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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, July 29, 2001

Antioxidant nutrients help offset diabetes

By Laurie Steelsmith

In my last column, I reported that many people who are at risk for Type II diabetes can help prevent the disease by making positive dietary and lifestyle changes. However, for those who do contract Type II diabetes, there are a number of nutritional and herbal supplements which can increase the body's ability to use glucose more efficiently and prevent many side-effects of the disease.

Type II is the most common form of diabetes. It tends to manifest later in life and does not always require the use of insulin. Type II diabetics either have problems producing insulin or the insulin they do produce isn't functioning properly. Insulin insensitivity causes cells to become starved for sugar (glucose). Every cell in the body needs sugar to produce energy.

Some people need to take medication when first diagnosed with Type II diabetes to help stabilize their blood sugar levels. Once they have made significant dietary and lifestyle changes and started on specific nutritional and herbal supplements, they can often decrease the dosage of the medication and, in some cases, actually discontinue using it. Your physician can work with you to lower the dose of your medication.

Some of the dietary and lifestyle recommendations I made in my last column were:

  • Eat regular, well-balanced meals and maintain a healthy weight.
  • Eat carbohydrates that have a low glycemic index.
  • Eat low-fat proteins and an abundance of fruits and vegetables.
  • Limit overall fat intake.
  • Make exercise a part of your daily lifestyle.

Supplementation with antioxidants is the most important nutritional recommendation to help Type II diabetics control their diabetes and prevent complications of the disease. Numerous studies indicate that diabetics benefit from supplementation with antioxidants.

Antioxidants are nutrients that can protect tissues from damage. Vitamin C, vitamin E, beta-carotene, alpha lipoic acid and N-acetyl cysteine are antioxidants. They are found in many foods, especially fresh fruits and vegetables. However, diabetics need to supplement if they want to get therapeutic levels of antioxidant nutrients.

Increased risk of heart disease appears to be one major side-effect of Type II diabetes. One study, published in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition in 1999, stated that LDL cholesterol ("bad" cholesterol) is much more susceptible to damage in diabetics than in nondiabetics. Damaged LDL cholesterol is known to increase the risk of heart disease. The same study also indicated that antioxidants — specifically, 24 milligrams of beta-carotene, 1,000 milligrams of vitamin C and 800 IU of vitamin E — significantly decreased damage to LDL cholesterol in diabetics, thus decreasing the risk of heart disease.

Another study, published in the journal Diabetes in 1999, reported that oxidative stress (increased free radical damage to tissues) most likely causes the various forms of tissue damage in diabetics. It also suggested that antioxidant therapy can help preserve the cells in the pancreas that release insulin. In other words, by increasing their antioxidant intake, diabetics can help prevent a worsening of their condition and heart disease.

Vitamin C can help prevent other complications of Type II diabetes by inhibiting the production of a sugar called sorbitol. Sorbitol is a byproduct of sugar metabolism inside cells. In patients who aren't diabetic, sorbitol is easily converted to a harmless sugar called fructose (a sugar found in fruit). Because diabetics can have unusually high levels of sugar in their bloodstream, they tend to make more sorbitol, which can accumulate inside cells. Excess sorbitol can contribute to the development of peripheral neuropathy (loss of nerve function, most commonly in the feet) and cataracts.æA study published in the journal Diabetes in 1989 found that sorbitol levels decreased in diabetic patients when they ingested 2,000 milligrams of vitamin C per day.

In addition to eating an abundance of foods high in vitamin C, such as oranges, guavas, green peppers, brussels sprouts and broccoli, it is recommended that diabetics take vitamin C as a supplement. Some studies suggest that taking high levels of vitamin C can help prevent some of the complications of diabetes. Some studies recommend supplementation with 1,000 milligrams per day, others recommend up to 3,000 milligrams.

Because there is so much that natural medicine has to offer the diabetic patient, and because there is a large number of diabetes patients in Hawai'i, my column next month will cover traditional herbal medicines used in the treatment of Type II diabetes. By making lifestyle and dietary changes, taking antioxidants and using herbal supplements, the Type II diabetic can choose to keep their diabetes under control while helping to prevent other chronic degenerative conditions.

Laurie Steelsmith is a naturopathic physician and licensed acupuncturist in Honolulu.

Hawai'i experts in traditional medicine, naturopathic medicine, diet and exercise take turns writing the Prescriptions column. Write: Prescriptions, 'Ohana Section, The Honolulu Advertiser, P.O. Box 3110, Honolulu, HI 96802; e-mail ohana@honoluluadvertiser.com; fax 535-8170. This column is not intended to provide medical advice; you should consult your doctor.