Leading an inactive life and eating processed and sugary foods is not only going to put you on a collision course with diabetes, but there are also a whole suite of health issues that come with that diagnosis - eye problems, joint pains, impotency, kidney failure, urologic problems and more.
Worryingly, there has been a rapid rise in chronic disease like diabetes. Diabetes is now the seventh most common cause of death in the US and a major cause of heart disease, stroke, kidney disease, lower limb amputation and blindness. Global rates are also rising with one- in eight-people set to have type 2 diabetes by 2045.
Contrary to modern medicine though, in Ayurveda we don’t look at diabetes as a disease that can be treated with medicine or a change in diet alone. Diabetes (Madhumeha) is classified as a major disease, because if not treated in time it leads to major complications in the body.
Diabetes is a metabolic disorder which can’t effectively be treated by controlling sugar levels alone. Ayurvedic treatment is aimed at rejuvenating the body to not only balance sugar levels, but strengthen the whole internal process, so no other complication arise.
What is diabetes?
The current medical understanding of diabetes mellitus is that it is a group of related diseases in which the body is unable to regulate the amount of sugar, specifically glucose, in the blood. Glucose provides our body and mind with vital energy. It is the main source of energy for our cells and the main source of fuel for our brain.
In a healthy individual, several hormones, including insulin, regulate blood glucose levels, allowing glucose to be used for fuel. However, in people with diabetes, the body either does not make enough insulin (type 1 diabetes), or is not able to use it well (type 2 diabetes). In some types of diabetes, the body is both unable to produce enough insulin and unable to use it efficiently. When the body is unable to efficiently incorporate glucose from the blood into the cells where it is needed, glucose stays in the blood, where it can cause serious problems. In addition, the cells don’t receive the energy they need to function properly. In all types of diabetes, there is a risk of the blood sugar level becoming too high and causing serious health problems, both acute and chronic.
In the so-called adult-onset diabetes the pancreas produces insufficient insulin, the hormone that allows the body cells to absorb glucose. Type 2 diabetes develops due to a sedentary and unhealthy lifestyle. Insulin resistance is the basis on which diabetes develops. It is a condition in which the receptor sites on every cell in your body, are progressively unable to utilise insulin. Insulin is a hormonal key that docks with glucose regulatory receptors on the cell surface and enables the transport of glucose from the blood and into the cell. Insulin resistance results in high blood glucose levels and high insulin levels (this a feedback consequence of having high blood glucose). It is the high blood glucose levels that cause the long term complications of diabetes. This is largely inflammatory damage to the micro arterial circulation - eventually resulting in end organ damage to the brain, eyes, heart, kidneys, nervous system and legs. Ongoing high insulin levels cause fat storage - hence the increase in fat mass. In a condition called “insulin resistance” the body cells don’t work properly and they resist insulin absorption. The physiology tries to balance this by producing increased levels of insulin until the hormone-producing cells are exhausted.
Type 1 diabetes is a disease you are born with or is diagnosed later in life and this is autoimmune; type 2, which is developed in life; and gestational diabetes, which a woman develops during pregnancy.
Let’s look at type 2 diabetes. This used to be a disease that mainly occurred in older patients, but is now rising dramatically in children and adolescents – particularly as we lead more sedentary lifestyles, do less exercise and spend more time in the lounge room reaching for remote controls. As well as eating more processed and fast food. This also leads to people being more overweight than ever, which puts you at serious risk for diabetes. The key driver for the diabetes epidemic worldwide is a diet very high in refined carbohydrates and refined sugar combined with a sedentary lifestyle where not much or no exercise is engaged by the person. Obesity is the other big driver of insulin resistance and diabetes.
How is Diabetes Understood in Ayurveda?
According to Ayurveda type 2 diabetes starts with the loss of natural balance. Metabolic residues develop continuously due to improper diet, lifestyle and not eating according to your body type. In the case of type 2 diabetes, toxins (in Ayurveda called “Ama”) accumulate in all body cells. By means of Ayurvedic detoxification measures, the insulin resistance of the cells can be reduced and by doing so, can take away the fertile ground that gives rise to type 2 diabetes.
In Ayurveda every patient is uniquely individual, or different, and each type 2 diabetes, diabetic (complaint) has varying symptoms varies. The Ayurvedic approach is holistic.
Type 2 diabetes is primarily an excess, or imbalance of kapha dosha. Kapha governs the physical structure of the body and several metabolic processes, if it’s in excess it builds up of excess and manifests in weight gain, allergies and mental resistance to change – where you don’t want to do anything. It’s connected to earth and water and heavy, dense and non-moving.
Excessive appetite, especially for sweet foods, can increase a person’s risk of developing type 2 diabetes. Sometimes this overeating can be triggered by a vata dosha imbalance, often stress related, which can easily become aggravated. People with a vata imbalance tend to overeat to soothe themselves, kapha in turn becomes imbalanced and this can contribute to the development of type 2 diabetes.
The kapha problem can be turned around if you get it in time – we use Ayurvedic herbal medications to bring this imbalance down. One of our patients recently was on medications to stabilise his type 2 diabetes, but it wasn’t working. The symptomatic treatment is to bring the insulin levels into balance, once we were able to treat what was going on, he could take less insulin and his sugar levels dropped to half – this was all about finding, and fixing, the imbalance. Once he’s detoxed, he’ll be off his medication all together and we expect to start progressively seeing big changes. In just two weeks he’s already only taking half the dose - in another six weeks he should be able to come off altogether.
Treatment for diabetes starts with reducing kapha aggravating foods, to balance kapha dosha. We want to remove heavy oily foods from the diet – that means avoiding dairy and refined carbohydrates such as bread, pasta, pizza, bread rolls, potatoes, rice, cakes and biscuits and just going for small amounts of healthy oils. Instead its important to eat plenty of warm, nourishing foods. Other foods to watch out for are bananas, figs, dates, barley, millet, corn, rye, oats and rice; wheat is definitely out.
Beans are good, aside from soya beans (tofu is out, but tempe is good). Spices are preferable than pepper as it stimulates movement. Drinking lots of ginger water will also help by stimulating the agni (the digestive fire).
Movement is really important in getting the circulation going. This helps lower blood glucose levels and improves the body’s overall functioning. Yoga is wonderful for people with diabetes, in particular the sun salutation gets the blood moving as it should.
When working on a controlling type 2 diabetes, it’s also really important to get plenty of good quality sleep; this helps to stabilise hormones and stay balanced in life. Many people with diabetes also suffer depression.
Home remedy: bitter lemon juice
Combine fenugreek, cinnamon, turmeric with fresh squeezed bitter lemon (like a cucumber with bubbles) and drink a 50ml shot every morning - this is excellent for lowering glucose.
If you can get bitter melon you can make this into a 30 ml shot and take every morning.