Tips for combating and reversing type 2 diabetes (and metabolic syndrome)
Cracking the code
Type 2 diabetes is a term used to describe the advanced stage of metabolic syndrome which includes insulin resistance and difficulty metabolizing / maintaining blood glucose.
Treatment in the medical system typically entails a blood sugar stabilizing drug such as Metformin, along with lifestyle recommendations and dietary changes.
Unfortunately for these patients, their doctors probably don't know much about the benefits of physical activity and certain nutrients on controlling and reversing type 2 diabetes.
1) Resistance Training
Weight training is possibly the most overlooked secret for helping to reverse insulin resistance because it literally causes the exact opposite: insulin sensitivity.
Insulin sensitivity is a key component in gaining muscle because it redirects nutrients (such as blood glucose) to muscle tissue as opposed to storing it as fat. This serves 2 key purposes. Firstly, it causes the muscle cells to become insulin sensitive over time, which helps the body to metabolize glucose better, leading to lower blood glucose readings. Secondly, it causes the muscles to grow, which creates a furnace effect in the body. Every pound of added muscle on the human frame increases the body's overall metabolism.
The other effect of a proper lifting program, using moderate to heavy loads performed over a certain time, is that fat cells too become insulin sensitive. What insulin sensitivity really means is that the body doesn't need to produce as much insulin to get the desired effect, which is to remove glucose from the blood and prevent hyperglycemia. This reduces the load on the pancreas and lowers the metabolic "burden" of the diabetic.
Its important to differentiate proper resistance training from what could be called "exercise". The two are not one in the same. Resistance training requires a minimal stimulus for a desired effect. Doing "high reps" with "low weight" may cause muscular fatigue but does not achieve the desired effect of insulin sensitivity and, more importantly, muscle growth. For this reason it is not desirable for type 2 diabetics to stick to just steady state cardio, which will cause sweating and a perception of doing work, but will not contribute to the desired goal of increased muscle and insulin sensitivity.
Exercises should be used that stay in the optimal repetition range of 8-12 reps performed over 30-45 seconds. This time can be increased to 80-120 seconds over time as the trainee adapts.
In weightlifting anything above 8 reps is basically considered cardio. Many a type 2 diabetic use much too light of weight, performed for way too many repetitions, and fail to achieve the desired training outcome.
2) Lower Glycemic Index Foods
The glycemic index was created to rate foods based of their "glycemic load". While it is certainly controversial the premise that certain carbohydrates cause more insulin spikes is indeed correct.
We are a nation of mindless consumers, and I don't think most people realize just how much pure sugar is being ingested daily. The human body, historically, is used to at most 20 - 35 grams of sugar per day. One bottle of soda contains at least twice this amount, and many people consume several sodas per day, on top of other sugary foods.
Type 2 diabetics need to be clear on this subject. Not only are they not metabolizing these foods properly in the first place, but each successive hit drains the pancreas and causes further insulin resistance. This compounds over time and can lead to all types of problems including hypertension and high cholesterol. Removing these high sugary foods, the sodas, the candy, the chips, doughnuts, pastries, all of this needs to be removed. This can be psychologically difficult as usually there is a drug-like dependence and deeper psychological issues tied into this.
But just understanding the devastating effect of these foods on insulin resistance can sometimes be enough to spark a change. One of the biggest things that's helped me with nutrition was learning the dirty truth of how bad some of this stuff really is. When you think of the food differently, you look at it differently and make different choices - naturally.
But what types of carbs should we consume? For starters we should look for natural foods that contain fiber. Vegetables, beans, legumes, nuts and fruits come to mind. The argument against fruit with diabetics is a complicated one, but I for one do not subscribe to the idea that someone is obese and diabetic because they ate too much fruit.
Sweet potatoes, lentils, beans, peas, there are literally thousands of different vegetables out there. Just start adding a few of these in, slowly, each day. Many a dieter has failed because they tried to flip the switch overnight and ended up hating vegetables because they forced ten lbs of veggies into the diet. Spinach, kale, arugula, spirulina. These are considered super foods because of the nutrition contained therein.
This day and age, with apps like Pinterest there is simply no excuse for not finding healthy recipes that are also tasty and feasible for the average person.
Going to the store, buying the food and preparing it, well that is another story and one that is up to the individual.
This little gem is known as "glucose tolerance factor" (GTF) in the medical community because of its ability to help regulate blood sugar. Supplementation is readily available, and there are trace amounts in lots of foods including green leafy greens, which should be a part of everyone's diet anyway.
Many carb blockers on the market contain chromium. They reduce cravings for sugar, which will be a problem for any type 2 diabetic, at least at first. By regulating the appetite (naturally) blood sugar levels are maintained in a healthy range. This serves two purposes by reducing the chance of sugar binges due to "caving in" and also by regulating blood sugar which helps reduce stress on the metabolism. Some people even see weight loss as a side effect of chromium as the body gets used to burning fat more than carbohydrates.
4) Intermittent Fasting
As someone who regularly practices IF I can tell you firsthand that it can be very effective at balancing blood glucose levels, but it can also eat away precious muscle if its not done right. So is it a good option?
One of the lesser talked about problems with nutrition in the U.S. is the load we place on our digestive tract. Because we've been taught since birth (by fast food and cereal manufacturers mainly) that breakfast is the mightiest of the meals and we will shrivel to nothing if we skip it, we are now eating more and more food. This can be great and needed for sports, gaining muscle and other goals. But for longevity and overall health, which should be a primary objective for diabetics, it can be detrimental.
Many people are eating so much that they literally eat from upon waking to late night binges. This lowers the time that our digestive tract can heal and recover from all the food, which again, unfortunately is filled with junk in the American diet. This creates excess load on the gut, the pancreas, the liver and every organ system. Intermittent fasting reverses this issue by giving the body more time to relax vs digesting food. A typical IF protocol is a 16 hour fast followed by an 8 hour "eating window".
Fasting does a lot of things and one of the most important is it creates, once again, insulin sensitivity. Typically the longer the fast means the higher the sensitivity. This means that when the fast is broken, any sugar consumed or metabolized can be handled more efficiently. This is a prime candidate for a diabetic diet.
One caveat with the IF diet is that while the eating window is shortened, the number of calories / meals should stay relatively constant, in my opinion. This means that if you are eating three square meals a day before switching to IF, you would want to consume about the same amount of food in the "window". This is actually a godsend for many people because not only does it help reverse diabetes, but it removes the dreaded "starvation" that many people feel is their biggest obstacle with a diet!
Hopefully these tips and hints can be of some use to someone out there reading this who has or knows someone who is suffering from type 2 diabetes.
The good news, as usual, from yours truly, is that this disease, like so many others, can be reversed naturally and efficiently, if it is not allowed to get completely out of control. The sooner you start addressing your blood sugar problems, the more likely for a smooth and empowering recovery.
Sports Nutrition Specialist
Health & Wellness Coach