Wondering how to treat Diabetes naturally and potentially reduce your amount of medication and insulin? Here we share an overview of the different types of Diabetes including risk factors, management tips, and diet recommendations.
This guest post is by Mary Ellen Phipps, MPH, RDN, LD, registered dietitian and blogger at milkandhoneynutrition.com–thank you Mary Ellen for sharing your wisdom with us!
Diabetes is a word that often elicits fear about longterm complications and medications, and many people wonder how to potentially reduce the amount of diabetes medications you take.
A diagnosis of diabetes is a life-altering moment, yes, but it’s not the end to a happy and otherwise healthy life. I myself have lived with type 1 diabetes for 28 years and live a relatively normal and healthy life.
Even though I prefer to avoid unnecessary medications when possible, I will be the first to say that modern day medicine is a huge blessing for people with diabetes. I’ll dive into why that is down below, but just know that needing medicine for your diabetes (regardless of what type of diabetes you have) does not make you a failure. We are blessed to live in a time that has advanced technology and medications to help us on our diabetes journey.
With that being said though, there are things you can do to potentially reduce the amount of diabetes medications you take, if you want to.
Note: This article is not intended to provide medical advice, diagnosis, opinion, treatment or services. This article and the links contained in it provide general information for educational purposes only. The information provided in this article is not a substitute for medical care, and should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or registered dietitian.
Before we dive into ways to potentially reduce the amount of diabetes medications you take, let’s look at some of the quick facts on diabetes.
The American Diabetes Association (ADA) website (diabetes.org) is a wealth of information if you’re looking to learn some of the basics about diabetes.
There are many different types of diabetes, each with their own causes and treatment plans, but they all involve the pancreas and insulin not working the way it should. The three most common types of diabetes you hear about (and that I’ll touch on in this article) are:
- Type 1 Diabetes (sometimes referred to as Juvenile Diabetes, though you can be diagnosed as an adult)
- Type 2 Diabetes (majority of diabetes cases in the US are Type 2)
- Gestational Diabetes (a usually temporary case of diabetes that develops during pregnancy and resolves after birth)
What is Diabetes?
Type 1 Diabetes
Type 1 Diabetes is an autoimmune disease, which means the body’s own immune system does not function properly. In Type 1 Diabetes, the immune system attacks certain cells in the pancreas that are responsible for producing insulin. As a result, the body does not produce insulin. (Insulin is a hormone produced by the pancreas that plays an essential role in carbohydrate metabolism.)
Without insulin, someone with Type 1 Diabetes would die. So, people with Type 1 Diabetes must take a synthetic form of insulin for the rest of their lives, either by injection, or via an insulin pump worn on the body. Some of the strategies I mention below may reduce the amount of insulin someone with Type 1 Diabetes needs, but a Type 1 Diabetic must always take some amount of insulin to stay alive. (Again, an example of what a blessing modern day medicine is when needed!)
We don’t know what exactly causes Type 1 Diabetes. It occurs in people of every age, race, size, shape, and sex. Theories of low vitamin D, a virus, environmental exposure, etc., have all been proposed, but no for sure cause-effect scenario has ever been discovered. We do know there is both a genetic and an environmental component involved but past that, we don’t have any firm answers on why someone develops Type 1 Diabetes.
Currently, about 1.25 million Americans are living with Type 1 Diabetes, and about 40,000 new cases are diagnosed each year. This accounts for about 5% of the population with “diabetes”. Depending on which sources you read, the average person with no family history of Type 1 Diabetes has a 1/100 to a 1/500 chance of developing type 1 diabetes. If someone has an immediate blood relative with Type 1 Diabetes, their risk increases significantly to 1/10 to 1/25 depending on which family member has diabetes.
Type 2 Diabetes
Type 2 Diabetes is a condition where the body does not utilize insulin properly. Unlike Type 1 Diabetes, people with Type 2 Diabetes still have a working pancreas that still produces insulin in the early stages of the disease. The body just doesn’t use that insulin as effectively as it should.
So, the pancreas tries to keep up by producing more and more insulin. This is called insulin resistance. Over time, the pancreas starts to lose some of its ability to function. Much like a motor that has to run at high speed with no breaks, the pancreas will start to die off and not function properly over time. Advanced stages of Type 2 diabetes require insulin for treatment, like people with Type 1 Diabetes.
There are many known risk factors for Diabetes: age, ethnicity, low activity levels, and genetics. Type 2 Diabetes is more common in African Americans, Latinos, Native Americans, and Asian Americans/Pacific Islanders. Though lifestyle factors can play a key role in the development of Type 2 Diabetes, there is also a strong genetic factor to consider. We don’t know why some people who live a traditionally “healthy” lifestyle develop Type 2 Diabetes, and some people who have numerous risk factors never develop it.
