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Diabetes: The Basics

This is the central problem for type 1 diabetics—the carbohydrate and the drastic surge it causes in blood sugar. Because I know my body produces no insulin, I have a shot of insulin before every meal. But I no longer eat meals with fast-acting or large amounts of carbohydrate, because the blood sugar swings they caused were what brought about my long-term complications. Even injection by means of an insulin pump (see discussion at the end of Chapter 19) cannot automatically fine-tune the level of glucose in my blood the way a nondiabetic’s body does naturally.

Now, if I ate only the protein portion of the meal, my blood sugar wouldn’t have the huge, and potentially toxic, surge that carbohydrates cause. It would rise less rapidly, and a small dose of insulin could act quickly enough to cover the glucose that’s slowly derived from the protein. My body would not have to endure wide swings in blood sugar levels. (Dietary fat, by the way, has no effect on blood sugar levels, except that it can slightly slow the digestion of carbohydrate.) In a sense, you could look at my insulin shot before eating only the protein portion of the meal as mimicking the nondiabetic’s phase II response. This is much easier to accomplish than trying to mimic phase I, because of the much lower levels of dietary carbohydrate (only the slow-acting kind) and injected insulin that I use.

The Type 2 Diabetic

Let’s say Jim, a type 2 diabetic, is 6 feet tall and weighs 300 pounds, much of which is centered around his midsection. Remember, at least 80 percent of type 2 diabetics are overweight. If Jim weighed only 170 pounds, he might well be nondiabetic, but because he’s insulin- resistant, Jim’s body no longer produces enough excess insulin to keep his blood sugar levels normal.

The overweight tend to be insulin-resistant as a group, a condition that’s not only hereditary but also directly related to the ratio of visceral and total body fat to lean body mass (muscle). The higher this ratio, the more insulin-resistant a person will be. Whether or not an overweight individual is diabetic, his weight, intake of carbohydrates, and insulin resistance all tend to make him produce considerably more insulin than a slender person of similar age and height (see Figure 1-3).

Many athletes, because of their low fat mass and high percentage of muscle, tend as a group to require and make less insulin than nonathletes. An overweight type 2 diabetic like Jim, on the other hand, typically makes two to three times as much insulin as the slender nondiabetic.

In Jim’s case, from many years of having to overcompensate, his pancreas has partially burned out, his ability to store insulin is diminished or gone, and his phase I insulin response is attenuated. Despite his huge output of insulin, he no longer can keep his blood sugars within normal ranges. (In my medical practice, a number of patients come to me for treatment of their obesity, not diabetes. On examination, however, most of these very obese “nondiabetics” have slight elevations of their HgbA1C test for average blood sugar.)

Let’s take another look at that mixed breakfast and see how it affects a type 2 diabetic. Jim has the same toast and jelly and juice and boiled egg that Jane, our nondiabetic, and I had. Jim’s blood sugar levels at waking may be normal.* Since he has a bigger appetite than either Jane or I, he has two glasses of juice, four pieces of toast, and two eggs. As soon as the toast and juice hit his mouth, his blood sugar begins to rise. Unlike mine, Jim’s pancreas eventually releases insulin, but he has very little or no stored insulin (his pancreas works hard just to keep up his basal insulin level), so he has impaired phase I secretion. His phase II insulin response, however, may be partially intact. So very slowly, his pancreas will struggle to produce enough insulin to bring his blood sugar down toward the normal range. Eventually it may get there, but not until hours after his meal, and hours after his body has been exposed to high blood sugars. Insulin is not only the major fat-building hormone, it also serves to stimulate the centers in the brain responsible for feeding behavior. Thus, in all likelihood, Jim will grow even more overweight, as demonstrated by the cycle illustrated in Figure 1-1.

Since he’s resistant to insulin, his pancreas has to work that much harder to produce insulin to enable him to utilize the carbohydrate he consumes. Because of insulin’s fat-building properties, his body stores away some of his blood sugar as fat and glycogen; but his blood sugar continues to rise, since his cells are unable to utilize all of the glucose derived from his meal. Jim, therefore, still feels hungry. As he eats more, his beta cells work harder to produce more insulin. The excess insulin and the “hungry” cells in his brain prompt him to want yet more food. He has just one more piece of toast with a little more jelly on it, hoping that it will be enough to get him through until lunch. Meanwhile, his blood sugar goes even higher, his beta cells work harder, and perhaps a few of them burn out.† Even after all this food, he still may feel many of the symptoms of hunger. His blood sugar, however, will probably not go as high as mine would if I took no insulin. In addition, his phase II insulin response could even bring his blood sugar down to normal after many hours without more food.

Postprandial (after-eating) blood sugar levels that I would call unacceptably high—140 mg/dl, or even 200 mg/dl—may be considered by other physicians to be unworthy of treatment because the patient still produces adequate insulin to bring them periodically down to normal, or “acceptable,” ranges. If Jim, our type 2 diabetic, had received intensive medical intervention before the beta cells of his pancreas began to burn out, he would have slimmed down, brought his blood sugars into line, and eased the burden on his pancreas. He might even have “cured” his diabetes by slimming down, as I’ve seen in several patients. But many doctors might decide such “mildly” abnormal blood sugars are only impaired glucose tolerance (IGT) and do little more than “watch” them. Again, it’s my belief that aggressive treatment at an early stage can save most patients considerable lost time and personal agony by preventing complications that will occur if blood sugar levels are left unchecked. Such intervention can make subsequent treatment of what can remain—a mild disease—elegantly simple.-

* Waking, or fasting, blood sugars are frequently normal in mild type 2 diabetics. After they eat carbohydrate, however, their postprandial blood sugars are usually elevated. † Beta cell burnout can be caused both by overactivity of the cells and by the toxicity of high glucose levels.


