Diabetes mellitus has been called, along with obesity, the scourge of the 21st century. Although this metabolic disease has probably been with us for thousands of years, it has recently reached epidemic proportions as a result of our sedentary lifestyle and poor dietary habits. The name diabetes originates from the ancient Greek word for "siphon" in reference to the excess amounts of fluid excreted by sufferers, while mellitus is the Latin word for "honey sweet", which accurately describes the smell of diabetic urine.
The most common manifestation of this hormonal disease is called Type 2 diabetes. It occurs when the body either does not produce enough of the hormone insulin, or fails to utilise it properly. Approximately 90% of diabetics suffer from this dysfunction. Research has shown that more than half of these cases could be avoided, or at least managed, if the population was keeping a healthy weight. We have recently discovered that excess body fat causes chemical reactions in our body. When we gain extra weight, the hormonal changes increase the demand for insulin. When these requirements exceed the pancreas's production output, diabetes occurs.
One of the main sources of energy in the body is carbohydrate. After digestion, carbohydrate is transformed into glucose or blood sugar when it enters the blood stream. Insulin produced by the pancreas extracts glucose from the blood, supplies it to the muscles and organs of the body, and regulates how much should be kept in storage for later use. When the glucose levels become too low in the blood vessels, another hormone called glucagon releases the stored energy and distributes it to the parts of the body where it is needed. If the body fails to produce enough insulin, this source of energy doesn't get distributed to the muscles and organs, or get stored as a reserve supply for later use. Instead, the level of glucose keeps building up in the blood vessels.
This permanent high level of glucose in the blood soon begins to affect the function of the kidneys which are in charge of filtration and regulation of fluid and its transformation into liquid waste (urine). As the kidneys start to deteriorate, they stop reabsorbing enough fluid into the body, so the patient begins to urinate a lot more than is required. This excess loss of liquid in the body leads to dehydration, and a constant feeling of thirst. Ultimately, the kidneys stop functioning, and only a dialysis machine will keep the patient alive.
Other parts of the body will also be affected by this insulin imbalance. For example, the excess level of blood sugar in the tiny blood vessels supplying the eyes can damage the shape of the lenses and cause permanent eye damage and blindness. And the blood supply to the extremities of the limbs often becomes obstructed by the sugary deposits. This affects the nerve conduction to the hands and feet, resulting in numbness, while the obstruction of blood supply is the main cause of gangrene.
Ten to 15% of diabetics suffer from Type 1 diabetes. While in Type 2 diabetes the body doesn't produce enough insulin to cope with its daily requirements, in this most serious form of the disease, the patient is unable to produce any quantity of the pancreatic hormone. Without insulin, the body is incapable of using glucose for energy, so it begins to burn fat as a substitute instead. Although it might sound a good way to lose weight, it leads to the accumulation of very dangerous chemicals called ketones in the system. It is a life threatening situation, and Type 1 diabetics have to inject the required amounts of insulin intravenously four times every day in order to stay alive.
While we have so far been unable to expel this dreaded metabolic disease, we have developed useful strategies that allow sufferers to peacefully cohabitat with this unwelcome visitor as long as they follow certain rules. Obviously, diet is of primary importance, especially for Type 1 diabetics who need to exactly match their insulin intake with the quantity of carbohydrate absorbed. This explains why high energy foods and drinks should be avoided to prevent a sudden rise in blood sugar levels. Instead, patients are advised to consume small amounts of food throughout the day. Regular physical activity is also helpful to reduce body fats, regulate the metabolism, and maintain a healthy weight.
But can Chinese Medicine have a role in treating diabetes? What is the Oriental medical approach to treatments? Should I choose acupuncture, Chinese herbal medicine, or a combination of both therapies? These topics will be investigated in the next issue of NOVA Magazine.
Olivier Lejus MHSc.(TCM), BHSc.(Acup.) is an accredited acupuncturist practising in Sydney
Olivier Lejus BHSc.MHSc. is a registered acupuncturist and Chinese herbalist practising in Sydney. A former casual university lecturer and tutor in Oriental medicine with over 15 years experience in clinical practice, Olivier specialises in Japanese- style acupuncture for the treatment of male and female infertility, migraine, pain, and insomnia.www.olejusacupuncture.com