Over 37 million Americans have diabetes and another 96 million are prediabetic. According to the medical community, we’ve reached epidemic proportions. Thankfully there are steps we can take to help reverse diabetes for a stronger, healthier body.
Conquering diabetes is more than just trying to avoid insulin injections though. This disease causes a lot of different health problems. But first, what exactly is diabetes?
What is Diabetes?
Medical experts define diabetes as having fasting blood glucose levels of 126 mg/dL or higher. Ranges between 100-125 mg/dL are pre-diabetic, while 99 mg/dL or lower is normal. Fasting blood glucose levels above 95 triple the risk of developing diabetes compared to levels under 90.
Fasting blood glucose below 83 mg/dL may be a better benchmark. Men’s heart disease risk increases at 85 mg/dL compared to those with 81 mg/dL or lower.
Type 1 vs. Type 2 Diabetes
When we talk about reversing diabetes it’s important to know there are two different kinds.
Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune condition. Type 2 diabetes is diet and lifestyle-related. This article refers to the medical condition Type 2 diabetes. The good news is we can reverse type 2 diabetes. With lifestyle changes, like healthy eating and physical activity, diabetes remission is possible. Healthy eating means choosing a lower carbohydrate diet and avoiding sugar. These sugary foods raise blood sugar levels and wreak havoc on the body.
How to Test for Diabetes
Some medical professionals use an oral glucose tolerance test (OGTT) to determine diabetes. If you’ve been pregnant, you may have drank a sugary cocktail before having your blood drawn. If so, you’re familiar with this one.
For an OGTT, a patient gets 50-75 grams of glucose. Then a medical professional measures their blood sugar response. No one should be drinking that much glucose! The test isn’t accurate, either.
And if you’re a fan of big gulp drinks and lots of soda, you’re testing your body in a similar way. Eventually, your body will give in. It will respond with something like, “Fine, if you want diabetes, I’ll show you diabetes!
All that sugar increases the risk of all kinds of health problems. These include vision problems, kidney disease, nerve damage, cancer, stroke, and cardiovascular disease. These can occur even without an official diabetes diagnosis.
Some common diabetes symptoms of both types, according to the Mayo Clinic include:
- Increased thirst
- Frequent urination
- Extreme hunger
- Unexplained weight loss
- Ketones in the urine
- Blurred vision
- Slow-healing sores
- Frequent infections
Doctors used to call type 2 diabetes adult-onset diabetes, but children now get it too. The pancreas makes enough insulin, but the body starts ignoring it. When that happens, you have insulin resistance. This looks like increased blood pressure, cholesterol, triglycerides, blood sugar, and waist size.
Prevalence of Diabetes in America
The American Diabetes Association reports that as of 2019:
- 37.3 million Americans have diabetes (and 8.5 million didn’t even know they had it)
- Nearly 1.9 million Americans have type 1 diabetes, and 244,000 are children and adolescents.
- It’s estimated about 35% of Americans under 20 have diabetes.
- 96 million Americans age 18 and up are pre-diabetic.
- 1.4 million new cases of diabetes occur each year.
- Nearly 30% of people older than 65 have diabetes
- Diabetes is the 7th leading cause of death and costs $327 billion a year.
Diabetes is a big problem, but what causes it? Some say it’s genetic, while others claim a lifestyle or dietary cause… What is it? Let’s go back to biology.
Biology 101: Sugar, Carbs, Insulin, and Fat
Our body breaks down and metabolizes any food we eat into the different building blocks it needs. What it doesn’t process the liver removes.
We need protein and fats for muscle and tissue regeneration and other bodily processes. We typically use carbohydrates as a fast energy source, but when we eat more than we need, our body stores it as fat. So that whole wheat muffin can be just as bad as eating a donut with sprinkles!
I explain the process more in this post. While it may seem simple, there are a few confounding factors.
