Dr. Doni discusses how oxidative stress can lead to diabetes types 1 & 2, with 6 simple steps to prevent the onset of diabetes.
Part 2 of Dr. Doni’s Series on Oxidative Stress
In the first article in this series, I introduced how oxidative stress can affect your health. In it, I mentioned that elevated blood sugar levels are one of the key causes of oxidative stress and that is what I want to focus on today. There is more and more research linking diabetes to oxidative stress so, in this second article, I’m going to explain how oxidative stress can cause diabetes and offer some simple ways you can prevent this from happening.
What Is Diabetes?
We tend to think of diabetes as a single condition. In fact, it is a group of conditions—all of which affect the metabolism of carbohydrates and result in high blood sugar levels (known as hyperglycemia). In past articles, I have written about how blood sugar (also known as glucose) comes from sugar and all carbohydrates in your diet (even fruits and vegetables) – click here to read more.
The only way for glucose to get from your blood into your cells—where it is used to give you energy—is for the hormone insulin to tell the cells to let the glucose into the cells. With diabetes, glucose cannot get into the cells, either because the cells are not responding as they should to insulin (what is known as insulin resistance, which leads to type 2 diabetes) or because insulin is not being produced by the pancreas, which is the case with type 1 diabetes. This lack of insulin production in type 1 diabetes is caused by an auto-immune process attacking the pancreas and damaging the cells that produce insulin.
What’s the Difference between Diabetes Type 1 and 2?
Type 1 diabetes is caused by an autoimmune response that is considered to be hereditary because it has been linked to a particular HLA genetic mutation. The autoimmune process can be triggered by a viral infection, Leaky Gut, food sensitivities (such as to dairy and gluten) and to stress exposure in general. Autoimmunity means that your immune system is attacking healthy cells; in the case of type 1 diabetes the cells under attack are the pancreas cells that produce insulin. After extensive damage, the pancreas will no longer be able to produce insulin.
In the case of type 2 diabetes, it is an over-consumption of sugars and carbohydrates that drives insulin levels up in an increasing attempt to get the cell receptors to allow the glucose in what you’ve eaten into the cells. The more often you eat large meals and large amounts of sugar, the more stress it places on your metabolism and the more likely it is that your cells will eventually not be able to manage the glucose load. Over time, as your cells become less able to respond to insulin, insulin resistance develops. At more mild levels, insulin resistance is called “metabolic syndrome” or “pre-diabetes.” At more severe levels, it is called type 2 diabetes. Leaky gut, dysbiosis, and genetics all play a role in how likely this is to occur.
How Oxidative Stress Can Develop into Diabetes
Research suggests that it all starts with eating more carbohydrates (or sugar) than your body needs at any one time. When this happens, it overwhelms your body’s ability to move the carbohydrates into your cells (with the help of insulin) where it can actually be used. Instead, the body is left to deal with the extra glucose in the blood. This is when oxidative stress starts happening.
Sugar that is left in the blood causes damage to blood vessels as well as to the mitochondria inside the cells. Research shows that high blood sugar levels increase reactive oxygen species (ROS) which can damage cells, proteins (referred to as advanced glycation products or AGEs), lipids (advanced lipid peroxidation end products or ALEs), and your DNA. Plus it increases inflammation in the body overall.1
Some extra glucose can be stored in the liver as glycogen, to be used later when blood sugar levels drop—but there is a limit to glycogen storage capacity. So after glycogen is filled up, and as I describe thoroughly in my book, The Stress Remedy, there are really only three options for the body to choose:
- Convert the glucose into lipids (fats), which remain in your blood as cholesterol and triglycerides.
- Store the extra glucose as fat that is stored in your liver, leading to a dangerous condition known as “fatty liver.”
- Convert the glucose into fat that translates into weight gain, most likely around your waist.
So the more carbohydrates you eat, especially at one sitting, the more likely your body is going to need to store it as fat, and the more likely you will gain weight. Fat in the body is inflammatory. It sends cytokines (messengers similar to hormones) throughout your body, spreading their message of inflammation. The more fat there is in your body, the more inflammation there will be—and the more oxidative stress! 2
Fat also tends to mix up other signals in the body, including the hunger signal (which is managed by a hormone called leptin). So the more fat you have, the more likely your brain will think you are hungry, and the more you’ll feel like eating. But the more you eat, the more it adds to the problem, increasing your blood sugar and pushing your insulin production until your cells can no longer respond. The extra glucose has nowhere to go other than to be laid down as even more fat. Can you see the vicious cycle created by over-eating carbohydrates? It creates a massive stress on your body, and the extra carbs and sugar stress the body even before we get full-blown diabetes. Eventually, if this continues, insulin becomes less and less effective and more sugar is left in your blood. The resulting high blood sugar will result in a diagnosis of diabetes.
How to Test Blood Sugar Levels
Blood sugar levels can be measured with an at-home finger-prick testing machine or in standard bloodwork from a lab (it will say “glucose” on the report)—both done after fasting. Optimally, your fasting glucose will be between 70 and 99. A fasting blood glucose of between 100 and 125 is considered “pre-diabetes” and having at least two blood sugar levels over 126 indicates diabetes.
