Can diabetes be reversed
It may be possible to weed out the roots of diabetes.
You can manage it. You can control it. But can you reverse diabetes? It may sound too good to be true, but with drastic diet changes you can turn back the clock on this lifestyle disease.
There are two types of diabetes. In Type 1, your immune system attacks the cells in your pancreas that produce insulin; hence – no insulin.
Type 2 is known as the “lifestyle” type, because it’s largely brought on by unhealthy living, and genetics. With Type 2, your body produces insulin but doesn’t use it effectively. This means that glucose isn’t properly absorbed into the cells and accumulates in the blood, causing raised blood glucose levels.
Reversing the tide
Dr Wayne May, an endocrinologist from Cape Town, explains that Type 2 diabetes is reversible in patients who have significantly altered their diets and lost weight. Before we get too excited though, Johannesburg-based dietician, Michelle Daniels, cautions that a drastic change in diet ALONE will not contribute to the remission of diabetes.
Remission means having blood glucose levels in the normal range on little or no medication.
“Healthy eating in itself can improve your nutritional status, while carbohydrate awareness and management can help improve blood glucose levels. But more specifically, a low-calorie diet may influence diabetes going into remission,” Daniels says.
The research is getting there. In a clinical trial by researchers from the Newcastle University, all the participants reversed their diabetes by cutting their calorie intake to an extremely low 600 calories a day for two months. The diet consisted of liquid diet drinks and non-starchy vegetables.
After a week, the patients’ blood glucose levels returned to normal. The amount of fat in their liver and pancreas was also reduced, which helped restore their ability to make insulin and maintain diabetes remission.
A few months later, a few had regained some weight, but still had normal blood glucose control. Nonetheless, most of them remained diabetes-free.
Wake up your insulin cells
It isn’t clear why the diet reversed diabetes, but according to Professor Roy Taylor, the lead researcher of the study, it may be linked to how the body stores fat. Excess fat in the liver can spill into the pancreas, and obstruct insulin secretion and the liver’s response to insulin. This can lead to insulin resistance and diabetes.
Following a very low-calorie diet allows your body to use up fat from your liver, causing fat levels in your pancreas to drop. This “wakes up” the insulin-producing cells in your pancreas, and normalises your blood glucose levels.
“To have people free of diabetes after years with the condition is remarkable,” says Taylor. “This is a radical change in understanding Type 2 diabetes. It will change how we can explain it to people newly diagnosed with the condition.”
Researchers are optimistic about the results, daring to hope that, “We can get across the message that ‘yes, this is a reversible disease — that you will have no more diabetes medications, no more sitting in doctors’ rooms, no more excess health charges’ — that is enormously motivating.”
But as remarkable as these results may be, this diet is no quick fix and doesn’t mean a cure for diabetes. A very low calorie diet is extreme and should be undertaken with care and only if your doctor approves.
You’ll also need to maintain the change in the long term to keep your blood glucose levels in check and diabetes in remission. “Otherwise, all you will have done is temporarily push down your glucose levels into normal range,” states Dr May.
The study does reveal the importance of diet and weight loss in the management of diabetes, though. Obesity is now, more than ever, linked to Type 2 diabetes. “Working with a dietician can help individualise an achievable approach, and equip you with the tools necessary for making changes,” says Daniels. “Reading and having an understanding of nutritional information on food labels can also help you make sensible food choices.”