile diabetes is often caused by diseases which affect the pancreas secondarily and damage its insulin-producing function, such as viruses or tumours.

Unfortunately we are seeing so-called adult-onset diabetes develop in younger age groups. To keep the distinction between the types, two new terms have been coined: insulin-dependent diabetes mellitus (IDDM or Type I) and non-insulin-dependent diabetes mellitus (NIDDM or Type II). The type of diabetes discussed in this article concerns the non-insulin dependent form. In the insulin dependent form there will almost always be a requirement for a certain level of insulin. However, even IDDM patients can improve with natural treatment and lower their insulin levels.

Symptoms and Complications

The classic symptoms of diabetes are increased hunger, thirst and urination, however they vary with the severity of the disease. In adult-onset diabetes associated with obesity it may take 1-5 years to finally' diagnose the problem. In younger people there is typically a rapid progression of weight loss, drowsiness, shortness of breath and dehydration.

Secondary symptoms which often accompany diabetes include recurrent skin and genital infections and itchiness (ie boils, carbuncles, and Candida), weakness and debility. Later complications are caused by damage to small blood vessels in the body and affect the eyes (retinitis and cataracts), kidneys, legs (ulcers and gangrene) and the nervous system. If severe and allowed to progress untreated, diabetes ends in coma and death.

What Exactly is Going On in a Diabetic Patient?

Let's first look at the functions of insulin. It facilitates uptake of glucose (sugar) from the bloodstream into cells, especially muscle and fat cells, by attaching to cell membranes and increasing the rate of diffusion for glucose specifically. The main function of glucose is to be the supply of energy for cells. When there is sufficient insulin and an excess of glucose, more than is required to satisfy energy needs, the glucose is converted to glycogen and then to fat.

The Normal Levels of Insulin A

During a time of excess, the liver absorbs more than its fair share of glucose in order to be able to give it back to the bloodstream when the concentration of glucose is low. In this way it acts as a glucose buffer.

When insulin levels fall, or cells become insensitive to it, as occurs in diabetes, the absorption of glucose by cells is severely restricted, and their energy supply dwindles. Fat cells are stimulated to release free fatty acids into the bloodstream to provide energy for other cells (except the brain). The result is a high concentration of both glucose and fatty acids in the bloodstream. (See diagram II). Since blood fats can rise as much as five-fold when insulin is low, this explains the high incidence of atherosclerosis in diabetics and contributes to slow healing, especially in the legs. An unfortunate consequence of using fatty acids for energy instead of glucose is the generation of ketones as a byproduct. If accumulated, excess ketones, lead to a condition called ketosis and if it is not treated, coma and death.

The Effect of Insufficient Insulin B

Insulin also has an effect on protein metabolism. In normal concentrations, insulin stimulates the transport of amino acids into cells and their consequent synthesis into proteins. It does this by triggering DNA and RNA activity, the molecular machinery responsible for making proteins. On the other hand, when insulin levels are low, there is a stream of amino acids from the cells to the bloodstream and from there to the liver where they are used for energy. This explains the protein wasting which occurs in severe diabetics, resulting in damage to organs, weakness and weight loss.

The secretion of insulin from the beta cells in the islets of Langerhans in the pancreas is stimulated by an increase in blood sugar. When the blood sugar level stays high, the beta cells can actually produce 10 to 20 times the amount of insulin that is secreted during its resting level. If the blood sugar level remains high for over a week, the beta cells actually have to hypertrophy (enlarge) to maintain the needed amount of insulin to control the excess glucose in the blood. The next step in the disease process is beta cell exhaustion and the lowered levels of insulin found in diabetes.

Another hormone secreted by the pancreas, glucagon, has the opposite effect to insulin--it increases the blood sugar when levels are low. Stress hormones epinephrine, norepinephrine and cortisol have a similar effect. This explains why stress stimulates the pancreas because it has to secrete more insulin to get the blood sugar down again. When stress is chronic, it too can lead to beta cell hypertrophy and subsequent exhaustion. It is well known that stress can trigger diabetes in sensitive people.

Regulating blood sugar is of utmost importance in supplying the brain with a consistent supply of glucose. It uses up more than half of the glucose formed between digestive periods following meals. When lacking its normal supply of glucose, the deprived brain creates the symptoms typical of hypoglycemia--nervousness, irritability, fatigue, depression, inability to concentrate, dizziness, trembling, anxiety and a myriad of others.

The high blood sugar levels of a diabetic can cause glucose to spill over into the urine, carrying with it substantial amounts of water and soluble nutrients and creating dehydration and excessive thirst.

The tissues in the body which can absorb glucose without the presence of insulin become saturated when blood sugar levels rise. The glucose over and above that needed for energy is converted to fructose and then sorbitol which tends to crystallize in the cell. This leads to damage typical in diabetes--cataracts in the eyes, reduced filtration rate in the kidneys, nerve damage and reduced oxygen-carrying capacity of the red blood cells. Stressed-out pancreas is not only unable to produce a normal supply of insulin (and glucagon) but is also usually deficient in secreting the digestive hormones which break down carbohydrates, proteins and fats. This leads to the development of allergies (poorly digested particles in the bloodstream irritate the immune system) and nutrient loss, further complicating the diabetic condition.

