Holistic ways to live well with diabetes
Chelsey Allen, RHN
Balance is an integral component of living well with diabetes. Einstein once theorized that “life is like riding a bicycle. To keep your balance, you must keep moving.” This token of wisdom is especially relevant when it comes to regulating blood sugar levels and learning how to thrive with diabetes.
While the cruiser bike might be tucked away until spring, we can still embrace our Canadian winter and commit to healthy habits—without slipping down an icy slope of poor diet and lifestyle patterns. For optimal ways to support wellness and balance blood sugar this winter, read on.
Naturopathic doctor Loreen Dawson says, “The most effective way to support the immune system in winter months is to get adequate sleep, followed by a healthy diet and stress management.”
Research shows that prolonged lack of sleep and the accompanying stress response causes chronic inflammation, as well as immunodeficiency. Sleep loss can lead to impaired glucose metabolism and an increase in insulin levels, which could raise the risk of developing type 2 diabetes. Reducing stress is also a key factor in offsetting insulin resistance.
In types 1 and 2 diabetes, susceptibility to infection is higher as the immune response is generally lower. Elevated blood glucose levels contribute to suppressed immunity, chronic inflammation, and poor wound healing. Thus, maintaining a healthy immune system is critical for people living with diabetes.
Dawson agrees that managing intake of sugar and processed carbohydrates is critical in diabetes and immune health. Decreasing sugar and refined carb intake not only improves blood sugar balance, but may also mitigate inflammatory responses and enhance immune function.
’Tis the season for heavier comfort food and pre-festive indulging. As diabetes doesn’t go on holiday, moderation is key. Integrating healthy plant-powered dishes will help regulate blood sugar and sustain energy in the chilly months—or chili season, rather?
Spice it up with homemade blended soups and nourishing chili bowls that offer fibre, protein, and complex carbohydrates. Make space on your winter roasting pan for lower glycemic nutrient-dense vegetables such as broccoli, cauliflower, spaghetti squash, pumpkin, and zucchini.
Avoid heavily sweetened beverages and packaged snacks—even if they’re zero calorie or sweetened naturally. While they may help with transitioning away from refined sugar, these stealth sweeteners serve to amplify our innate sweet tooth and sugar cravings.
For a healthy treat without feeling deprived (think 80/20 rule), opt for diabetes-friendly desserts that have satiating plant fats, high fibre content, and smaller amounts of naturally occurring fruit sugar.
A diet high in quality protein, healthy fats (avocado, unrefined coconut oil, raw nuts), and low glycemic plant foods (more leafy greens and seeds, less starchy legumes and whole grains) can be an effective approach to managing diabetes. Consuming quality protein is critical in sustaining energy and balancing blood sugar.
A randomized study of 83 men and women with type 2 diabetes found that a high-protein diet, paired with resistance training, resulted in weight loss, favourable changes in body composition, and improvements in blood sugar control.
Incorporate clean sources of protein such as wild-caught fish, organic grass-fed lean meat, free-range eggs, tempeh, sprouted seeds, and moderate amounts of beans and legumes.
Making friends with fibre can have a tremendous impact on blood sugar. Studies on soluble fibre have shown a decrease in post-meal blood sugar by an average of 20 percent in individuals with type 1 and 2 diabetes. Dietary fibre helps buffer high blood sugar through a delay in gastric emptying, or the rate at which glucose enters the bloodstream.
Improve blood sugar balance and gut health by eating high-fibre foods such as raw vegetables, berries, psyllium, ground flax, chia, and hemp hearts. As the festive side-dish season approaches, try spearing some artichokes—one medium artichoke contains nearly 7 g of fibre.
Nature offers a bounty of natural blood sugar regulators. Prior to starting a new herb or supplement protocol, always consult a qualified healthcare practitioner.
Gymnema sylvestre, fenugreek seed, and prickly pear cactus have all shown promise in lowering blood glucose levels and improving metabolic control in diabetes. Supplementing with the micromineral chromium picolinate can also promote the action of insulin and glucose metabolism.
Vitamin D is vital in modulating immune cells and regulating inflammation. Vitamin D deficiency may also be involved in the development of autoimmune conditions such as type 1 diabetes.
This time of year, it can be a dark challenge to find 15 minutes of daylight to synthesize vitamin D through the skin. Given individual variations, Dawson recommends “testing vitamin D levels in the fall and consulting your health care practitioner to optimize vitamin D stores.” Food sources high in vitamin D include organic cage-free eggs and yolks, wild cold-water fatty fish, and sun-dried shiitake mushrooms.
Practising mindful eating can enhance the enjoyment and digestion of each meal, not to mention reduce stress.
One study found that mindfulness meditation training helped people with type 2 diabetes improve their overall food choices, weight loss, and blood sugar levels.
Mindful eating habits include chewing each bite thoroughly, disconnecting from screen time, and sitting at the table during meals. Dawson notes that completing a diet diary and monitoring post-meal blood glucose levels can help instil mindful eating habits with diabetes.
Although the weather outside may be frightful, connecting with nature and being active outdoors is essential to thriving. Regular exercise of moderate intensity has been shown to encourage insulin sensitivity and weight management. One study found that 150 minutes of physical activity per week reduced the progression of type 2 diabetes by 58 percent in patients with impaired glucose tolerance.
Dawson recommends finding a physical activity that brings you bliss and making it a priority for at least 30 minutes, five times per week. In the winter, she encourages her clients to walk outside every day and participate in winter sports and indoor movement such as swimming and yoga.
Type 2 diabetes is a staggering global epidemic; often portrayed as chronic and degenerative. Sticking to a sustainable lifestyle and dietary shifts, regularly monitoring blood sugar, and working with a complementary health practitioner can vastly improve wellness with diabetes—throughout the winter and beyond.
In Canada, more than 60,000 people are diagnosed with type 2 diabetes annually. Risk factors include insulin resistance, heredity, sedentary habits, high consumption of refined sugar, and obesity. In type 2 diabetes, the pancreas typically still produces insulin. When the pancreas is perpetually working overtime to produce insulin to convert glucose into energy, cells become desensitized and sugar builds up in the blood. This is known as insulin resistance.
Type 1 diabetes is characterized by an autoimmune attack on the insulin-producing beta cells in the pancreas. People living with type 1 diabetes require daily self-administered insulin, which does not replace the body’s innate ability to produce insulin and balance blood sugar.
Diabetes-related complications for both type 1 and 2 include blindness, neuropathy, kidney failure, amputation, heart disease, and stroke.