By David Blyweiss, M.D.
It seems like I am seeing many more patients who suffer from diabetes these days. I’m not really surprised. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, type 2 diabetes is on the rise. In fact, rates of the disease have climbed steeply since the 1990s. It’s like a runaway freight train that shows no sign of slowing down.
Of course, diabetes is nothing new. The ancient Greeks gave the disease its name to describe a condition in which the body seems to melt into sugar water. Basically, diabetes occurs when glucose, which is produced by the foods we eat, gets trapped in the bloodstream rather than moving on to the cells it’s meant to nourish. That happens when your pancreas doesn’t produce enough insulin, which transports glucose from the bloodstream to cells. It can also happen when the insulin is ineffective, a condition referred to as “insulin resistance.”
When glucose remains in the blood, it can damage your kidneys, your heart, the blood vessels in your eyes and the nerves in your feet. High levels can also further damage the cells in your pancreas, assuming that the organ is still working at all. When blood sugar collects in the bloodstream, the kidneys go into overdrive in an attempt to get rid of it. This often creates excessive thirst and frequent urination.
The best way to avoid the long-term complications of diabetes is to take a proactive stance by keeping your weight in check, watching what you eat and by diligently monitoring your glucose levels. A diet rich in fruits, vegetables, healthy fats and high-quality protein is key to naturally regulating blood sugar levels. Look toward the Mediterranean diet as you develop a healthy eating plan. Do not stock up on so-called “dietetic” foods. These foods often contain large amounts of sorbitol, a sugar alcohol used in many of the foods marketed to diabetics.
Sorbitol is formed naturally from glucose in the body and quickly converted to fructose, allowing excess sorbitol to be excreted. However, if there isn’t enough cellular glucose available, this conversion is stunted and the sorbitol, once formed, cannot exit the cells. Instead, cells will leak small molecules, such as amino acids, niacin and vitamin C—all compounds needed to protect cells from damage. Accumulation of sorbitol is a major contributor to diabetes-related complications, evidenced by the high concentrations found in the nerve, eye and kidney cells of people with diabetes.
Studies show that vitamin C supplementation may inhibit aldose reductase, the enzyme that converts glucose to sorbitol. Since the delivery of vitamin C to cells is insulin-driven, diabetics may be deficient in this important antioxidant. Supplementation may not only improve cellular functioning but prevent the accumulation of sorbitol as well.
Alpha lipoic acid (ALA) is another key supplement for diabetics. ALA is found in every cell of the body and plays a key role in glucose metabolism. Its main action is to increase glucose uptake in skeletal muscles, as well as improve insulin-stimulated glucose disposal. It’s also a unique antioxidant in that it’s both fat- and water-soluble, making it available to all parts of nerve cells to fight the damage caused by free radicals. Another benefit is ALA’s ability to increase glutathione levels. It can also regenerate other antioxidants such as vitamins C and E. A collaborative study between the Mayo Clinic and Russian researchers found that ALA can considerably reduce the frequency and severity of pain associated with neuropathy. In fact, ALA has been a standard treatment for diabetic neuropathy in Europe for 30 years. What’s more, a preliminary study showed that daily supplementation with ALA for 18 months slowed the progression of kidney damage in patients with both type 1 and type 2 diabetes.
Another supplement I recommend to my patients with diabetes is pycnogenol, a powerful antioxidant derived from French maritime pine tree bark. The subject of more than 180 studies, pycnogenol reduces high blood pressure, LDL cholesterol and blood glucose without affecting insulin levels. Of particular note is its ability to reduce leakage into the retina by repairing capillaries in the eyes. While still largely unknown to American doctors, pycnogenol is the leading prescription for diabetic retinopathy in France.
When it comes to type 2 diabetes, prevention is always best. But if you’ve already been diagnosed, it’s important to take action. While an effective diabetes program includes monitoring your blood sugar, tweaking your diet and taking part in a regular exercise program, adding these three supplements to your regime can help to guard against the consequences of this potentially disabling disease.
Dincer Y. Effect of alpha-lipoic acid on lipid peroxidation and anti-oxidant enzyme activities in diabetic rats. Clinical and Experimental Pharmacology & Physiology. 2002;29:281-284.
Linster CL. Vitamin C. Biosynthesis, recycling and degradation in mammals. FEBS Journal. 2007;274:1-22.
Steigerwalt R. Pycnogenol improves microcirculation, retinal edema, and visual acuity in early diabetic retinopathy. Journal of Ocular Pharmacology and Therapeutics. 2009;25:537-540.