Grains, Sugars, and Omega-6 Oils
These three are the axis of evil in the nutrition world. They’re all new to the human diet, especially in the most common forms. These include processed flour, table sugar, high fructose corn syrup, and vegetable oils.
Grains (especially the highly processed form) not only raise insulin levels but can damage the gut lining. This can happen even without celiac disease. Even whole grains also cause inflammation and can create an immune response.
Healthy and Unhealthy Sugar
Sugar raises insulin and over time this damages beta cells in the pancreas. This leads to insulin resistance, a precursor for diabetes. Fructose is the top offender in the sugar world. It goes directly to the liver and might be a big factor in fatty liver disease.
Excess sugar in the bloodstream also increases cortisol and adrenaline release. It slows the immune response, decreases necessary leptin levels, and promotes fat storage. While we should limit all sweeteners, some are worse than others:
- Glucose – Found in almost all carbohydrates, glucose is a precursor to glycogen. We need glycogen for energy so it’s ok in moderation.
- Fructose – A toxic substance with no health benefits. If you decide to eat it, get it from whole fruits, not High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS).
- Sucrose – AKA table sugar. It has a 1:1 ratio of glucose to fructose and creates an insulin response. Limit or avoid it.
- High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS) – This is super concentrated (and dangerous) fructose. Be strict about avoiding this substance.
- Honey, Maple Syrup, Agave, Molasses – These natural sweeteners still contain high levels of fructose. Healthy people with good insulin sensitivity can eat these in moderation.
- Fruit sugar – Fruit contains lots of natural sugar. While most fruits are okay in moderation, avoid their juices. These are concentrated sugar sources that raise blood glucose and insulin. The best fruit sources are low sugar and high antioxidant, like berries.
Omega 6 oils are a relatively new addition to the diet, making their appearance in the early 1900s. Oils in this category include vegetable oils, which aren’t from vegetables at all. These include canola, cottonseed, soybean, corn, safflower, sunflower, and more.
Since the 1950s vegetable oil intake has increased thanks to health “experts.” Research now shows they increase obesity risk and harm the thyroid. They contribute to insulin resistance and inflammation, further aggravating the poor pancreas.
Ideally, we should consume omega-6 fats in a 1:1 ratio with Omega-3 fats. Most Americans consume a ratio closer to 20 or 25:1, increasing their risk of diabetes and obesity.
Stress, Toxins, and the Adrenals
The body functions as a sum of many parts. So, it’s logical that when one hormone or part of the endocrine system is suffering, the other would suffer. This is why recent research links high stress to diabetes and other health problems. Most people think of stress only in the mental context. But stress can be physical, psychological, emotional, or mental. Many things can trigger it, including:
- Lack of sleep
- Poor diet
- Exposure to toxins
- Outside stress
Cortisol and Hormones
When we’re stressed the adrenals release cortisol and adrenaline. These hormones are life-saving in true “fight or flight” situations, like running away from a bear. But too many of these hormones can cause problems.
Excess cortisol contributes to hormone imbalance. That’s because the body uses other hormones like progesterone to manufacture it. Too much cortisol can also interfere with other metabolic processes. It can mess with blood sugar, reduce fat-burning, and raise insulin. It can also suppress the thyroid, and contribute to belly fat.
Sleep deprivation can elevate cortisol, decrease insulin sensitivity, and increase blood sugar. Most moms have felt the hangover-like effects of this during the first weeks of caring for a newborn.
Genetics do play a role in any disease, but I put this factor last for a reason. Genetic risk factors for a disease will increase your chances of getting the disease. But not in a vacuum.
Some with a family history of heart disease remain heart-attack free. Studies of identical twins show that twins often get the same diseases.
We now know that environmental factors or a potent toxin can alter genes in a single generation. Factors like toxins, stress, pesticides, and diet can turn certain genes on or off, leading to disease. While our genes can increase disease odds, it won’t necessarily happen without other factors.
If you know you have a genetic predisposition to a condition, take steps to maintain your health. At the same time, work to prevent illness.
