Diabetes is an insidious, degenerative disease causing gradual loss of organ and limb function, often resulting in rotting of tissue, ulcers, amputation, blindness and a miserable death. Throughout thousands of years of recorded history it has been relatively rare affecting less than 0.1% of the population, as far as we know. Since the late 1920’s however the prevalence of diabetes has climbed, in 1958 in the U.S.A. it was almost 1%, steadily growing to over 11% in 2014. At the current rate of growth, it will affect about 50% or more of the children being born this decade. How do we get diabetes? It is not infectious. It might be genetic, it seems to run in families. Genetic factors, however, do not account for the sharp increase over the last 50 years (2 generations). So the question remains open.
Advances in redox biochemistry, during the last 10 years, give us some great insight into the cause of diabetes on a cellular level. In the last post, we explored the analogy that sugar in the blood is like “gasoline” to the hundreds of mitochondrial furnaces that are burning inside every cell in our body. Putting too much sugar (glucose) in the blood is like throwing too much gasoline on these fires. They flare up, throwing off “smoke” (oxidants and free radicals) into the cells. The beta cells in the pancreas are a bit strange when compared to other cells, they have a great many glucose “windows” (receptors) wide open to bring in the glucose molecules, and yet they do not have very many of the antioxidant (smoke scrubber) molecules that get rid of the oxidants and free radicals (smoke) that are produced. So when an incoming flood of glucose flares up the fires inside these beta cells, there is a real crisis. Too much glucose gets in, the fires in the mitochondria flare up to dangerous levels and the oxidants and free radicals (smoke signals) quickly build up and start causing damage. As usual, the standard “smoke alarm” messengers are sent out to alert the beta-cell control centers in the genes. When beta cells in the pancreas receive the “smoke signal”, they start producing insulin. The beta cells are both sensitive and vulnerable to high levels of glucose in the blood; the bigger the oxidative stress (smoke build-up) crisis, the more insulin is produced.
The crisis workers inside the beta cells furiously manufacture and package insulin molecules, and must work in an environment choked with free radical smoke. All the workers in the beta cells are waiting and hoping for the fires to go down, for the smoke to clear up, and for the crisis to pass. Some beta cells will not make it through a bad crisis and will end up dying in the process. Recall also that high oxidative stress (smoke build-up) can cause the cell to shut itself down and kill itself. High oxidative stress also releases messengers that cause inflammation and call the immune system to combat possible infections. The immune system also tends to accidentally kill the poor beta cells on occasion when the smoke signals get too large. As you might imagine, getting the blood glucose levels down to normal is the first priority for the beta cells (as it is for the rest of the glucose-stressed, inflamed cells in the body).
Insulin is the messenger sent out to get rid of the sugar in the blood. It signals most of the tissues in the body to burn or convert the excess blood sugar into fat molecules and to store them away in our fat cells and muscles. In our modern diet, we eat easily digestible refined sugars and white breads, causing blood sugar levels to rise many times above the amount we are built to handle. The excess insulin produced in this “crisis”, in an hour or so, converts too much of the sugars to fats and causes blood sugar to drop well below healthy levels, leading to hunger pangs, loss of energy and consumption of more sugary foods. Thus causing us to repeat this destructive cycle. Imagine the poor pancreatic beta cells, working overtime, choked with smoke and when the sugar crisis is finally over, it starts all over again; literally exhausting.
Incidentally, the beta cells are not the only sugar sensitive cells like this in the body, there are glucose sensor cells found in the emotional center of the brain that react to glucose quite a bit like the stressed beta cells, except instead of producing insulin, they produce a cocktail of “feel good” hormones, including serotonin, that serve to put us in a better mood and unfortunately also reinforce our drive to eat sugar.
It often takes many thousands of years before organisms can successfully adapt to a new set of molecules found in a new environment (before they can effectively be converted and utilized as effective supplies or fuel sources). These evolutionary hypotheses have been well supported by evidence from over a century of scientific discovery. Consider this sobering fact: in just the past several decades, all of us in the world have drastically changed the types and quantities of molecules that we ingest. We instinctually go toward the easily digestible bleached grains and highly concentrated processed sugars that supply us with many times the glucose fuels that we need at any given time and are poor sources of the other nutrients. Perhaps we are programmed to crave these readily available sources of quick energy, and there is economic potential there, but we are not physiologically equipped to handle or process this amount or composition of molecules.
At the same time, we tend to avoid the less “sexy”, but most needed, nutrients in our diets, like those in broccoli. In the next few decades, we might be forced to realize that we simply do not have many millennia to adapt to the new types and quantities of molecules we have in our “modern” diet. Natural selection will play itself out. Diabetes will kill us off. All scientific evidence, so far, strongly points to the established fact that nutrition is by far the most important factor in restoring, sustaining and maintaining health. Those that eat healthy natural diets testify to this fact, they have excellent overall health; some food for thought.