Causes

Most cases of diabetes can be linked to lifestyle. In so-called uncivilized groups free of refined foods, diabetes is virtually unknown. That is not to forget that there are hereditary and other factors as well. It definitely rims in families and is said to be linked to a recessive gene present in as much as 20% of the population. The other factors which can damage or destroy pancreatic beta cells include inflammation, tumors, auto-immune reactions or surgery and tend to be linked to insulin-dependent DM (juvenile DM). To my mind these causes are for the most part caused by lifestyle imbalances as well.

So let's look at the specific lifestyle threats to the pancreas. The first one on the list is poor dietary habits. As we have seen, the chronic over-stimulation of the insulin-secreting beta cells by excess sugar gradually leads to their exhaustion and consequent underfunctioning. Excess dietary fats are also a specific problem as they have an insulin-depressing action. A dose second, if not a primary cause in some people is stress. As mentioned, the stress hormones have a blood-sugar raising effect, (to provide glucose to muscles and brain for the supposed emergency), which then stimulates the pancreas to secrete insulin. One often finds adrenal (stress gland) exhaustion in cases of diabetes.

Obesity is related to diabetes in 80% of the cases at some point in the disease. It is associated with the insulin-insensitive type of diabetes. Often this type of diabetes becomes insulin-deficient (the pancreas burns out from consistent overstimulation), leading to weight loss as well as acidosis from protein and fat metabolism.

Other factors leading to pancreatic overstimulation via the adrenals in-dude coffee, nicotine, alcohol and recreational drugs. A toxic or congested liver may be a cause as well as an effect of diabetes due to its role in buffering the glucose level. Spinal problems in the back are common in diabetics. Pregnancy, infections and certain medications can also be triggers.

Diagnosis

As you can see, it's not only important to diagnosis that you have diabetes but also necessary to ascertain which kind it is and why it occurred to be able to deal with it effectively by natural means. The usual way of diagnosing diabetes is by testing the urine and blood and discovering high sugar levels. To reiterate, the symptoms vary widely for different individuals so that where one person may experience excess thirst, hunger and urination, another may not have any of these despite high sugar levels in the blood and/or urine. It is important to differentiate whether the diabetes is of the insulin-deficient type or not. If yes, the person may require insulin as an immediate life-saving measure.

Once the medical diagnosis is established and the situation is at least temporarily stabilized, a holistic investigation can begin, looking at diet, stress, exercise, liver, adrenals, spine, alcohol smoking and other factors.

Treatment Pointers

Since diabetes is a chronic degenerative disease and is usually caused by a variety of factors, treatment must be aimed specifically at the individual. Usually there is a lifetime of bad habits to contend with and it is almost never enough to just hand people a diet sheet and advise them to relax. A quote from the Merck Manual, the "medical bible," on this: A single lesson plan in diet or in any other principle of diabetic management is useless. The educational plan for the diabetic must be a continuing life-long process.

It is important to have an MD monitor the progress of a diabetic patient with blood and urine tests, especially if they are currently taking insulin, as a successful program results in the body increasing the secretion of its own insulin and can actually create insulin shock. It is not recommended to decrease insulin until the pancreas starts responding to treatment and to do this with the help of a qualified practitioner.

The following suggestions can be mixed and matched to the requirements of each individual. Change should be encouraged gradually, especially in the case of older people. Otherwise a seine of deprivation may lead a person to forgo the program and return to their old destructive but familiar patterns. Praise for steps made is more effective than criticism for things undone. Some relapse is inevitable. The patient should be prepared for this and then gently prompted to try again when it happens. It often takes several attempts to have a new habit take hold and may require extensive counselling support.

Diet

Eliminate all refined foods such as sugar, sweets, pastry, white flour products and white rice.
Replace the above with complex carbohydrates made from whole grains. This alone may drastically reduce insulin requirements as it provides the body with a steady supply of energy which doesn't overstimulate the pancreas.
Instead of animal fats, especially from meats and dairy products, use a limited amount of cold-pressed vegetable oil, 1-3 T per day, i.e., safflower, sunflower, flax. (Don't heat.)
Proteins are best vegetarian in source i.e., beans, nuts, seeds.
Fruit may need to be avoided in some cases, especially the sweet and dried varieties such as bananas, raisins and dates.
Space meals out to six times per day and keep them small to moderate.
There are certain foods having an insulin-like activity in the body and their daily use is recommended: Jerusalem artichokes (especially good), onions, Brussel sprouts, cucumbers, green beans, oat products (excellent documented results), soy products, beans, bran, avocado (in moderation because of the high oil content), wheat germ, raw honey (4 t/day--Adams), blueberries, buckwheat & raw green vegetables.
If easily digested, take 75% of the diet as raw foods.
Supplements

A, B Complex (lowers needs for insulin), C with bioflavenoids (especially for adrenals), E (lowers insulin need and helps heal gangrene), B6 (to help diabetic neuropathy), inositol (also for neuropathy), chromium (insulin catalyst), zinc (for insulin secretion), magnesium, potassium, manganese, garlic, kelp, lecithin, brewers yeast (1 tsp 3x daily), spirulina (1 tsp 3x daily), bran, raw glandulars and digestive enzymes (1-3tablets with or just following meals).

