Excess Eating, Overweight, and Diabetic
Larry H Bernstein, MD, FCAP, Curator
You Did NOT Eat Your Way to Diabetes!
The myth that diabetes is caused by overeating also hurts the one out of five people who are not overweight when they contract Type 2 Diabetes. Because doctors only think “Diabetes” when they see a patient who fits the stereotype–the grossly obese inactive patient–they often neglect to check people of normal weight for blood sugar disorders even when they show up with classic symptoms of high blood sugar such as recurrent urinary tract infections or neuropathy.
Where Did This Toxic Myth Come From?
The way this myth originated is this: Because people with Type 2 Diabetes are often overweight and because many people who are overweight have a syndrome called “insulin resistance” in which their cells do not respond properly to insulin so that they require larger than normal amounts of insulin to lower their blood sugar, the conclusion was drawn years ago that insulin resistance was the cause of Type 2 Diabetes.
It made sense. Something was burning out the beta cells in these people, and it seemed logical that the something must be the stress of pumping out huge amounts of insulin, day after day. This idea was so compelling that it was widely believed by medical professionals, though few realized it had never been subjected to careful investigation by large-scale research.
That is why any time there is an article in the news about Type 2 Diabetes you are likely to read something that says, “While Type 1 diabetes (sometimes called Juvenile Diabetes) is a condition where the body does not produce insulin, Type 2 Diabetes is the opposite: a condition where the body produces far too much insulin because of insulin resistance caused by obesity.”
When your doctor tells you the same thing, the conclusion is inescapable: your overeating caused you to put on excess fat and that your excess fat is what made you diabetic.
Blaming the Victim
This line of reasoning leads to subtle, often unexpressed, judgmental decisions on the part of your doctor, who is likely to believe that had you not been such a pig, you would not have given yourself this unnecessary disease.
And because of this unspoken bias, unless you are able to “please” your doctor by losing a great deal of weight after your diagnosis you may find yourself treated with a subtle but callous disregard because of the doctor’s feeling that you brought this condition down on yourself. This bias is similar to that held by doctors who face patients who smoke a pack a day and get lung cancer and still refuse to stop smoking.
You also see this bias frequently expressed in the media. Articles on the “obesity epidemic” blame overeating for a huge increase in the number of people with diabetes, including children and teenagers who are pictured greedily gorging on supersized fast foods while doing no exercise more strenuous than channel surfing. In a society where the concepts “thin” and “healthy” have taken on the overtones of moral virtue and where the only one of the seven deadly sins that still inspires horror and condemnation is gluttony, being fat is considered by many as sure proof of moral weakness. So it is not surprising that the subtext of media coverage of obesity and diabetes is that diabetes is nothing less than the just punishment you deserve for being such a glutton.
Except that it’s not true.
Obesity Has Risen Dramatically While Diabetes Rates Have Not
The rate of obesity has grown alarmingly over the past decades, especially in certain regions of the U.S. The NIH reports that “From 1960-2 to 2005-6, the prevalence of obesity increased from 13.4 to 35.1 percent in U.S. adults age 20 to 74.7.”
If obesity was causing diabetes, you’d exect to see a similar rise in the diabetes rate. But this has not happened. The CDC reports that “From 1980 through 2010, the crude prevalence of diagnosed diabetes increased …from 2.5% to 6.9%.” However, if you look at the graph that accompanies this statement, you see that the rate of diabetes diagnoses rose only gradually through this period–to about 3.5% until it suddenly sped upward in the late 1990s. This sudden increase largely due to the fact that in 1998 the American Diabetes Association changed the criteria by which diabetes was to be diagnosed, lowering the fasting blood sugar level used to diagnose diabetes from 141 mg/dl to 126 mg/dl. (Details HERE)
Analyzing these statistics, it becomes clear that though roughtly 65 million more Americans became fat over this period, only 13 million more Americans became diabetic.
And to further confuse the matter, several factors other than the rise in obesity and the ADA’s lowering of the diagnostic cutoff also came into play during this period which also raised the rate of diabetes diagnoses:
Diabetes becomes more common as people age as the pancreas like other organs, becames less efficient. In 1950 only 12% of the U.S. population was over 65. By 2010 40% was, and of those 40%, 19% were over 75.(Details HERE.)
At the same time, the period during which the rate of diabetes rose was also the period in which doctors began to heavily prescribe statins, a class of drugs we now know raises the risk of developing diabetes. (Details HERE.)
