November is National Diabetes Awareness month in the US, when communities across the country gather to bring awareness to the disease and provide education on making healthy lifestyle changes to reduce and manage risk of Type 2 diabetes.
According to the CDC, while more than 10% of the US population has diabetes, one in five of them is unaware they have it. That is nearly seven million people in the US alone that is carrying a ticking time bomb, completely unsuspecting. Additionally, a whopping 96 million US adults have pre-diabetes, and 8 in 10 of them are completely oblivious. With diabetes being the 7th leading cause of death in the US, it’s extremely important to continue to bring awareness to the disease. Untreated, it can lead to vision loss, kidney disease, nerve damage, heart and vessel disease and many other conditions.
Whereas Type 1 diabetes is a genetic condition of the pancreas that affects fewer than 200,000 people per year, Type 2 diabetes often develops later in life due to “insulin resistance,” with cells responding poorly to circulating insulin, and not being able to effectively take up and use the sugars circulating in the bloodstream for energy. In addition, the pancreas is unable to produce enough insulin to manage blood sugar levels. For those that do develop symptoms, you may notice increases in thirst and urination, blurry vision, numbness or tingling in your hands and feet, fatigue, hunger, frequent infections, and/or wounds that don’t heal. The scary thing about diabetes is that you are likely to have it without any symptoms, so awareness and screening are crucial.
How do I get Diabetes?
Unfortunately, no one knows exactly what causes insulin resistance to develop in the body, but there are two key contributing factors: being overweight and being inactive.
The full list of known risk factors includes:
- Weight – Obesity (or simply being overweight) is a main risk factor for people of any age.
- Inactivity – Lack of physical activity increases risk. Moving your body uses up glucose, makes cells more sensitive to insulin, and has the added benefit of helping to control your weight.
- Fat distribution – “Apple” shaped people, with fat stored around the abdomen seem to be at greater risk than “pear” shaped people who store fat in the hips and thighs.
- Family history – Risk increases if a close family member has the disease.
- Blood lipid levels – Risk increases with lower levels of “good” (HDL) cholesterol and higher levels of triglycerides
- Age – Risk increases with age.
- Ethnicity and Race – Although the cause is not known, risk for development of type 2 diabetes is higher in Hispanic, Native American, Pacific Islander, Asian, and Black populations.
- Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS) – Women suffering from this condition are at higher risk.
- Pregnancy–related Risks. If you developed gestational diabetes during a pregnancy, or if you gave birth to a baby weighing more than 9 pounds, your risk is increased.
- Darkened skin under arms or on neck – this is a visible sign of insulin resistance.
- Prediabetes – Left untreated, prediabetes can progress to type 2 diabetes.
The number one thing to do in your diabetes prevention journey, is to get your Hemoglobin A1C (HgbA1c) blood levels checked. In the past, blood sugar was measured by testing glucose levels, however levels can fluctuate with meals, exercise, movement, and medications. HgbA1c is a test that measures the sugar in the body that is bound to hemoglobin (a blood protein) and is a good indicator of average blood sugar levels over the past three months. This provides a much more reliable indication of actual, immediate risk.
Ask your doctor to test for HgbA1c; the goal range should be less than 5%. HgbA1c is a measure of insulin resistance, so higher levels reflect poorer blood sugar control. Elevated numbers means that the body is no longer properly managing blood sugar levels, which also strongly suggests a tendency toward higher inflammation throughout the body.
If you have previously been diagnosed with diabetes, higher the HgbA1c level correlate with higher risk of diabetes complications. If you have diabetes, we recommend testing regularly to ensure that your levels are staying within range.
HgbA1c levels greater than 6.5% indicate diabetes, and levels between 5.7 and 6.4% are considered prediabetes. Armed with your number, you can make some lifestyle to decrease diabetes risk and improve your overall health:
- Lose excess weight. We know this is easier said than done, but implementing some of the other recommendations below will help. If you are pre-diabetic, studies show that losing 5-10% of your body weight and adding exercise can lower your risk of developing diabetes by 58%!
- Increase physical activity. Get at least 30 minutes of physical activity five times a week. Add a daily walk to your routine; increase the length or add a second walk over time. If walking isn’t your thing, ride a stationary bike, play sports, add sit-ups or squats, take the elevator instead of stairs, or simply park further away when running errands. When you get the opportunity to exercise or move a little bit more than you normally would, take it! Increasing exercise throughout the day will ultimately help lower your HgbA1c level.
- Follow the Nature’s pHarmacy™ Principles to Eat By including:
- Eat a wide variety of fresh, high quality whole foods and choose more alkaline forming foods as found on this Food Effects chart, which helps our bodies to balance acid and alkaline properties in our cells (more acid cells leads to loss of cell resilience and increased illness.) Avoid added sugar and processed foods as much as possible
- Eat only healthy fats. Healthy unsaturated fats promote heart and vascular health and can be found in seeds, nuts and fatty fish (preferably line-caught), such as tuna, salmon, mackerel, sardines, and cod. Meat and dairy contain unhealthy saturated fats, so intake should be minimized.
- Eat plenty of fiber. Fiber-rich foods such as some fruits, tomatoes, peppers, leafy greens, and legumes help slow the absorption of sugar, help you feel full and eat less, help decrease blood pressure and inflammation, and actually interfere with the absorption of unhealthy fats.
- Drink plenty of water. Staying hydrated can actually lower the concentration of sugar circulating in the bloodstream. Stay away from sugary beverages and choose mineral water instead.
- Monitor your weight and your goals. Work with your doctor to monitor your HgbA1c levels and track your progress toward your weight and exercise goals.
Even if you don’t have diabetes or pre-diabetes now, it is not too soon to begin making the healthy lifestyle choices that will help minimize risk as you age. Choosing more life-affirming, plant-based, whole foods and adding more movement and exercise into your daily routine will help you add years to your life and life to your years.