The Epidemic of Diabetes

Diabetes is a chronic, incurable disease involving elevated levels of blood sugar, or glucose. Rates of diabetes are skyrocketing. According to the CDC, about 24 million Americans now have diabetes, which is more than three million more than just two years ago; that's nearly 8 percent of the population. What's to blame: a high-calorie, high-fat diet and lack of physical exercise.

Diabetes is a disease involving insulin, which is a hormone produced in the pancreas that regulates glucose. Insulin helps move the sugar from your gastrointestinal tract (it comes from the carbohydrates you eat) to the cells throughout your body.

Doctors have identified a milder type of diabetes, known as prediabetes, which involves blood glucose levels that are higher than normal but not as high as a diabetic's. Prediabetes is still serious, however. It significantly increases your risk of developing type 2 diabetes, as well as heart disease and stroke.

There are two main types of diabetes: type 1 (also known as insulin-dependent diabetes), which usually develops in childhood and involves an inability to produce insulin, and type 2 (or adult-onset diabetes), which develops in adulthood. Type 2 is significantly more common — it represents more than 90 percent of all cases of diabetes — and typically begins with insulin resistance, a disorder in which the cells stop using insulin properly and continually signal the pancreas to produce more. As the demand rises, the pancreas gradually loses its ability to meet it and full-blown diabetes sets in.

Diabetes is associated with insulin shortfalls, which can be the result of insufficient production, inefficient action, or both.

Without enough insulin, glucose stays in your blood, where it can create short-term problems like fatigue and thirst. Over time, excessive glucose can cause blindness, kidney damage, CVD, and circulatory problems that can lead to lower-limb amputations.

Treatment Options

Conventional medicine treats diabetes with insulin, which is given to some people with type 2 diabetes and everyone with type 1. Diabetics also get oral medications such as metformin (Glucophage, Riomet) and glipizide (Glucotrol), which are hypoglycemics (they lower blood glucose levels); other drugs increase insulin sensitivity and decrease carbohydrate absorption.

In recent years, scientists have tied excessive consumption of refined carbohydrates, such as sugar and white bread, with diabetes and insulin resistance. These foods are digested and converted to glucose quickly, which creates a big demand for insulin. Experts advise diabetics and non-diabetics alike to load their plates with unrefined carbohydrates, which don't create blood sugar surges.

People who take insulin (sold under the brand names of Apidra, Humulin, Novolin, and others) can experience mild allergic reactions or low blood sugar, the symptoms of which can include sweating, anxiety, nausea, and rapid heartbeat. Side effects of hypoglycemic drugs can include diarrhea, nausea, stomach pain, and vomiting. Herbal therapies for diabetes, prediabetes, and insulin resistance include these:

Cinnamon (Cinnamomum verum, C. aromaticum)

Some studies show that this popular spice can lower blood glucose levels by increasing insulin receptor sensitivity.

• Fenugreek (Trigonella foenum-graecum)

The seeds of this plant are used as a diabetes remedy in India and other parts of the world. They seem to slow carbohydrate absorption and lower glucose levels.

Ginseng (Panax ginseng, P. quinquefolius, Eleutherococcus senticosus)

All of the major varieties of ginseng-Asian, American, and Siberian (eleuthero)-have been shown to lower blood sugar levels.

Gymnema (Gymnema sylvestre)

In Hindi, this Indian plant is known as gur-mar, or “sugar destroyer.” Research shows that diabetics who take a gymnema extract can cut their insulin doses in half and can reduce or even discontinue taking conventional hypoglycemic drugs.

Konjac (Amorphophallus konjac, A. rivieri)

This tuber, also known as devil's tongue, contains a substance called glucomannan, which is a type of indigestible fiber that can regulate glucose levels in diabetics (it also seems to help reduce cholesterol).

Milk thistle (Silybum marianum)

A key chemical constituent in milk thistle, silymarin, has been shown to decrease insulin resistance and stabilize blood sugar and lipid levels in diabetics.

Psyllium (Plantago ovata, P. Psyllium)

Psyllium can significantly lower glucose levels in people with diabetes (both type 1 and type 2).

Tulsi (Ocimum tenuiflorum, O. Sanctum)

Preliminary research shows that extracts of this Ayurvedic herb can lower blood glucose levels in people with type 2 diabetes.

Prickly pear (Opuntia ficusindica)

Studies show that this cactus, also known as nopal, can significantly reduce blood sugar levels in some type 2 diabetics.

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