I also recommend testing for hemoglobin A1c (HgbA1c) which is an indicator of your average blood sugar over three months. This can give you a sense of whether your blood sugar is tending to be high even if you didn’t realize it. HgbA1c can be added to your annual bloodwork or ordered from a patient direct lab (a lab that allows you to order your own bloodwork and pay out of pocket). You want the HgbA1c to be less than 5.7. Between 5.7 and 6.4 indicates “pre-diabetes” and above 6.5 is associated with diabetes.
How to Prevent Diabetes
- Drop your sugar and carb intake.
First off, you need to get disciplined about only eating as many carbohydrates as your body needs at any given time—about 10 to 25 grams depending on your body weight and activity level. You may need to learn how many carbohydrates are in common serving sizes and look at packages until you get a good feel for how much you are eating. You might be interested in trying out the sugar challenge!
- Eat healthy proteins and fats.
Then, pair carbohydrates with healthy protein sources and fats whenever you eat anything. Yes, fats! They are a good and important part of a healthy diet. Eating carbs, proteins and fats together means your body will get energy from all three sources and your cells won’t be stressed by having carbohydrates as your only energy source.
- Eat smaller portions, more often.
When you make your meals smaller, you will likely find that you need to eat a little more often than you have in the past. This is a good thing—it means your metabolism is running more efficiently. The best timing can be different for each person, but I often find that eating every 3 to 4 hours through the day usually balances blood sugar levels best. Eating more often is not good (unless you need to due to low blood sugar states) and eating too close to bedtime or the middle of the night is not helpful either. That’s why there are diets designed to help you eat just during the day, and with carefully balanced meals. You can read more about how blood sugar affects sleep here.
- Stay active.
It also helps to stay active—walk, lift weights, or exercise in some way each day to help optimize your metabolism, insulin function, and decrease oxidative stress.
- Add supplements if needed.
There are nutrients and herbs that can help improve your insulin function, so in addition to making changes to what and how much you eat, you can take supplements* to help increase the amount of glucose that can get into your cells.
- Chromium – a mineral that supports insulin function. Take 50 to 500 mcg one to three times per day with meals. It is often found in products intended to help manage blood sugar levels such as Diabenil. Click here for an example product.
- R- Alpha Lipoic Acid – a nutrient that has been shown to lower blood sugar levels and to increase anti-oxidants. Take 100 to 500 mg three times per day with meals. Find a high quality product here.
- Berberine – a constituent of herbs such as Hydrastis and Oregon Grape Root that has been shown to improve insulin function. Take between 100 and 500 mg three times per day with food.
Metabolic Xtra is a product I’ve found to be quite effective for many patients as it contains all these three ingredients in combination. You can buy it here.
Remember, because supplements may lower blood glucose levels, individuals with diabetes or glucose intolerance should have their blood glucose monitored while taking any of these products. If you have diabetes, you should also consult your physician about adjusting your dose of anti-diabetic medication in order to avoid hypoglycemia.
- Boost antioxidants
To help keep oxidative stress levels down, you’re going to want to increase your intake of colorful fruits and vegetables which are high in anti-oxidants, and decrease your intake of sugar. You can also increase anti-oxidants in your body by taking supplements, such as:
- Vitamin C
- Vitamin E
- N-acetylcysteine (NAC)
- Glutathione (Liposomal for better absorption)
You could choose a product with a bunch of anti-oxidant nutrients all in one such as this product from Thorne.
What to Do if You Already Have (or Suspect You Have) a Blood Sugar Imbalance
Because it can be difficult to get your blood sugar levels back on track, I have designed the Stress Remedy Program, a 7 or 21-day program that includes diet advice and recipes, special shakes and supplements, and daily tips. So you could, if you like, follow the exact menu and recipes outlined in the program through the entire 21-day program, for less, or for longer. The idea is for the program to help you get comfortable and confident with what and how to eat in a way that keeps your blood sugar balanced, while also helping you lose weight (if needed), reducing stress, oxidative stress and inflammation.
If you do better with one-on-one support, you may want to set up a phone or in-person consultation with me where I can review your diet, your blood-work, and help you implement these changes. You can set up a time for us to meet here.
I’ve also created a special package JUST for clients with oxidative stress, which can help ensure you are more likely to succeed in preventing diabetes from developing, or managing your diabetes better so it doesn’t take control of your health and your life. It’s called the Oxidative Stress Consultation Package, and you can find out more about it here.
Thank you so much for your interest. Please tell me more about your experience with blood sugar and oxidative stress in the comments below. In the next article, we will be looking at the connection between oxidative stress and Alzheimer’s Disease.
24th November 2015
*Please keep in mind that any and all supplements—nutrients, herbs, enzymes, or other—should be used with caution. My recommendation is that you seek the care of a naturopathic doctor (with a doctorate degree from a federally-accredited program) and that you have a primary care physician or practitioner whom you can contact to help you with individual dosing and protocols. If you ever experience negative symptoms after taking a product, stop taking it immediately and contact your doctor right away.
- Fiorentino TV, Prioletta A, Zuo P, Folli F. Hyperglycemia-induced oxidative stress and its role in diabetes mellitus related cardiovascular diseases. Curr Pharm Des. 2013;19(32):5695-703. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23448484
- Manna P, Jain SK. Obesity, Oxidative Stress, Adipose Tissue Dysfunction, and the Associated Health Risks: Causes and Therapeutic Strategies. Metab Syndr Relat Disord. 2015 Dec;13(10):423-44. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26569333