According to the National Diabetes Education Program website, 25.8 million Americans suffer from diabetes. Another 79 million Americans, myself included, have pre-diabetes. Bearing in mind these staggering numbers, chances are that we all know someone whose life is affected by the disease. That’s why it’s crucial that, as a matter of preparedness, we understand the importance of tight blood sugar control and the mechanisms that help us achieve it.
Before I get to the nuts and bolts of blood sugar control, I need to share a little bit of my own history. I view myself as being one of the lucky ones. I first learned about low-carbohydrate eating in 1997 when my mom happened to read a copy of Dr. Atkins New Diet Revolution. Dr. Atkins, a cardiologist, had written the book to help people lose weight and improve their heart health, and since his ideas seemed to contradict everything I’d ever been told about dieting, I had to do a lot of research. By gaining a thorough understanding of the science behind the Atkins Nutritional Approach, I had inadvertently learned about the keystone of tight blood sugar control. Using this knowledge, I could help myself and others to live healthier lives.
Sometime around 2003, a person on an online Atkins diet support group made mention of a man named Dr. Richard Bernstein. This group member recommended that I read his book, Dr. Bernstein’s Diabetes Solution: The Complete Guide to Achieving Normal Blood Sugars, and they referred me to a website where I could read extensive excerpts for free. I skimmed the info that I saw online, but I didn’t dig into it until I started noticing that my own blood sugars were becoming harder and harder to maintain despite the fact that I was eating a low-carb diet.
Once I read Dr. Berstein’s book, I was in awe! This man is a Type 1 diabetic who was diagnosed at the age of 12, back in 1946. He suffered terribly through the “dark ages” as he calls them of diabetes treatment, and by the time he was in his 30s, he was a very sick man. He was an engineer by trade though, and through some coincidence and luck, he got his hands on a blood glucose meter that was marketed to hospital ERs (so doctors could tell if an unconscious person was unconscious because they were drunk or they were unconscious because they were diabetic.) Access to that one device enabled him to become the subject of an elaborate blood sugar control experiment which, in the end, cured him of nearly all his advanced complications AND changed his life in ways he could never have predicted.
I consider Dr. Bernstein to be the go-to expert when it comes to anything and everything diabetes. He has a lot of information that, when combined with information and research pioneered by Dr. Atkins, can save people’s lives in easy times or at crunch time.
As always, I have to remind folks that I’m not a doctor. I can read though, I can understand facts, and I can say that even though I still struggle with my weight, I’d be much sicker if I’d never learned about Dr. Atkins and then Dr. Bernstein.
So why do we need to worry about blood sugar control? Well, there are a couple compelling reasons as far as I’m concerned. I preparedness-minded person would say that if we can start managing our diabetes or pre-diabetes now, we’re in much better shape if something bad happens. Also, by understanding mechanisms for good blood sugar control, we can be a resource to others if we ourselves aren’t affected by the disease.
Before we can understand how to control blood sugar though, we have to understand what factors affect blood sugar in an individual who has impaired glucose tolerance. Put simply, if you don’t make enough insulin to deal with the sugar in your blood, you have few options. Your first option is to put less sugar in your blood. This is perhaps the easiest one to understand but the hardest one to implement (for most of us). Sometimes this happens because people have issues of food addiction. Sometimes this happens because people don’t understand what actually puts sugar into your blood. It even happens because people are afraid. (Some folks have been convinced by their care providers that they “need” sugar and they can have it so long as they use a lot of medication or insulin to offset its effects on blood sugar levels.)
The discussion of some of these issues will have to wait for a later post. What you must understand though is that humans can live (and thrive) without eating carbohydrates. Protein and fat can be converted to meet the brain’s glucose needs, and although this conversion isn’t as quick as the boost we get from eating a candy bar, it’s sufficient to keep a person thriving.
It’s also important to understand that our bodies don’t care if we’re eating table sugar or fruit. It doesn’t matter if we’re eating honey or a baked potato. Sugar is sugar is sugar to our body; there’s nothing magical about “whole grains” or “natural sugars”. For a person with impaired glucose tolerance, starches and sugars raise blood sugar.
So what can we do? Low-carbohydrate diets are a crucial first step for any diabetic. Dr. Bernstein, a nonobese Type 1 diabetic eats somewhere around 35 grams of carbohydrate per day so that he has to use as little insulin as possible. Eating minimal carbohydrates keeps blood sugars stable which in turn protects the eyes, kidneys, and heart from complications associated with uncontrolled blood sugars.
Virgorous exercise is also crucial. Intense exercise burns glucose. Even when you’re eating a low-carb diet, you can still have elevated blood sugars because your liver makes glucose during fasting (like when you’re asleep.) Exercise uses up glucose so that you don’t have to counter it with meds or insulin. (Insulin is scary stuff. If you’re a Type 1, you can’t avoid it. If the beta cells of your pancreas still make even a little bit of insulin though, you still have some hope.)
Some folks also recommend the use of various dietary supplements. Although people usually think of things like cinnamon and chromium, Dr. Bernstein recommends that his patients use ALA (alpha lipoic acid) and evening primrose oil. When combined, these two supplements act like insulin. While I doubt that a Type 1 diabetic could use these supplements without any injected insulin, they can have a significant impact on blood sugar. According to Dr. Bernstein, they can even cause hypoglycemia in insulin-dependent diabetics who don’t lower their injected insulin dose accordingly.
If you have a diabetic in your life or you yourself are diabetic or pre-diabetic, I strongly suggest that you make it a point to become informed about alternatives that you might not have considered before. After all, if we can lessen complications of diabetes and reduce our dependence on medications and insulin, we’ve put ourselves ahead of the curve if things get rough and we need some alternate coping skills. And to all the Type 1s out there, using these techniques like Dr. Bernstein has means that you’ll need much less insulin to maintain your health. While it doesn’t address the underlying preparedness concern about storing insulin, it can certainly make the insulin you have go a lot further if you find yourself in a crunch.