A nutritionally aware practitioner can help sort out which supplements at what dose are appropriate for each person. Doses often need to be fairly high at first and therefore are best monitored. In terms of self-help, emphasis on improving diet, adding the underlined supplements, taking up regular exercise and decreasing stress would be the most effective steps to start with.

Other Treatments

(from Trattler)

- Spinal manipulation, especially to the thoracic area

- Alternating hot and cold compresses over pancreas (abdomen)

- Castor oil packs over abdomen

- Increased exercise essential!

- Alternating hot and cold showers to increase general circulation.

- Alternating hot and cold leg baths to increase local circulation.

- Warm sea salt water baths i.e., to feet for infections (Adams)

Herbs

Alfalfa (Medicago sativa)--Case reported of diabetic who failed to respond to insulin helped by alfalfa; assumed to be because of its high manganese content. Try 2 capsules 2-3x daily. (Heinerman)

Blueberry Leaf Tea--A substance called myrtillin has an insulin-like action. One tsp of cut, dried leaves in a cup of hot water until lukewarm. Drink 4 cups daily. (Heinerman)

Cayenne Pepper--Three capsules daily have a substantial decreasing effect on high blood sugar. Not for hypoglycemics.

Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale)--Three capsules daily provide a natural form of insulin.

Goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis)--- a lower insulin requirements in some people. Try 2 capsules daily for a month. Not for hypoglycemics.

Mango Leaves---Documented success in treating not only diabetes, but the blood vessel and eye problems related to it as well. One cup per day of tea with the addition of 2T of either guava, mango or papaya juice is the recommended dose.

Parsley--Taken in tea form, it has helped some people lower their blood sugar It is emphasized to be cautious in experimenting with herbs in lowering blood sugar and to do so with the support of a knowledgeable practitioner.

Notes on Insulin Use

Obviously some cases of diabetes will require insulin injections. (The stomach neutralizes insulin therefore it can't be used orally.) There is a huge amount of literature on different types and schedules for insulin use to provide a diabetic with the most physiological supply possible. Your medical doctor should be able to discuss this with you and there is a good introduction to this topic in the Merck Manual, a medical book available from any medical bookstore. A medical alternative to insulin which may also be considered is the use of oral anti-diabetic drugs.

Prognosis

The progress of each diabetic depends on how much vitality is left in the affected organs--pancreas, liver, adrenals. With juvenile-onset diabetes (IDDM), which tends to be more severe in nature, there may be complete destruction of the beta cells, in which case insulin is necessary, although, as mentioned, the amount can be moderated with a natural regime. When a case of adult-onset diabetes is caught early, it can almost always be turned around, even if there has been some insulin use already. Time for the pancreas to respond can vary from a few days to a few years, again underlining the necessity for individual treatment.

Epilogue

Whenever I deal with lifestyle related diseases, whether via patients, column letters or articles, I am acutely aware of the cultural pressures--social, economic and political--which result in a society bent on destruction, not only of individuals, but of our very home.

It is coming to the point where we can't afford not to heed the message being transmitted to us by the increasing incidence of diabetes--or heart disease, cancer and AIDS. Our old way of life is not working. Each of us needs to look creatively at our lives and step out in making changes that are needed to keep ourselves healthy and to preserve this planet for the next generation. Once the first steps are taken, the next changes are easier to make and before long we find ourselves sharing the process with family, friends and neighbours. Instead of being a deprivation, a healthy lifestyle becomes a source of joy and inspiration.

References

Adams, R. Miracle Medicine Foods, 1997, Polar Publishing Co., West Nyack, N.Y.

Aschner, B., Technik der Konstitutionstherapie, 1962, Haug Verlag, Germany

Berkov, MD et al., The Merck Manual, 1982, Merck, Sharp & Dohme Research Laboratories, Rahway, N.J.

Davis, B., Rapid Healing Foods, 1980

Parker Publishing Co., West Nyack, N.Y.

Heinerman, J., Heinerman's Encyclopedia of Fruits, Vegetables & Herbs, 1988, Parker Publishing Co., West Nyack, N.Y.

Hodgkins, Keith, Towards Earlier Diagnosis, 5thED., 1985 Churchill Livingstone, New York.

Guyton, A.C., Basic Vitamin Physiology: Normal Functions and Mechanisms of Disease, W.B Saunders Co., Toronto 1977

Thomas, Clayton, M.D. ed., Taber's Cyclopedic Medical Dictionary, 1977, F.A. Davis Co., Philadelphia, PA

Trattler, Ross, DC.. ND., Better Health Through Natural Healing McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1985.

Recommended Reading From alive Books

Diets to Help Diabetics by Martin Budd (pb) 64 pp $3.95

Vegetarian Cooking for Diabetics by Patricia Mozzer (sc) 144 pp $13.95

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By Karen Schad Byers

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