Today 415 Million people are living with diabetes globally. This number is expected to rise to half a billion by the year 2040. Despite so many people suffering from the condition, scientists around the world have not yet been able to find a cure. As studies continue, more insights become available to better understand the condition.
Why diabetes can’t be cured
Diabetes is a life-long, chronic disease where insulin-producing beta cells in the pancreas are either destroyed or damaged or not using insulin properly. This means the body can’t make the insulin required to move glucose from the blood into cells. When glucose builds up in the blood instead of going into cells, the body’s cells can’t function properly.
Presently, there are a few things diabetics can do that could make a big difference. By making certain lifestyle changes, some patients with type 2 diabetes can achieve remission. This means that glucose levels can return to a non-diabetes range, or pre-diabetes glucose levels.
What remission means
When diabetes goes into remission, it means that the body does not show any signs of the disease, although it is technically still present.
It isn’t exactly known what constitutes remission, but many doctors consider A1C levels below 6% over a 3-month period without medication, as achieving remission.
We speak about remission, and not a cure because diabetes is a permanent and ongoing disease. Your beta cells are already damaged and the underlying genetics which contributed to you getting diabetes (your pancreas not making insulin), is still present. This means that the condition could return at any time for various reasons, such as weight gain or age. As you get older, your pancreatic function also declines.
The three types of remission
Partial remission: When you have maintained blood glucose levels lower than that of a person with diabetes (pre-diabetes levels) for at least 1 year without needing to use any diabetes medication.
Complete remission: When your blood glucose level returns to normal levels completely outside of the range of diabetes or pre-diabetes and stays there for at least 1 year without any medications.
Prolonged remission: When you have been in complete remission for at least 5 years.
How diabetes remission can be achieved
In most instances, people with type 2 diabetes achieve remission by losing significant amounts of weight. It is also more likely in the early stages of diabetes before the disease has progressed.
Other lifestyle changes include changes to your diet, maintaining a healthy weight, exercising, and managing stress. These changes could lead to you reaching and holding normal blood sugar levels without medication. Before making any big lifestyle changes, you should consult your doctor or healthcare provider so that you do not put your health at risk. Don’t take any supplements without speaking to your doctor as they can interfere with your diabetes medication.
Remember that it is not easy to achieve remission. It takes extreme discipline and commitment to go into and remain in remission. It is important that you maintain a healthy lifestyle and continue to do the necessary medical checks.
Manage your blood sugar levels – continue to check your glucose levels regularly.
Eating plan – stick to your recommended eating plan as often as you can.
Healthy snacks – keep some with you to snack on instead of high-fat convenience foods.
Maintain a healthy weight – do not lose weight too quickly and keep your weight at an acceptable level.
Exercise – it lowers your blood sugar levels, keeps you fit, reduces stress, and helps you lose weight.
Keep up with your medical appointments – continue to go for regular health checks with your doctor and other healthcare professionals. Your doctor must continue to check your blood sugar levels, blood pressure, and cholesterol and make sure your kidneys, eyes, feet, and heart function normally.
Although remission can be achieved through lifestyle changes, it is also possible through other treatments.
Weight Loss Surgery
Some people have gone into remission after weight loss surgery, such as a gastric bypass or gastric banding, where they have seen their blood sugar levels return to near normal levels. The more weight a person loses after surgery, the greater improvement in blood sugar control. Unfortunately, the opposite is also true and if the extra weight returns after surgery, diabetes can return too.
Bariatric surgery is generally only considered for patients who are morbidly obese and at risk for serious health complications.
Following a very low-calorie diet or structured weight loss programs could reduce the levels of fat in the pancreas and liver. Although still being studied, consuming 600 calories a day could potentially reverse or eliminate insulin resistance.
Islet Cell Transplantation
If successful, an islet cell transplant can improve the quality of life for a person with diabetes. The cells will come from a donor and sense blood sugar levels and make insulin.
If the transplant is a success, the donor cells will begin to make and release insulin in response to blood sugar levels. The person who receives the transplant will have to take medication for the rest of their life to prevent their body from rejecting the donor’s cells.
This is still an evolving technology that is being researched.
Perhaps the most extreme measure is a pancreatic transplant for some people with type 1 diabetes. It is usually only an option for patients who also have end-stage kidney/renal disease.
A pancreatic transplant would help restore blood sugar control, but the patient would need to take medicine for the rest of their life so that their body does not reject the new organ.
Stem Cell Research
Scientists are looking at many ways to restore or replace the number of functioning beta cells and stop the immune system from attacking these beta cells again. One of the ways is through stem cell therapy and some clinical trials have already been done. Although cell-based therapy shows promise, it has not cured anyone with diabetes yet and it is not likely to be an option for at least a few more years to come.