Those with a genetic predisposition to liver or autoimmune disease often get diabetes. This is likely because the pancreas and liver handle proper insulin regulation. So, problems here could affect the body’s normal response. Studies have linked autoimmune disease and leaky gut with higher instances of diabetes.
How Do We Fix It?
None of the above contributing factors usually happen by themselves. Since the body functions as a whole, a problem in one area will usually correlate to problems in others. A combination of the factors above can trigger a full-blown case of diabetes. It can also lead to many other diseases.
Researchers often look at a single variable when searching for a cure for a disease. But the best approach is to address the body as a whole. The best remedy is prevention but some measures can help reverse disease once it’s happened.
Freshly diagnosed diabetics usually start working with a dietitian or nutritionist. Diabetes care usually involves avoiding sugar (a good step, not the solution). They may need drugs like Metformin or insulin.
These are a band-aid solution though and can cause side effects. The problem is that diabetes is a problem with insulin regulation. The body becomes resistant to insulin hormone and then the pancreas overproduces it.
The goal is to remove toxic amounts of glucose from the bloodstream. Insulin is also dangerous if left circulating in the blood. Treating excess circulating glucose and insulin by adding more insulin doesn’t make sense.
We have to fix the actual problem causing diabetes, like diet, toxins, stress, and gut problems. Just managing blood sugar levels can lead to insulin-dependent diabetes and pancreas shut down.
Ditch the Typical Diet
Mainstream US health experts often follow the current USDA My Plate guidelines. This recommends 6-9 ounces of grains a day for fiber. For perspective that’s 9 slices of bread or 4 plus cups of rice. While this is poor medical advice for anyone, it’s fuel on the fire for those with insulin issues.
All those grains and carbs increase body weight and fat.
7 Steps to Help Your Body Recover from Diabetes
The good news (about time!) is that most people with Type 2 diabetes can reverse it or dramatically improve it with the right steps.
1. Control Insulin
Insulin resistance triggers diabetes. Regaining proper insulin sensitivity can help reverse the process. Limit sugar, grains, and processed carbs. Instead focus on healthy proteins, fats, and green veggies.
2. Balance Fats
Too many omega-6 fats in the diet contribute to diabetes. A 1:1 ratio of Omega-3 and Omega-6 fats is best. Avoid Omega-6 rich seed and vegetable oils (almost every restaurant uses these). Fatty fish like salmon and sardines are good Omega 3 sources.
3. Fix your Gut
No, I’m not talking about the beer gut. Grains and toxins cause damage to the intestinal lining and can cause leaky gut. Not enough good bacteria in our gut makes the problem worse. Poor diet, antibiotics, and being bottle-fed as a baby all deplete the microbiome.
Remove grains, avoid toxins and take probiotics to help heal. Grains, especially gluten, can harm gut health for some people. Even if it’s eaten occasionally.
Even mainstream medicine recognizes the advantages of exercise for diabetes. It increases the muscles’ ability to use insulin. Over time, it can help fix insulin resistance.
All exercise isn’t created equal, though. Daily high-intensity exercise improves insulin balance better than an hour of moderate cardio. It also works better for weight loss. I recommend high-intensity exercise anyway for its various health advantages.
5. Lose Excess Weight
Obesity and Diabetes often go hand in hand. There’s still a debate on which one causes the other. But studies show that lowering your BMI can help mitigate diabetes. It also lowers your risk of getting it in the first place. Certain dietary and lifestyle improvements can help you lose weight and are beneficial for diabetes reversal as well.
6. Reduce Stress
Stress raises cortisol, potentially leading to hormone imbalance and insulin issues. It also increases your risk for certain types of diseases.
To lower your stress, get plenty of sleep, avoid toxins, and improve your diet. Getting quality sleep every night can help reduce stress hormone levels and is excellent for blood sugar. Also, do what you can to address mental and emotional sources of stress. I’ve found tapping very helpful.
