Diabetes is one of the most widespread conditions in America—particularly type 2 diabetes . As of 2015 , 30 million Americans had diabetes, and nearly 29 million of those people had type 2, the form that’s largely caused and influenced by lifestyle factors (i.e. things you control).
In addition to being common, diabetes can be deadly. In fact, it’s the seventh most common cause of death in the United States, just behind Alzheimer’s disease and just ahead of the flu .
For years, experts stressed that diabetes was incurable and must be managed for life by carefully monitoring blood sugar levels and taking insulin injections. More recently, however, scientific studies have been supporting a really exciting theory: Diabetes can be reversed.
Of course, chronic illnesses aren’t usually thought of as reversible—and many aren’t. Experts are split when it comes to the concept of reversing diabetes, but there is a growing body of research and a wealth of anecdotal evidence that suggests that it just might be possible.
"Getting a handle on your blood sugar through lifestyle changes like diet tweaks and exercise can make a big difference," says Jess Cording, M.S., RDN, CDN , a New York–based nutritionist. Be warned, though, reversing diabetes requires a lot of hard work, persistence, and grit.
Here, learn about what happens in the body when someone has diabetes, which type of diabetes you can actually control, and how the right diet, lifestyle, and stress-management strategies can make reversing diabetes a reality.
Both type 1 and type 2 diabetes are associated with your body’s inability to properly metabolize sugar from carbohydrates, but they stem from different causes. Before we get into the nuances of each, though, it’s important to understand how a healthy, non-diabetic body functions in terms of blood sugar metabolism. Spoiler: it has a lot to do with insulin .
Insulin is a hormone produced by the pancreas that’s crucial for maintaining balanced blood glucose (or blood sugar) levels and allowing us to metabolize that glucose appropriately. In a healthy body, things go something like this: When your blood glucose levels rise after eating, the pancreas releases insulin into the bloodstream, where it helps move that glucose into your cells—thus balancing glucose levels in the bloodstream. Once the glucose is stored in your body’s cells, it can then provide you with the energy to power you through your barre or yoga class .
But, of course, things don’t always go the way Mother Nature intended, which brings us to type 1 and type 2 diabetes:
Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune disease in which the body attacks the pancreas, damaging it and destroying its ability to produce insulin. People with type 1 diabetes are insulin-dependent, which means they have to give themselves insulin injections, and are at an increased risk for developing a number of other conditions, including diabetic retinopathy (caused by damage to the blood vessels in the eyes), diabetic neuropathy (caused by damage to the blood vessels in nerves), diabetic nephropathy (caused by damage to the blood vessels in the kidneys), heart disease, and stroke. Type 1 diabetes, unfortunately, cannot be reversed.
Type 2 diabetes , on the other hand, is often a result of poor dietary and lifestyle habits. Yes, people can have a genetic predisposition to type 2 diabetes, but individuals who are obese —weighing more than 20 percent more than the ideal weight for their height—tend to be at the highest risk, due in part to the fact that excess body fat releases substances called cytokines that negatively affect cells’ sensitivity to insulin.
Leading up to type 2 diabetes, the pancreas still makes insulin, but your body doesn’t use it properly. This is called insulin resistance. "With insulin resistance your cell receptor sites are blunted and blocked because of inflammation or toxins, and you’re left with a backup of insulin and blood sugar, which is no bueno," Dr. Will Cole, D.C., functional medicine practitioner, told mbg .
Because of this, glucose builds up in the bloodstream, causing the pancreas to make even more insulin in an attempt to usher that glucose into cells—but it still doesn’t work. Eventually, the pancreas gets tired and stops producing sufficient quantities of insulin to regulate blood sugar—at which point someone would be diagnosed with type 2 diabetes. Left unregulated, blood sugar levels can get dangerously high, leading to serious health problems such as heart disease, stroke, kidney disease, eye problems, nerve damage, and foot problems.
While type 1 diabetes cannot be reversed, a number of health experts believe that adopting healthier habits can reverse the course of type 2 diabetes. Reversing diabetes means getting to a point where the body resumes normal, healthy metabolism of sugar. Researchers have described "diabetes remission" as when a patient’s blood glucose levels go back to non-diabetic levels (i.e., a result of less than 126 mg/dL for a fasting blood glucose test).
But, the answer to this all-important question "can you reverse diabetes?" also depends on who you ask. There are definitely experts who believe it can be, and some studies back up this point of view. For example, significant lifestyle changes such as ramping up physical activity has been shown to reverse the course of type 2 diabetes.
In an extensive study conducted by researchers at the University of Alabama Birmingham , 5,145 overweight adults with type 2 diabetes were randomly assigned to either an intensive, lifestyle-based weight-loss program or to a diabetes support and education program.
The group in the lifestyle change program reduced their calorie intake significantly and worked out for at least 175 minutes per week, in addition to attending counseling meetings several times per month. The support and education group were offered three group counseling sessions each year that focused on diet, physical activity, and social support.
After one year, 11.5 percent of the lifestyle change group saw their diabetes go into remission, compared to just 2 percent in the support and education group. After four years, 7.3 percent of the lifestyle change group were still in remission, compared to a steady 2 percent of the support and education group. Remission in both groups was more common among participants who had lost more weight and greatly increased their physical activity .
Other experts feel that what some people interpret as a reversal of diabetes is just a short period of remission and that the disease will eventually come back. But we think that’s kind of a negative way to look at things, don’t you?
If you or someone you know has been diagnosed with type 2 diabetes and hopes to beat the disease, here are six steps you can take to increase your chances of remission. If do you take any of the steps below, just be sure to inform your doctor, who will likely perform regular bloodwork to monitor your progress and (if applicable) help you scale back on insulin safely.
We’re not expecting you to make all the changes at once, but whatever approach you start with, start now! A major factor in reversing diabetes is time. Some experts say that remission can be achieved if patients can normalize their blood sugar levels without medication in the first three to five years after diagnosis.
Weight loss is the primary factor in reversing type 2 diabetes because excess fat plays such a direct role in affecting insulin production and use. Patients need to lose, on average, 33 pounds for diabetes remission, according to one one study . But don’t let that freak you out. "If you have a significant amount of weight to lose, reducing your body weight by even just 5% has been shown to have an impact on your blood sugar levels," says Cording.
Research has shown that bariatric surgery can reverse type 2 diabetes. This is an extreme measure that should be discussed in depth with your doctor, but since studies show that the surgery is one of the few methods of reversing diabetes long term, it’s worth considering if your doctor thinks you would be a good candidate for the procedure.
You certainly don’t have to undergo surgery to lose weight (see the next two tips below), but if that is the route you take, you can’t overlook diet and lifestyle changes. Some studies indicate that up to 60 percent of people who have bariatric surgery will see their diabetes return within 15 years, likely due to falling back into their pre-surgery habits.
Losing any amount of weight (and keeping it off) is pretty tough without moving your body. While any type of exercise that you enjoy and can maintain for the long term is great, some experts believe that one type is particularly effective for managing or reversing diabetes: Strength training.
“It naturally restores your muscles’ insulin sensitivity," says JJ Virgin , celebrity nutrition and fitness expert. "And, if you have less body fat and more muscle, you will also need less insulin. That’s because when you increase muscle mass , you burn more calories, which helps keep blood sugars at a healthy level. You also store glucose as glycogen in your muscles, so more muscle means […]
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