In honor of November being National Diabetes Awareness Month, let’s do a dive into what this disease is and how East Asian Medicine can help. It is estimated that nearly 26 million men, women and children across the United States are affected by diabetes. Managing diabetes requires healthy lifestyle choices, especially regarding diet and exercise. And using the Western medical system, most people are treated using either oral or injectable pharmaceuticals. While this has worked for many, there are also many side effects.
Diabetes is a disease in which the body does not produce or properly use insulin, a hormone that is needed to convert sugar, starches and other foods into energy needed for daily life. According to the Centers for Disease Control, the risk for death is approximately twice that of persons of similar age without diabetes.
The cause of diabetes continues to be a mystery, although both genetics and environmental factors such as obesity and lack of exercise appear to play roles. Complications of diabetes include heart disease, hypertension, eye problems, kidney disease, nervous system disease, periodontal disease, amputation, fatigue, depression and complications during pregnancy.
There are two types of diabetes. Type 1 diabetes used to be called “juvenile diabetes” because it is usually diagnosed during childhood. Type 1 diabetes can actually develop at any age, and it means that the pancreas doesn’t produce the hormone insulin the way it should. The exact cause of Type 1 diabetes isn’t fully understood, but it is thought to be a type of autoimmune dysfunction that harms pancreatic cells. Only 5-10% of people with diabetes have Type 1.
Type 2 Diabetes is far more common. One in ten Americans has Type 2 Diabetes. Type 2 diabetes is also caused by problems with insulin production by the pancreas. When a person has Type 2 diabetes, cells all over the body are not responding appropriately to insulin, so the pancreas works harder to create more and more insulin. This is called insulin resistance.
Type 2 Diabetes usually develops over the course of several years, and during that time, people may have what we now call prediabetes. If you are prediabetic, it means your blood sugar levels are high, but not high enough to be diagnosed as diabetes. This is a window of opportunity to prevent full-fledged diabetes from becoming a problem. Learning to track blood glucose levels, keep blood sugars low, practice the best exercise to lose weight and maintain a balanced diet can go a long way towards helping to prevent and manage diabetes.
For most people, the symptoms of Type 2 diabetes are so subtle that they go unnoticed. People can have prediabetes or diabetes for years without knowing they have it. Early signs of diabetes include:
- Feeling tired and hungry all the time
- Feeling thirsty all the time
- Having to urinate frequently
- Dry, itchy skin and/or eyes
- Blurry vision
- Feeling light-headed or jittery
- Excessive sweating
- Cuts and sores are slow to heal
- Yeast infections
- Pain, tingling or numbness in the legs and feet (diabetic neuropathy)
If blood sugar levels climb dangerously high, it is called hyperglycemia. Severe hyperglycemia might make a person feel extremely weak and thirsty, have a stomachache or nausea, blurred vision and feel very dizzy. People with diabetes may begin to have problems with memory or mild cognitive impairment.
Doctors make a definitive diagnosis of diabetes by measuring A1C levels, testing fasting blood sugar or administering an oral glucose tolerance test. These different types of glucose tests give doctors a reading of how high a patient’s blood glucose levels are under various circumstances.
Diabetes has to be carefully managed, primarily through making informed nutritional choices and getting enough exercise, so as to maintain steady blood sugar levels. Many people will also need to take insulin in order to maintain normal glucose levels. Patients may be prescribed oral insulin, injectable insulin or an automatic insulin pump. A primary care physician may be able to help with managing diabetes, but often people will also need to seek the advice of an endocrinologist and a nutritionist to help them learn how to manage their medications and diet appropriately. Often, patients will be advised to lose weight. The good news is that when a person commits to taking control of their health through lifestyle changes, they can often times come off diabetic medications and remain symptom free.
East Asian Medicine has been treating “Xiao Ke,” or “wasting and thirsting disease,” also known as diabetes, for thousands of years. According to EAM philosophy, diabetes is the result of excess heat and dampness accumulating in the body. Acupuncture treatments are employed to stimulate better function of the pancreas. Acupuncture has been shown to help improve many types of disease related to endocrine function. Research has indicated that acupuncture treatment can help to reduce fasting and after-eating blood sugar levels, increase insulin production and reduce insulin resistance.
Nutrition is not considered separate from medicine in East Asian Medicine. Facilitating a proper diet is one of the primary ways EAM addresses illness and disease. Acupuncture practitioners are highly trained in nutrition and can be instrumental in helping diabetics find the healthiest and best way to lose weight. We do not advocate fast weight loss or trendy diets. The fastest way to lose weight is probably not going to be the best way, certainly not in terms of being able to maintain a balanced eating plan long-term. Your acupuncturist can recommend the best foods to eat to lose weight while still feeling satisfied and keeping blood sugar levels in the normal range throughout the day.
There are specific foods that can help keep diabetes in balance. Foods that clear heat and nourish the body’s fluids are recommended frequently. These foods include spinach, turnips, pears, soybeans, millet, Chinese yam, water chestnuts and mung beans. Bitter melon also helps to control blood sugar levels. Foods that are spicy and hot in nature should be avoided, as should alcohol.
At the same time that your acupuncturist chooses points and herbal formulas to improve glucose levels, he or she can also help treat the other symptoms of diabetes related to nerve problems, such as blurry vision and diabetic neuropathy. Chinese herbal formulas are easily customized to treat each individual patient. This allows for each diabetes patient to be treated accordingly, instead of only having a couple of options like Western medicine. Specific herbs that are used in EAM include Gymnema Sylvestre, fenugreek and ginseng. These can be used alone or combined with other ingredients to make an herbal formula. There are also special formulas that help with diabetic complications such as neuropathy and cataracts.
While diabetes can be a very difficult disease to treat, it is manageable. And East Asian Medicine can offer a wonderful alternative to patients who prefer to naturally treat the disease.