By Dr. Mercola
Nearly 8 percent of the US population, or close to 26 million people, have diabetes, and another 80 million have pre-diabetes,1 which means they’re on their way to developing the full-blown version of the disease… if they don’t do something to stop it.
That something is the silver lining to this major public health epidemic, as research clearly shows lifestyle changes are extremely effective at not only preventing type 2 diabetes but also reversing it if you’ve already been diagnosed.
Among them, exercise has recently made headlines for making major improvements in diabetics’ health.
Exercise Improves Diabetics’ Health – Even Without Other Lifestyle Changes
In a new study of people with diabetes, engaging in a six-month moderate-intensity exercise program led to significant health improvements.2 Specifically, they had decreases in fat in the abdomen, liver and around the heart, all of which is associated with an increased risk of heart disease.
In case you aren’t aware, heart disease is the number one cause of death among people with type 2 diabetes. It’s estimated that at least 65 percent of those with diabetes die from some form of heart disease or stroke.3
While the exercise program didn’t lead to direct changes in heart function, the reductions in dangerous visceral fat around key organs – as well as reductions in pericardial fat, which is the second layer of fat around the heart – will undoubtedly improve heart health among this at-risk population. The study’s lead author noted:4
“ … reduction of liver fat content and visceral fat volume by physical exercise are very important to reverse the adverse effects of lipid accumulation elsewhere, such as the heart and arterial vessel wall."
Also noteworthy about the study was the relatively small amount of exercise needed to prompt such beneficial changes. The participants exercised between 3.5 and 6 hours a week (and ended the program with a 12-day trekking expedition), which is a reasonable goal for most people.
Further, the benefits were gained from exercise alone; no other lifestyle or dietary changes were made, which shows just how powerful staying active can be in improving your health -- even if you’ve already been diagnosed with a potentially chronic disease.
Why Exercise Has Been Called the ‘Silver Bullet’ in Diabetes Treatment
When diagnosed with type 2 diabetes, many believe their fate has been sealed and all they can do now is "control" it. This is far from the truth. You can essentially “cure” yourself of this disease and permanently control it. Exercise can be one of your secret weapons to doing so.
The amazing thing about exercise is that it exerts its effects very quickly. There are long-term benefits, too, of course, but you'll also get acute, nearly instantaneous benefits as well. This should be excellent motivation to those of you who are procrastinating on your exercise program, as you don't have to exercise for a year or six months to experience benefits!
Research published in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise found, for example, that one single session of moderate exercise can improve the way your body regulates glucose and reduces the spikes in blood sugar that occur after a meal (elevations in these spikes, known as postprandial glucose, or PPG, are associated with type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and death).5
When you exercise for diabetes prevention or treatment, intensity is key. A slow walk around the block, while better than watching TV on the couch, is not likely to cut it (although if you’re morbidly obese and very out of shape this is a good way to start). Instead, high-intensity interval training (HIIT), which is a core component of my Peak Fitness program, should ideally be included in your fitness program to achieve optimal results. This technique uses short bursts of intense activity followed by a longer period of recovery, and the cycle is then repeated multiple times. All you need is about 20 minutes of HIIT two or three times a week for maximum benefits. HIIT can significantly improve your insulin sensitivity, especially if you're on a low-processed-food, low-sugar/low-grain diet as well.
If You Want to Reverse Diabetes, Diet and Exercise Changes Are Essential
Exercise is vital if you have diabetes, but even though physical activity alone is likely to give your health a boost, you should not rely on it as your sole treatment strategy. Type 2 diabetics need to address the root of the problem, which is insulin and leptin resistance—caused by faulty leptin and insulin signaling, which is directly attributable to not only lack of exercise but also the food you eat. The truth of the matter is that type 2 diabetes is a fully preventable condition and it’s also close to 100% reversible, provided you take the proper steps to heal your body.
In one study, for instance, researchers randomly assigned diabetic participants, who were also overweight or obese, to an intensive program of diet and exercise, in which they were urged to cut calories down to 1,200-1,800 calories per day and engage in nearly three hours of physical exercise per week.6
After one year, 11.5 percent of the program participants no longer needed medication to keep their blood sugar levels below the diabetes threshold – in other words, they were no longer diabetic. For comparison, only 2 percent of the non-intervention group experienced any significant improvement in their condition. Again, type 2 diabetes arises from faulty leptin signaling and insulin resistance, both of which are directly diet- and exercise-related. It is NOT a disease of blood sugar.