If caught early enough (this is why getting your yearly checkups is so important!), some people can manage their diabetes with lifestyle choices alone and may not need medication. Type 2 Diabetes does usually get “worse” over time though, even when following the directions of your healthcare provider, and medication may be needed at some point. Remember, this does not mean you are a failure though. It’s just the natural progression of the disease.
In 2015, about 9.4% of the population had diagnosed Diabetes, with about 95% of those cases being Type 2 Diabetes.
Gestational diabetes is (usually) a temporary case of Diabetes that develops during pregnancy (usually after the 24th week, but potentially earlier). While some women may be able to treat their gestational diabetes with diet and exercise alone, insulin is often needed to ensure strict blood sugar control.
Tighter blood sugar control is needed during pregnancy to ensure a healthy mom and baby. Many of the oral forms of medications used to treat Type 2 Diabetes are not safe during pregnancy, so insulin is typically the only treatment option after diet and exercise have been tried.
Many of the strategies I list below are important to utilize during pregnancy, but it’s important to consult your doctor and follow their recommendations at any time, but especially when pregnant.
You can read more about the treatment guidelines for Gestational Diabetes here.
Now, I will say it again… modern day medicine is a blessing for those of us living with Diabetes. Because of it, we are able to walk around and function relatively normally. But, there are ways to potentially reduce the amount of diabetes medications you take.
How to treat Diabetes naturally + potentially reduce your medications
1) Eat smarter carbs, and don’t be afraid of fat
Many people think having Diabetes means you can never eat another carbohydrate again. That is just simply not the case. You can be free to enjoy carbs throughout the day and every day, but there are a few things I advise people with all types of Diabetes to do:
- Be consistent with your carbohydrate intake. While you don’t have to eat the same thing every day, it is helpful and easier on your body if you eat roughly the same amount of carbohydrates meal to meal and day to day.
- Choose lower glycemic, higher fiber carbs when possible.
- Don’t be afraid of fat. Plant-based fats especially can be helpful in managing blood sugar spikes and helping prevent blood sugar spikes after meals. (Note: if you also have elevated cholesterol or any other heart or cardiovascular conditions, this may not be appropriate for you.)
2) Don’t eat carbs in isolation
If you follow me on Instagram, you’ll see me mention “fiber, fat, and protein” ALL THE TIME. Those are your key nutrients for preventing blood sugar spikes.
Now, why does this matter? Well, anytime you eat carbohydrate, your body breaks it down into glucose which then enters your bloodstream. In people without diabetes, the pancreas produces insulin to prevent the sugar/glucose from building up too high (hyperglycemia) in the bloodstream.
In someone with diabetes, this pancreatic response of insulin is impaired and glucose in the blood (a.k.a., blood sugar or blood glucose) can get too high. We call this hyperglycemia or a blood sugar spike. Usually, it is because the pancreas can’t keep up with the rise in blood sugar; think of it as a spike on a graph.
These spikes are hard on the pancreas and often require extra doses of insulin. Over time this could result in an increased medication need. So, to prevent or blunt these spikes, we can use fiber, fat, and protein.
Fiber, fat, and protein can all help delay how quickly glucose is absorbed into the bloodstream. This means a slow and steady response, a.k.a., no spikes!
So, I always recommend to try to pair carbohydrates with a fat or protein source, and to choose carbohydrates with more fiber.
For more information on how to do this, check out these articles:
3) Move more
Simply stated, the more you move, the more your body can use the glucose accumulating in your blood stream. The more active you are, the more effective your body is at utilizing insulin, and thus reducing that insulin resistance I mentioned previously.
Now, this doesn’t mean you need to go run a marathon by any means; focus on regular movement that you enjoy: walking, dancing, bike riding, etc. is great for increasing movement.
I like to remind people that anything is better than sitting in a chair. Even if it’s only a 15 minute walk. That’s 15 minutes more activity than you would have gotten otherwise.
4) Manage your stress levels
Stress is a physical or mental perceived threat. A health condition that seems out of our control, and quite frankly has a lot of emotions tied to it, can be a HUGE stressor.
Recognizing feelings of stress and implementing stress relief strategies is extremely important. Stress hormones can raise blood sugar levels and thus may mean you require more insulin or oral medication. If able, seeking therapy or professional counseling at any point during your diabetes journey get be hugely helpful.
For more information and tools on managing diabetes and other autoimmune conditions, make sure to check out milkandhoneynutrition.com.
Mary Ellen Phipps, MPH, RDN, LD, is the Registered Dietitian, mom, food blogger, and recipe developer behind milkandhoneynutrition.com. She’s also a Type 1 Diabetic and firmly believes food should bring us joy, not stress. Mary Ellen makes healthy eating easy, realistic, and most importantly… fun! Visit her website and you’ll find yummy low-sugar, diabetes-friendly recipes the whole family will love… as well as helpful tips, and a little mom humor.
Photography by Courtney Griffin Photography