What is Diabetes?
To better understand what it means to have diabetes, let’s start with understanding the body’s relationship to sugar. While sugar does have a bad reputation these days, it is important to note that sugar, specifically glucose, is necessary for life. It is the body’s main source of fuel for cellular processes that keep the body running. It is also important to note that every carbohydrate you eat gets broken down into glucose for your cells to use for energy. We will talk about the impact of the amount and type of sugar that is being consumed a little later on
but for now think of glucose as food for your cells.
Diabetes happens when your cells are unable to use glucose. How does this happen? To understand that, let’s start with an important hormone known as insulin. Insulin is produced by the pancreas and helps to bring glucose into cells so that they can use it. Without insulin, your cells can’t recognize glucose and are therefore unable to use it for energy. There are two types of diabetes, simply named Type 1 and Type 2.
Type 1 Diabetes happens when the pancreas is unable to make enough insulin. This is the type of diabetes that tends to be diagnosed earlier on in life and people with this type of diabetes usually require an insulin pump to bring exogenous insulin into their bloodstream to help their cells use glucose from the food they eat.
Type 2 Diabetes happens when the body is still able to produce its own insulin but the cells are no longer able to recognize it. In other words, the cells, or rather the cell receptors, become resistant to insulin, a phenomenon known as insulin resistance, which we will talk about in more detail later on. This type of diabetes is usually diagnosed later in life and is also the type that is commonly associated with obesity, heart disease, and physical inactivity. While people with both types of diabetes can be impacted by the concepts we talk about in this article, our focus is going to be on Type 2 Diabetes as this is the most common type and the type that is most easily influenced by diet and lifestyle changes.
What Causes Type 2 Diabetes?
There has been and continues to be extensive research going into this area. The short answer for what causes Type 2 Diabetes is…it’s complicated. There are so many factors that seem to contribute. As we mentioned earlier, insulin resistance seems to play a role and, like many other chronic diseases, inflammation and oxidative stress seem to be key players as well 1 . What do all these terms mean and what is their significance when it comes to Type 2 Diabetes? Let’s break it down.
Insulin Resistance and Insulin Sensitivity
We’ve already talked about this one briefly. Insulin sensitivity refers to the ability of the body’s cells to recognize insulin so that it can help them use glucose. Insulin resistance happens when so much insulin is produced, the body stops responding to it. Insulin resistance is something that usually happens slowly over time and is the result of the pancreas continuously producing so much insulin in response to high levels of sugar in the blood that eventually cells stop responding to all the insulin.
Oxidation is a chemical reaction that is important for turning that glucose we talked about earlier into energy for our cells. Along with generating energy for our cells, oxidation also creates reactive oxygen species (ROS). At low levels, ROS are important for signaling pathways in the body. The issue arises when the levels of these ROS are too high. At high levels, these ROS create oxidative stress in the body, which seems to cause a chain reaction, increasing the amount of insulin production, leading to insulin resistance, which in turn leads to type 2 diabetes.
If you’re following along so far, you may be able to see how consuming large amounts of sugar can lead to oxidative stress, which can lead to insulin resistance and what we know as diabetes. How does inflammation play a role in all this? Well, it turns out that oxidative stress also leads to inflammation, which leads to organ damage, including the insulin-producing pancreas 3 . Not only can chronic inflammation lead to diabetes, but the damage it causes to organs and blood vessels may lead to many of the chronic diseases that are becoming more common. It is
important to remember that genetics plays a role in all this too!
What can we do about it?
Now that we know consuming too much sugar can lead to oxidative stress, which in turn can lead to inflammation, insulin resistance, diabetes and other chronic diseases, let’s talk about what we can do to prevent this chain reaction.
Limit Processed Foods
Be wary of anything that comes in a package. Read ingredients and watch for sugar. Processed foods tend to be the easiest way to end up with too much sugar in your diet. If the first ingredient is sugar, glucose, fructose, high-fructose corn syrup, or any other creative variation of sugar, opt for something else to eat.
Eat more fruits and vegetables
Fruits and vegetables are full of antioxidants. Antioxidants help address the levels of ROS we talked about and can help reduce oxidative stress. The more colourful the better. Switch it up every so often. Maybe try a different fruit or vegetable every time you do your groceries. You may also notice that if you’re eating more fruits and vegetables, there is less room for processed foods.
Get some movement in every day and make it something you love to do. If you love to dance, make that your exercise. Exercise is a great way to manage oxidative stress as well as reduce extra adipose or fat tissue that can contribute to insulin resistance and diabetes. Exercise also has the wonderful side effect of boosting mood.
Meditating, expressing gratitude, and connecting to your higher purpose are so important for managing chronic diseases like diabetes and have also been shown to lower oxidative stress by reducing the levels of those ROS we’ve talked so much about 4.
Build your Healthcare Team
Choose knowledgeable healthcare professionals and resources who can help you assess your health status and come up with a treatment plan that addresses your goals of perhaps preventing or treating diabetes and keep you accountable for staying on track. Ensure that your values are aligned and that you trust the professionals on your team.