Why Obesity Doesn’t Cause Diabetes: The Genetic Basis of Diabetes
While people who have diabetes are often heavy, one out of five people diagnosed with diabetes are thin or normal weight. And though heavy people with diabetes are, indeed, likely to be insulin resistant, the majority of people who are overweight will never develop diabetes. In fact, they will not develop diabetes though they are likely to be just as insulin resistant as those who do–or even more so.
The message that diabetes researchers in academic laboratories are coming up with about what really causes diabetes is quite different from what you read in the media. What they are finding is that to get Type 2 Diabetes you need to have some combination of a variety of already-identified genetic flaws which produce the syndrome that we call Type 2 Diabetes. This means that unless you have inherited abnormal genes or had your genes damaged by exposure to pesticides, plastics and other environmental toxins known to cause genetic damage, you can eat until you drop and never develop diabetes.
Now let’s look in more depth at what peer reviewed research has found about the true causes of diabetes
Twin Studies Back up a Genetic Cause for Diabetes
Studies of identical twins showed that twins have an 80% concordance for Type 2 Diabetes. In other words, if one twin has Type 2 Diabetes, the chance that the other will have it two are 4 out of 5. While you might assume that this might simply point to the fact that twins are raised in the same home by mothers who feed them the same unhealthy diets, studies of non-identical twins found NO such correlation. The chances that one non-identical twin might have Type 2 Diabetes if the other had it were much lower, though these non-identical twins, born at the same time and raised by the same caregivers were presumably also exposed to the same unhealthy diets.
This kind of finding begins to hint that there is more than just bad habits to blame for diabetes. A high concordance between identical twins which is not shared by non-identical twins is usually advanced as an argument for a genetic cause, though because one in five identical twins did not become diabetic, it is assumed that some additional factors beyond the inherited genome must come into play to cause the disease to appear. Often this factor is an exposure to an environmental toxin which knocks out some other, protective genetic factor.
The Genetic Basis of Type 2 Diabetes Mellitus: Impaired Insulin Secretion versus Impaired Insulin Sensitivity. John E. Gerich. Endocrine Reviews 19(4) 491-503, 1998.
The List of Genes Associated with Type 2 Keeps Growing
Here is a brief list of some of the abnormal genes that have been found to be associated with Type 2 Diabetes in people of European extraction: TCF7L2, HNF4-a, PTPN, SHIP2, ENPP1, PPARG, FTO, KCNJ11, NOTCh3, WFS1, CDKAL1, IGF2BP2, SLC30A8, JAZF1, and HHEX.
People from non-European ethnic groups have been found to have entirely different sets of diabetic genes than do Western Europeans, like the UCP2 polymorphism found in Pima Indians and the three Calpain-10 gene polymorphisms that have been found to be associated with diabetes in Mexicans. The presence of a variation in yet another gene, SLC16A11, was recently found to be associated with a 25% higher risk of a Mexican developing Type 2 diabetes.
The More Diabetes Genes You Have The Worse Your Beta Cells Perform
A study published in the Journal Diabetologia in November 2008 studied how well the beta cells secreted insulin in 1,211 non-diabetic individuals. They then screened these people for abnormalities in seven genes that have been found associated with Type 2 Diabetes.
They found that with each abnormal gene found in a person’s genome, there was an additive effect on that person’s beta cell dysfunction with each additional gene causing poorer beta cell function.
The impact of these genetic flaws becomes clear when we learn that in these people who were believed to be normal, beta cell glucose sensitivity and insulin production at meal times was decreased by 39% in people who had abnormalities in five genes. That’s almost half. And if your beta cells are only putting out half as much insulin as a normal person’s it takes a lot less stress on those cells to push you into becoming diabetic.
Beta cell glucose sensitivity is decreased by 39% in non-diabetic individuals carrying multiple diabetes-risk alleles compared with those with no risk alleles L. Pascoe et al. Diabetologia, Volume 51, Number 11 / November, 2008.
Gene Tests Predict Diabetes Independent of Conventional “Risk Factors”
A study of 16,061 Swedish and 2770 Finnish subjects found that
Variants in 11 genes (TCF7L2, PPARG, FTO, KCNJ11, NOTCh3, WFS1, CDKAL1, IGF2BP2, SLC30A8, JAZF1, and HHEX) were significantly associated with the risk of Type 2 Diabetes independently of clinical risk factors [i.e. family history, obesity etc.]; variants in 8 of these genes were associated with impaired beta-cell function.
Note that though the subjects here were being screened for Type 2 Diabetes, the defect found here was NOT insulin resistance, but rather deficient insulin secretion. This study also found that:
The discriminative power of genetic risk factors improved with an increasing duration of follow-up, whereas that of clinical risk factors decreased.
In short, the longer these people were studied, the more likely the people with these gene defects were to develop diabetes.
