This story of a fight with type 2 diabetes ends on a sweet note

In this account of how he cured himself of diabetes, Ajith Pillai delves into how a personal understanding of his condition led him to explore ways of recovery and to a reversal of diagnosis 

Is there hope for diabetics? Most doctors will tell you that it is an incurable disease which requires lifelong management and daily intervention. In fact, `once a patient, always a patient’ is the chilling verdict delivered the moment the lab report reveals that your blood sugar levels are abnormally high.

You become a diabetic. It is a life changing moment. Then on, your lifestyle undergoes a dramatic change as you are forced to think twice before choosing what you eat and drink. More importantly, your medical bills suddenly shoot up as you become a regular at your local chemist to replenish your supply of insulin or oral anti-diabetic drugs. And regular check-ups become necessary to ensure that all is well.

You are also justifiably cautioned that should you be lax in keeping your sugar levels under control, you run the risk of coronary heart disease, stroke, diabetic retinopathy and a host of other complications.

But the prognosis need not be that dismal. This is my account of how I reversed diabetes. It is not a story about miracle cures or alternative therapies, but about a personal understanding of my condition that led me to explore ways of helping my body recover. I must emphasise here that in doing so, I didn’t do anything rash and presumptuous like discontinue medication or stop visiting my diabetologist. In fact, it was he who finally recommended that I stop my medicines.

While my corrective action was intuitive, there is new medical research that suggests that the path taken was effective and with some scientific basis.

Instead of giving up hope and resigning to life as a diabetic, I began reading up on my condition. For a start, I discovered that to keep blood sugar levels close to normal not only must I cut down on sugars but also keep a close watch on food consumed, particularly carbohydrates

However, it did come as a surprise when the prestigious medical journal, Lancet, in its December 5 2017 issue published a paper titled `Diabetes Remission Clinical Trial’ which made the medical fraternity as well as the $ 55.3 billion international diabetes drug trade sit up and take notice. The study, based on a two-year research conducted by a team of doctors from Glasgow and Newcastle universities, focused on type 2 diabetes and detailed how this condition can be reversed through diet and intense weight loss. In short, how it could be cured.

The research – carried out between July 2014 and August 2016 – monitored 298 adults aged 20-65 years with type 2 diabetes from across Scotland and the Tyneside region of England. The findings revealed that nine out of ten of those who participated in the study and underwent an intensive weight reduction programme, which saw them lose 15 kg each, became non-diabetic and could be taken off all medication.

The researchers concluded that weight reduction was key to type 2 diabetes reversal, particularly among patients who are obese. Prof Roy Taylor of Newcastle University, the lead researcher of the study funded by Diabetes UK, explained the significance of the conclusions drawn in an interview to the Guardian: “These findings are very exciting. They could revolutionise the way type 2 diabetes is treated. Substantial weight loss results in reduced fat inside the liver and pancreas, allowing these organs to return to normal function. What we’re seeing is that losing weight isn’t just linked to better management of type 2 diabetes: significant weight loss could actually result in lasting remission.”

According to him, doctors may not currently be treating type 2 diabetes in a holistic manner: “Rather than addressing the root cause, management guidelines for type 2 diabetes focus on reducing blood sugar levels through drug treatments. Diet and lifestyle are touched upon, but diabetes remission by cutting calories is rarely discussed,” he said.

For those who are not aware, patients of type 2 diabetes are those found to have high blood sugar levels due to two reasons: (1) the pancreas, which produces insulin required by the body for absorption of glucose or sugar, failing to function normally; and (2) the insulin produced not being used optimally by the body cells. Type 2 diabetes is often referred to as a disease triggered by poor eating habits and a sedentary lifestyle. Type 1 diabetes, on the other hand, is hereditary and is a condition where the pancreas cannot produce any insulin.

The Lancet study, based on a two-year research conducted by doctors from Glasgow and Newcastle universities, focused on type 2 diabetes and detailed how this condition can be reversed through diet and intense weight loss. In short, how it could be cured

I read the Lancet report with great interest. It took me back to 2014 when I was rushed to the ICU of a Delhi hospital with dengue. During the course of the treatment, doctors informed me that my blood sugar levels were alarmingly high. I was diagnosed as suffering from type 2 diabetes and prescribed insulin shots thrice a day before every meal. The dosage, I was told, would be reduced should my sugar levels come down.

A young dietician counselled me and provided a diet chart. I was repeatedly reminded that type 2 diabetes had no cure and that I must learn to live with it. It was depressing to come home from hospital with a bag full of disposable syringes, vials of insulin and a glucometer to monitor my sugar levels.

But instead of giving up hope and resigning to life as a diabetic, I began reading up on my condition. For a start, I discovered that to keep blood sugar levels close to normal not only must I cut down on sugars but also keep a close watch on food consumed, particularly carbohydrates. This is because the body converts carbohydrates into glucose or sugar which requires insulin for absorption. I also learnt some dietary basics-- that whole wheat and brown rice are better carbohydrates since they are also rich in fibres which slows down the rate of absorption and hence staggers the demand for insulin. But when you eat polished rice or refined flour, the absorption process is that much faster and hence the body demands an insulin rush which the pancreas may not be able to meet. This leads to heightened sugar levels in the blood.

My reading led me to wonder if my condition would improve if I tax my pancreas less by cutting down the demand for insulin. I even reckoned my pancreas may perhaps recuperate once I gave it sufficient rest. So, as a first step, I cut my calorie intake by eating a lot more salads, steamed vegetables, measured quantities of fruits and some chicken or fish. I reduced carbohydrates to what I figured was necessary (remember, it cannot be cut out altogether). I also declared alcohol a non-essential, although my doctor said two small drinks once a week were permissible. Of course, sweets, junk food, juices and colas were totally out.

Without an inkling about the research being conducted by the Glasgow and Newcastle universities, I started to lose weight. And as I shed the kilos, my sugar levels came down. I was taken off insulin and put on oral medication in a matter of weeks. Over the 14 months, my dosage was tapered till in early 2016 my doctor broke the good news that I would no longer require medicines. He declared mine a freak case. “I have lost a patient,” he said in jest. By now, I had scaled down from 85 kg to 65 kg.

It’s almost two years since I have discontinued medication. My HbA1c tests which give a three-month average of blood sugar levels show that I am non-diabetic. My glucometer lies unused in the corner of the cupboard.

But the key to maintaining my non-diabetic status, as the British study noted, is to ensure that I do not regain weight. So, I still continue my diet with a few additions. I have also added spot jogging five days a week to my regimen.

During the study, Taylor and his team advised patients a period of dietary weight loss with no increase in physical activity, but during the long-term follow up their daily activity was stepped up and mild exercise included. The research paper noted that bariatric surgery can achieve weight loss and reversal of diabetes in about three quarters of patients, but is risky and expensive. In India such surgery costs upwards of Rs 5 lakh.

The findings of the research merits serious attention from health authorities in India, which has an alarmingly high diabetic population. According to data released by the World Health Organization (WHO), India ranks second in the list of countries with the maximum number of diabetics. In 2015, there were 69.2 million people suffering from the disease and a sizeable majority of those afflicted had type 2 diabetes. The numbers are expected to double by 2030.

The money expended on diabetes medication has also seen a sharp increase. With studies indicating that diabetes is no longer a problem of the rich in India, a holistic and inexpensive treatment strategy is called for. In evolving that, the research from Glasgow and Newcastle universities could perhaps be of immense help.

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