Diabetes Mellitus – A growing epidemic

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According to the World Health Organization (WHO), Diabetes Mellitus is characterized as a chronic disease caused by inherited and/or acquired deficiency in production of insulin by the pancreas, or by the ineffectiveness of the insulin produced (insulin resistance). Insulin deficiency results in increased concentrations of glucose in the blood, which in turn damage many of the body’s systems, in particular the blood vessels and nerves.

Diabetes Mellitus is divided into two major categories, Type I and Type II. Type I or insulin-dependent diabetes mellitus (IDDM), is more common in young children and adolescents, whereas Type II or non-insulin dependent diabetes mellitus (NIDDM) is more often diagnosed in middle-aged adults. Certain genetic markers have been shown to increase the risk of developing Type I diabetes. Type II diabetes is strongly familial, but it is only recently that some genes have been consistently associated with increased risk for Type II diabetes in certain populations. Both types of diabetes are complex diseases caused by mutations in more than one gene, as well as by environmental factors.

Incidence of diabetes is growing at an alarming rate across North America. In the United States, 1.3 million people over the age of 20 years are diagnosed each year with diabetes, a majority of which are over the age of 40. Recently compiled data show that approximately 150 million people have diabetes mellitus worldwide, and that this number may well double by the year 2025. Much of this increase will occur in developing countries and will be due to population growth, aging, unhealthy diets, obesity, and sedentary lifestyles.

Population studies have linked diabetes to diet and lifestyle factors. Diabetes is uncommon in places where people consume a more “primitive” diet. However, as indigenous people switch from their native diets to the highly processed foods, their rate of diabetes increases, reaching the same proportions seen in Western societies. So what is it about the “Western diet” that is so dangerous? The “Western diet”, also known as SAD (the Standard American Diet), is rich in refined sugar (carbohydrates), fat, and animal products, and low in dietary fiber.

Refined sugars are quickly absorbed into the bloodstream, causing a rapid rise in blood sugar to which the body responds by an increased secretion of insulin from the pancreas and subsequent drop in blood sugar. In response to the rapid fall in blood sugar, the adrenal glands secrete epinephrine (adrenaline), causing an increase in blood sugar once again. Repeated stress decreases the body’s ability to mount an appropriate response to blood sugar fluctuations leading to blood sugar dysregulation.

High levels of blood glucose can cause several symptoms, including frequent urination, excessive thirst, hunger, fatigue, weight loss, and blurry vision. However, because Type II diabetes develops slowly, some people with high blood sugar experience no symptoms at all. Sustained elevations in blood glucose greatly increase the risk of blindness, heart disease, stroke, kidney disease, and loss of nerve function.

Obesity is another significant factor contributing to the onset of diabetes mellitus. It is estimated that as many as 90 per cent of people with Type II diabetes are obese. Even in normal individuals, significant weight gain results in carbohydrate intolerance, higher insulin levels and insulin insensitivity in fat and muscle tissue.

Effective treatment of diabetes requires a comprehensive approach using a wide variety of therapies in which individuals must be willing to make significant changes in their diet and lifestyle. Diabetic individuals need close monitoring to regulate blood sugar and insulin requirements (Type I) through regular blood tests. Naturopathic doctors can assist diabetic individuals in many ways by providing nutritional support, recommending herbal hypoglycaemic agents, increasing the body’s sensitivity to insulin, and developing an exercise regime aimed at improving overall health.