Once you understand that, the remedy becomes clear: To reverse the disease, you need to recover your body's insulin and leptin sensitivities. The ONLY way to accomplish this is through proper diet and exercise, as detailed in my free Nutrition Plan. Bariatric surgery, which is being increasingly recommended as a diabetes treatment, will NOT do the trick, and there is NO drug that can correct leptin signaling and insulin resistance, either.
Why What You Eat Can Make or Break Your Health and Cause Diabetes
Let's review the mechanics of insulin and leptin resistance
- Leptin is a hormone produced in your fat cells. One of leptin's primary roles is regulating your appetite and body weight. It tells your brain when to eat, how much to eat, and most importantly, when to stop eating. And leptin tells your brain what to do with the energy it has. Leptin is largely responsible for the accuracy of insulin signaling and whether or not you become insulin resistant.
- Insulin—Sugars and grains raise your blood sugar. When this happens, insulin is released to direct the extra energy into storage. A small amount is stored as a starch-like substance called glycogen, but the majority is stored as your main backup energy supply—fat. Insulin's major role is not to lower your blood sugar, but rather to store the extra energy for future times of need. Insulin’s effect of lowering your blood sugar is merely a “side effect” of this energy storage process.
As you can see, these two hormones work in tandem, creating either a health-damaging or health-promoting cycle, depending on what you eat. If you consume loads of sugars and grains, your blood sugar spikes will lead to increased insulin, which leads to increased fat storage. The extra fat then produces more leptin. The problem arises when your leptin levels become chronically elevated.
At this point, you become leptin resistant—your body can no longer "hear" the hormonal signals telling your brain you're full and should stop eating. As your fat stores increase, your weight goes up, and insulin resistance sets in. Now your body has become "deaf" to the signals from both hormones (leptin and insulin), and disease follows; one of which is diabetes.
Are You Ready to Send Your Diabetes Packing?
Adhering to the following guidelines can help you do at least three things that are essential for successfully treating type 2 diabetes: recover your insulin/leptin sensitivity, normalize your weight, and normalize your blood pressure:
- Severely limit or eliminate sugar and grains in your diet, especially fructose which is far more detrimental to your health than any other type of sugar. Following my Nutrition Plan will help you do this without too much fuss. Avoid excessive protein as your body will convert that to sugar in your liver, which will sabotage your ability to control insulin resistance. Excess protein may even be more damaging to your health than excess carbs.
- Exercise regularly. As mentioned, exercise is an absolutely essential factor and, without it, you're unlikely to get this devastating disease under control. It is one of the fastest and most powerful ways to lower your insulin and leptin resistance. If you're unsure of how to get started, I recommend reviewing my Peak Fitness program for tips and guidelines.
- Avoid trans fats.
- Get plenty of omega-3 fats from a high-quality, animal-based source, such as krill oil.
- Optimize your vitamin D levels. Recent studies have revealed that getting enough vitamin D can have a powerful effect on normalizing your blood pressure and that low vitamin D levels may increase your risk of heart disease.
- Optimize your gut flora. Your gut is a living ecosystem, full of both good bacteria and opportunistic strains that can cause trouble. Multiple studies have shown that obese people have different intestinal bacteria than lean people. When the microbes in your gut exist in proper balance, your immune system will be stronger and the better your body will function overall. Fortunately, optimizing your gut flora is relatively easy. You can reseed your body with beneficial bacteria by eating fermented foods (such as fermented vegetables, natto, raw organic cheese, or raw milk kefir) or by taking a high-quality probiotic supplement.
- Address any underlying emotional issues and/or stress. Non-invasive tools like the Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT) can be helpful and effective.
- Get enough high-quality sleep every night.
- Monitor your fasting insulin level. This is every bit as important as your fasting blood sugar. You'll want your fasting insulin level to be between 2 and 4. The higher your level, the worse your insulin sensitivity is.
Diabetes is a condition that is personally close to me, as most of my paternal relatives (my dad included), have, or have died from, diabetes. But my personal experience with diabetes and subsequent review of the literature has made it very clear to me that virtually every case of type 2 diabetes is reversible. If you’ve been diagnosed with type 2 diabetes or pre-diabetes, today can be the day that you take control of your health and start the journey to cure yourself of this disease.