I was intrigued by this recent article explaining a journalist’s experience at suppressing his newly-diagnosed Type II diabetes in an attempt to cause it to fully subside, thus ‘curing’ him of diabetes.
What is diabetes?
Diabetes mellitus (full name) is a condition which affects the body’s insulin levels enabling higher than normal glucose levels in the blood. This can cause a multitude of complications long-term such as problems with the kidney, eyes, feet, due to ineffective blood circulation.
Type II diabetes I is strongly associated with obesity and low rates of physical activity and is also known as ‘maturity onset’ diabetes as is most common in the over-40s. This is to distinguish it from type I which is characteristically diagnosed in young children, known also as ‘early-onset’ diabetes. The two types of diabetes differ in their physiological mechanisms which cause a rise in blood glucose level.
Insulin is a hormone produced and secreted from the beta-cells in the pancreas. Its mode of action stimulates increased uptake of glucose by the liver and conversion into its stored form, glycogen. Homeostasis regulates this process so that when glucose levels in the blood are higher than normal, more insulin is secreted so that more glucose is converted into glycogen, thus reduced the levels of glucose in the blood back to ‘normal.’ This is shown in top half of the diagram below (the bottom half shows the mechanism to increase blood glucose levels).
Essentially insulin is a key component in regulating glucose levels in the blood.
In type II diabetes, either:
- The body either does not produce enough insulin to regulate glucose
- The body becomes resistant to insulin and therefore it is less effective in regulating glucose
- Or it develops due to a combination of the above
Therefore treatment focusses on managing the glucose levels in the blood to the normal range.
How can it be treated?
A routine blood test called the HbA1c test records the glucose levels to monitory change, though the recommended average values will inevitably differ with many factors such as age, type of diabetes, general health and so on.
The following treatments are shown in typical chronological order:
- Lifestyle and dietary changes: Glucose is obtained through starchy and sugary foods, therefore eating low fat and sugar content foods as well as implementing regular physical activity may be enough to reduce glucose levels in some individuals as being overweight with abdominal fat distribution is the greatest risk factor for type II diabetes.
- Reduce other risk factors: smoking and high blood pressure are also modifiable risk factors
- Medication: there are many types which aim to boost insulin production in the pancreas or reduce glucose absorption, forms of insulin can also be given. This is dependent on the individual and a combination of treatments may be used, however in all cases they require very careful monitoring and committed adherence by the patient.
Reversing Type II Diabetes?
The Guardian article mentions a research paper which was undertaken at Newcastle University published in 2011 which claims its results show reversal of pancreatic beta-cell failure and insulin resistance (ie. both causes of type II diabetes). The study only had 11 participants with relatively newly diagnosed diabetes (within the last 4 years) who were given a strict dietary regimen consisting of a highly nutritional liquid formula subsidised with three non-starchy vegetable meals per day. The participants were also encouraged to drink at least 2 litres of water per day (which can be a useful tool for suppressing hunger pangs) and maintain their normal physical activity rates.
Within a week of this dietary intervention, the blood glucose levels of the participants had decreased by almost half. The liver’s insulin resistance reacted quicker to this dietary intervention (reduced to normal within 7 days), with the pancreatic beta cell function changing gradually back down to normal over the whole study period of 8 weeks. The study concluded that the success of the results was due to the reduction in liver and pancreatic fat.
However further research needs to be undertaken to support these conclusions more strongly, as well as study into what time-frame this seeming reversibility would still occur (ie. only in newly diagnosed diabetics of less than 4-5 years, or possibly longer?). I would also be very interested in the follow-up of these patients and how their lifestyle and blood glucose levels fair within the next few months and years to see whether the reversibility is long-term and definitive for them.
The bottom line
As Richard Doughty, the author of the original article discovered, there have been many people who have successfully tried limiting their diet more extremely (in accordance with this study method) with good anecdotal results. If anything, this method is simply a more radical approach to the general advice a GP may give on eating healthily and increasing physical activity. An important point to bring up is that clearly not everyone with the risk factors develops diabetes and others who don’t have any (Doughty presents himself as a fit and healthy individual) may also be subject to this, therefore changes in diet and physical activity will be according to the patient’s normal routine. However the difficulty comes afterwards as Doughty writes, how permanent if at all will this ‘solution’ be? In my opinion, it is most definitely worth a shot if you have the determination to drastically change the way you eat for a duration of time and be committed to a lifelong ‘healthy diet’ instead of being committed to taking medication for a chronic disease that can progress with complications later in life.
Patient UK summary about Type II diabetes
NHS diabetes page with detailed information about symptoms, diagnosis etc. and checking if you are risk
Research trial paper in full led by Professor Roy Taylor at Newcastle University
Powerpoint presentation of the above research paper