Supplements can help you heal from diabetes. They’re especially helpful while your body normalizes its insulin responses. Consider cinnamon, omega-3s, alpha lipoic acid, coenzyme Q10, and garlic. Magnesium and chromium are also helpful.
Monitoring the Problem As It Improves
Anyone with diabetes should consult their primary care provider before making any changes. Especially before changing diabetes medication. That said, focusing on healthy foods is always a good idea.
Nearly 74% of Americans are overweight and many are in a pre-diabetic state. Even if you don’t have symptoms, a glucose monitor can show you your insulin levels.
I also monitored my glucose when pregnant instead of doing the glucose test. Testing at home will tell you how your body responds to certain foods and what works best for you.
What You Need
A Levels glucose monitor is my preferred way to check my sugar levels as it is easy and pain-free. You can also track your numbers as often as you like. The company sends a tracker that you attach to your arm and it gets replaced every 14 days. But finger pricks also work!
If you want to manually check, most drugstores sell glucometer and test strip kits. Be sure to check the cost of replacement strips though. Those can get pricey!
Testing Blood Sugar Levels
Take blood sugar readings at the following times each day for a week:
- First thing in the morning before eating or drinking anything
- Before your normal lunch
- One hour after lunch
- Two hours after lunch
- Three hours after lunch
Do not eat or drink anything else during the three hours of testing.
You may get an accurate baseline of your insulin response after only a few days. But a week provides more data. If you’re diabetic, you likely have some ideas about these numbers. Take readings at the suggested times anyway to figure out your baseline.
Keep a Food Log
Write down everything you eat and drink and track the times you test your blood sugar. This shows how you react to specific foods. Don’t make a special effort to diet or eat healthy foods during this time as you’ll want to know your normal reactions.
Carbohydrate Spike Test
Choose a day of your blood sugar readings to eat a food high in simple carbs. It should be after at least 2-3 days of testing.
For your test meal, eat potato, rice, etc. You can also include any vegetables, but don’t add any fats or proteins. This will test your basic reaction to high levels of glucose not mitigated by fat. Record these numbers as usual.
Important note: If you usually eat a low-carb diet, this number might seem higher than it should be. This is because of a decreased carbohydrate tolerance and is not a cause for concern.
Based on your food log and glucose results, note which foods cause higher readings. Use a website like fitday to input your food log. That will help you get an accurate analysis of your total carb, protein, and fat consumption. Then you’ll see which days were the best and worst for your blood glucose.
How Should Your Numbers Look?
You want your numbers to be as follows:
- Fasting blood glucose below 83 mg/dL
- A pre-meal reading below 90 mg/dL or your fasting level
- 1 hour reading under 140 mg/dL
- 2 hour reading under 120 mg/dL (preferably under 100)
- 3-hour reading back to pre-meal level
- No readings above 140 mg/dL
If your numbers are higher, your body isn’t processing glucose well. You likely have some level of insulin resistance. Limit carbs and processed foods and opt for more good fats and proteins.
Start the “Seven Steps” above then take a look at your readings. If they’re in the diabetic or high prediabetic range, consider consulting a specialist.
Even if you don’t have glucose issues, occasional blood sugar testing is a good idea. It can help pinpoint which carbs your body does and doesn’t like. And it’s a more accurate alternative to the pregnancy glucose test. You may have to explain your reasons to your doctor though!
Final Thoughts on Reversing Diabetes
Diabetes research is constantly evolving. I compiled the best of my research above, but do your own, too! At the very least, please consider making some positive changes. A good diet and lifestyle go a long way to help fight and prevent disease.
This article was medically reviewed by Dr. Michelle Sands, ND. She is double board certified in Integrative Medicine and Naturopathic Medicine and is also a Board-Certified Holistic Nutritionist, and competitive endurance athlete. As always, this is not personal medical advice and we recommend that you talk with your doctor.
Do you struggle with diabetes? Have you overcome it?