According to the Center for Disease Control an estimated 30.3 million Americans have Type 2 diabetes. That’s 9.4% of the U.S. population. About 7.2 million of those cases are undiagnosed.
As Acupuncturists we see these types of patients daily, sometimes for help with Diabetes and its symptoms and sometimes for other complaints that patients don’t even realize are connected to Diabetes!
What is Diabetes?
From a Western medical standpoint, Diabetes Mellitus is a condition that causes the body to be unable to absorb blood glucose (sugars) into the cells to be used as energy. It occurs because of the following factors: the pancreas no longer is able to make enough Insulin (a hormone needed for our cells to absorb and use sugar from our food for energy); the cells have become resistant to insulin and therefore it does not work as well as it used to; or a combination of both factors.
Western Medicine further divides Diabetes into 4 categories:
1. Type 2 (Adult-onset, non-insulin dependent, or “sugar”) Diabetes is the most common form and is a result of decreased Insulin production in the pancreas or decreased sensitivity of the cells to insulin. It usually develops slowly, and can be treated with diet changes, exercise, and if needed, oral medications.
2. Type 1 (Juvenile, insulin-dependent) Diabetes is an auto-immune issue where the pancreas fails to produce enough insulin or even stops producing insulin due to damage or loss of the cells in the gland that produce the hormone. Usually occurring in younger age groups (although it can occur in adults), the onset is more sudden. This is usually treated with insulin injections, although dietary control and lifestyle change are also recommended.
3. Gestational Diabetes occurs in 2%-10% of American pregnancies (according to the CDC) and is caused by decreased sensitivity of the body to insulin or reduced insulin production due to hormonal changes occuring during pregnancy. Gestational Diabetes (although perhaps not its underlying causes) often resolves once the baby is born. This form of Diabetes is not accompanied by obvious symptoms, therefore blood testing is important during pregnancy as the elevated blood sugar poses a threat to the mother and baby.
4. Pre-Diabetes is the state of a body’s reduced blood sugar control that usually occurs as Type 2 Diabetes is developing. The CDC estimates 84 million Americans 18 years and older have this condition. Diet and lifestyle changes at this point can avoid the development of a full-blown Diabetic condition.
5. Diabetes Insipidus is a very rare auto-immune condition. It is not involved in blood sugar absorption. It is a breakdown in the function of the pituitary gland causing the kidneys to excrete too much water.
From the point of view of Chinese Medicine, Diabetes (with the exception of Diabetes Insipidus) is caused by an imbalance of the Spleen/Pancreatic system, making the body unable to efficiently separate and absorb the useful elements (example: glucose the cells require for energy) from the food we eat.
What are the symptoms of Diabetes?
Types 1 and 2 and Pre-Diabetes all share some common symptoms. These include increased thirst, increased urination, fatigue, unexplained weight loss, increased or decreased appetite, blurry vision, slow healing of wounds, irritated gums, itchy and dry skin, darkening skin, or numbness/tingling/pain in the feet or hands. Type 1 diabetics may also experience sudden mood swings or irritability; and if blood sugar control is bad, dizziness or faintness.
What are the risks associated with Diabetes?
The most obvious risks include vision loss, but also peripheral blood vessel damage and nerve damage resulting in lost use of extremities or actual lost extremities. Slowed wound healing can cause infections or even sepsis in extreme cases. Blood vessel damage can cause damage to the heart and kidneys, and kidney disease is a common risk for uncontrolled diabetes patients. Type 1 diabetics run the risk of falling into a coma and possibly death. Gestational diabetes can cause high birth weights, premature births, and an increased risk of Type 2 diabetes for the infant.
How does Chinese Medicine treat Diabetes and its symptoms/effects?
Given Acupuncture and Chinese Medicine’s ability to restore organ and glandular system function, they offer a unique ability to address the causes and effects of Diabetes in the body. Specific points and herbs strengthen Spleen/Pancreatic function to help the body maintain insulin production.
Acupuncture and Chinese Medicine may also reduce inflammation to increase cellular health and facilitate glucose absorption, while also increasing circulation to help prevent and heal tissue damage that occurs due to heightened blood glucose levels.
Simple dietary changes can help manage blood sugar levels. A basic Diabetic diet plan focuses reducing or eliminating simple sugars and highly processed grains, both of which quickly raise blood sugar levels. We also recommend the reduction of processed foods and chemical-containing foods which generally increase inflammation in the body, hide sugars and cause weight gain which are difficult on a diabetic patient’s already taxed system. Instead we recommend plenty of lean, high-quality fish and proteins, reduced intake of dairy products, increased non-starchy vegetables and low-sugar fruits. Additionally, reducing or eliminating sugary drinks, caffeine while increasing fresh water intake is important.
We recommend lifestyle changes such as light exercise, stretching and improving sleep habits.
We have discovered that healthy diet and lifestyle can take one from simply managing an ongoing, chronic and degenerative disease process to actually maintaining strong bodily function. A well-functioning diabetic body will exhibit fewer symptoms, slow or even stop progression of the disease process and give an overall better quality of life.
Summary: Diabetes can be life-altering, however choosing to take control of one’s health by incorporating dietary changes, making lifestyle changes and utilizing functional support wtih modalities such as Acupuncture and Chinese Medicine can yield a long and healthy life!