by Marsha Bennett, MCHC
The incidences of heart disease and diabetes have dramatically increased in the US and around the world, as our consumption of fake foods filled with sugar and simple carbohydrates has followed similar trends. While mainstream media and the culture it feeds would have us believe that we’re simply not exercising enough or that we’re eating too much, a greater understanding of the interplay of diet and exercise and how they impact our blood sugar and insulin levels is critical in preventing heart disease, diabetes and a long list of other health conditions that impact us and the ones we love.
Chances are that someone you know has heart disease and/or diabetes, given that the rates of both have steadily increased for decades. Cardiovascular diseases lead other causes of death in the US and across the world1, and it’s estimated that 1 in 4 adults over 65 in the US suffer from diabetes2. In North Carolina specifically, 11% of adults aged 45-64 suffered from heart disease, and 14% of this group suffered from diabetes3, according to a 2010 study. Those numbers are likely much higher 7 years later, and even more so given that there is a significant population who do not seek medical care, meaning these numbers are likely underreported. It’s important to understand the implications of the health crisis facing our nation and our communities as the first step in determining how we can address the causal factors that lead to these startling statistics.
Many of the known causal factors of heart disease and diabetes have a common denominator, unstable insulin levels, related directly to rises and falls in blood sugar. Blood sugar levels rise as carbohydrates from the food we eat are absorbed into the blood stream from the intestines. Carbs are the primary source of energy for our cells, and a healthy body is able to release just the right amount of insulin, a hormone that attaches to the cell membrane, opening channels that funnel the glucose into the cells for energy. When blood sugar levels rise due to excess carbohydrates entering our bodies, the excess insulin produced in this process moves elsewhere and is stored most often in the liver and the belly. It is this excess insulin that leads to diabetes, and the effects of the excess insulin and spikes in blood sugar lead to a whole host of other issues in our bodies, dramatically increasing the incidences of most age-related diseases, including heart disease, Alzheimer’s, arthritis and other “-itis” illnesses that result from excess inflammation in the body.
As we age in a healthy way, through diet and exercise, our bodies are able to clean up and repair themselves, from the inside out. If we go through life eating too much, eating unhealthy foods and not engaging in movement that gets our hearts pounding and our blood moving, three processes occur that go hand in hand with diseases like diabetes and heart disease. Oxidation is basically rust that attacks our cells and tissues. Inflammation is a normal process of repairing wear and tear on our bodies, but this process out of control (excess inflammation) is the primary cause of unhealthy aging. And, glycation is the process that occurs when frequently high blood glucose levels cause a build-up of sludge in our arteries. This process causes heart disease and, as we’ve already discovered, the very same issue of excess blood sugar is the cause of diabetes. Each of these processes plays a role in the culmination of diabetes, heart disease, and a long list of other health conditions that adults in the US and across the world face4.
The foods we put into our bodies and how we move have the greatest impact on our health, both positive and negative. A healthy diet, combined with exercise, will ensure that the mechanisms our bodies have in place to heal themselves are able to function as they were designed. Keeping insulin levels stable by eating real food, in small amounts, throughout the day helps keep the processes of glycation, oxidation and inflammation in check. Add to that rigorous exercise for at least 20 minutes every day, and the body will produce and release nitric oxide to help clean up the garbage left behind by these processes. While the prognosis may seem grim, the good news is that our health is literally in our hands. Our bodies make their own medicine! With the right diet and a good plan to keep your body moving, you can keep your internal pharmacy open 24/7, dramatically decreasing your risk of diabetes, heart disease and just about every other age-related illness out there.
2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention National diabetes fact sheet 2011, 2012. Available from http://www.cdc.gov/diabetes/pubs/factsheet11.htm