I include some hopeful forecasts of future treatments in this first chapter because as you’re learning how to control your diabetes, hope is a valuable asset. But your hope should be realistic. Your best hope for controlling your diabetes is normalizing your blood sugars now. That does not mean that the future will not bring great things. Diabetes research progresses on a daily basis, and I hope as much as you do for a cure, but it’s still on the horizon.

Researchers are currently trying to perfect methods for replicating insulin-producing pancreatic beta cells in the laboratory. Doing this in a fashion that’s comparatively easy and cost-effective should not be an insurmountable task, and indeed the preliminary results are quite encouraging. Once patients’ cells are replicated, they can be transplanted back into patients to actually cure their diabetes. After such treatment, unless you were to have another autoimmune event that would destroy these new beta cells, you would, at least in theory, remain nondiabetic for the rest of your life. If you had another autoimmune attack, you would simply have to receive more of your replicated cells. Another very hopeful approach currently undergoing clinical trials in humans is the transformation of the precursors of beta cells (the cells that line the ducts of the pancreas) into actual beta cells without even removing them from your body. This apparently can be achieved by the simple intramuscular injection of a special protein and is now being tested for adverse effects at three centers.

Another potential approach might be to insert the genes for insulin production into liver or kidney cells. These are potential opportunities for a cure, and have successfully cured diabetes in rats, but there are still obstacles to overcome.

Yet another approach to replacing lost beta cells has been used by two competing companies to cure diabetes in animals. The technique involves a series of ordinary injections of proteins that stimulate the remaining beta cells to replicate until the lost ones have been replaced. With respect to the replication of beta cells, the catch for me and other diabetics who no longer have any insulin-producing capacity is that the cells from which new beta cells would be replicated ideally should be your own, and I have none. Had my diabetes been diagnosed, say, a year earlier, or had my blood sugars been immaculately controlled immediately upon diagnosis, the injected insulin might have taken much of the strain off my remaining beta cells and allowed them to survive.

Many people (including the parents of diabetic children) view having to use insulin as a last straw, a final admission that they are (or their child is) a diabetic and seriously ill. Therefore they will try anything else—including things that will burn out their remaining beta cells—before using insulin. Many people in our culture have the notion that you cannot be well if you are using medication. This is nonsense, but some patients are so convinced that they must do things the “natural” way that I practically have to beg them to use insulin, which is as “natural” as one can go. In reality, nothing could be more natural. Diabetics who still have beta cell function left may well be carrying their own cure around with them—provided they don’t burn it out with high blood sugars and the refusal to use insulin.

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Quick Reference
This quick index helps you zoom in on chapter/article references dealing with a symptom or complication of diabetes. There may be other references throughout the site; always read the paragraphs or pages surrounding the reference in order to obtain proper context. A key to abbreviations is featured at the bottom of the chart.

amputation Ch.1
anemia B&A
arm pain B&A
arthritis B&A
cardiomyopathy /
cardiovascular disease
50yrs Ch.1 AppA 
cardiac neuropathy B&A B&A
cataracts / blindness 50yrs Ch.1 Ch.1 Ch.1 B&A App.A Articles
convulsions B&A
diarrhea, chronic Articles Articles
digestive problems B&A
erectile dysfunction (impotence) Ch.1 B&A B&A Ch.23
fatigue / fainting B&A B&A
feet, general App.E Articles Articles
feet, altered gait B&A Articles
feet, deformity 50yrs
feet, neuropathy B&A B&A B&A Ch.23 Articles Articles
feet, numbness B&A B&A
feet, pain Ch.1 B&A B&A
feet, scaly B&A
feet, ulcers B&A Articles
flatulence B&A
frozen shoulder 50yrs Ch.1
glaucoma B&A Articles
gluconeogenesis Ch.1
hand numbness B&A 
heart attack / blood clots Ch.1 App.A
headaches B&A
heart / arterial disease B&A B&A App.A
heartburn / belching / gastroparesis B&A Articles Articles
high cholesterol 50yrs B&A
hypertension / high blood pressure Ch.1 App.A App.A Ch.23 Articles Articles
hyperglycemia Ch.9
hyperinsulinemia Ch.1
hypoglycemia 50yrs 50yrs B&A B&A B&A Ch.1 Ch.9 Articles Articles Articles
ilio-tibial band/tensor fascia lata syndrome 50yrs
impaired glucose tolerance (IGT) Ch.1
joint inflammation / tightness Ch.1
ketoacidosis 50yrs B&A Articles Articles
kidney stones / kidney disease / nephropathy / infections 50yrs Ch.1 B&A B&A B&A B&A App.A App.A App.A Ch.9 Articles
leg pain B&A
macular edema 50yrs
microaneurysms 50yrs 50yrs
mood changes B&A
night blindness 50yrs
nerve damage Ch.1 Ch.1
obesity / weight gain B&A B&A B&A B&A  Ch.1 Ch.1 Ch.12 Articles
osteoporosis Ch.1
periodontal disease  Articles
peripheral vascular disease 50yrs
proteinuria 50yrs 50yrs
retinopathy Ch.1 B&A
salivary duct stones 50yrs
short-term memory loss / loss of mental activity  B&A Articles
skin tightness / skin conditions Ch.1 B&A
sleepiness B&A
sweating B&A B&A
thirst B&A
twitching limbs B&A
ulcers B&A
vision changes / diseases B&A B&A B&A B&A Ch.23 Articles Articles Articles

50yrs: "My First 50 Years as a Diabetic"
B&A: "Before & After: 14 Patients Share Their Experiences"
Ch.1: "Chapter 1", etc.
App.A: "Appendix A", etc.
Articles: References an item in the "Articles" section of the site.

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