Clinical Risk Factors, DNA Variants, and the Development of Type 2 Diabetes Valeriya Lyssenko, M.D. et. al. New England Journal of Medicine, Volume 359:2220-2232, November 20, 2008,Number 21.
What A Common Diabetes Gene Does
A study published in July of 2009 sheds light on what exactly it is that an allele (gene variant) often found associated with diabetes does. The allele in question is one of TCF7L2 transcription factor gene. The study involved 81 normal healthy young Danish men whose genes were tested. They were then given a battery of tests to examine their glucose metabolisms. The researchers found that:
Carriers of the T allele were characterised by reduced 24 h insulin concentrations … and reduced insulin secretion relative to glucose during a mixed meal test … but not during an IVGTT [intravenous glucose tolerance test].
This is an interesting finding, because what damages our bodies is the blood sugar we experience after eating “a mixed meal” but so much research uses the artificial glucose tolerance (GTT) test to assess blood sugar health. This result suggests that the GTT may be missing important signs of early blood sugar dysfunction and that the mixed meal test may be a better diagnostic test than the GTT. I have long believed this to be true, since so many people experience reactive lows when they take the GTT which produces a seemingly “normal reading” though they routinely experience highs after eating meals. These highs are what damage our organs.
Young men with the TCF7L2 allele also responded with weak insulin secretion in response to the incretin hormone GLP-1 and “Despite elevated hepatic [liver] glucose production, carriers of the T allele had significantly reduced 24 h glucagon concentrations … suggesting altered alpha cell function.”
Here again we see evidence that long before obesity develops, people with this common diabetes gene variant show highly abnormal blood sugar behavior. Abnormal production of glucose by the liver may also contribute to obesity as metformin, a drug that that blocks the liver’s production of glucose blocks weight gain and often causes weight loss.
The T allele of rs7903146 TCF7L2 is associated with impaired insulinotropic action of incretin hormones, reduced 24 h profiles of plasma insulin and glucagon, and increased hepatic glucose production in young healthy men. K. Pilgaard et al. Diabetologia, Issue Volume 52, Number 7 / July, 2009. DOI 10.1007/s00125-009-1307-x
Genes Linked to African Heritage Linked to Poor Carbohydrate Metabolism
It has long been known that African-Americans have a much higher rate of diabetes and metabolic syndrome than the American population as a whole. This has been blamed on lifestyle, but a 2009 genetic study finds strong evidence that the problem is genetic.
The study reports,
Using genetic samples obtained from a cohort of subjects undergoing cardiac-related evaluation, a strict algorithm that filtered for genomic features at multiple levels identified 151 differentially-expressed genes between Americans of African ancestry and those of European ancestry. Many of the genes identified were associated with glucose and simple sugar metabolism, suggestive of a model whereby selective adaptation to the nutritional environment differs between populations of humans separated geographically over time.
In the full text discussion the authors state,
These results suggest that differences in glucose metabolism between Americans of African and European may reside at the transcriptional level. The down-regulation of these genes in the AA cohorts argues against these changes being a compensatory response to hyperglycemia and suggests instead a genetic adaptation to changes in the availability of dietary sugars that may no longer be appropriate to a Western Diet.
In conclusion the authors note that the vegetarian diet of the Seventh Day Adventists, often touted as proof of the usefulness of the “Diet Pyramid” doesn’t provide the touted health benefits to people of African American Heritage. Obviously, when hundreds of carbohydrate metabolizing genes aren’t working properly the diet needed is a low carbohydrate diet.
The study is available in full text here:
Stable Patterns of Gene Expression Regulating Carbohydrate Metabolism Determined by Geographic AncestryJonathan C. Schisler et. al. PLoS One 4(12): e8183. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0008183
Gene that Disrupts Circadian Clock Associated with Type 2 Diabetes
It has been known for a while that people who suffer from sleep disturbances often suffer raised insulin resistance. In December of 2008, researchers identified a gene, “rs1387153, near MTNR1B (which encodes the melatonin receptor 2 (MT2)), as a modulator of fasting plasma glucose.” They conclude,
Our data suggest a possible link between circadian rhythm regulation and glucose homeostasis through the melatonin signaling pathway.
Melatonin levels appear to control the body clock which, in turn, regulates the secretion of substances that modify blood pressure, hormone levels, insulin secretion and many other processes throughout the body.
A variant near MTNR1B is associated with increased fasting plasma glucose levels and type 2 diabetes risk. Nabila Bouatia-Naji et al. Nature Genetics Published online: 7 December 2008, doi:10.1038/ng.277
There’s an excellent translation of what this study means, translated into layman’s terms at Science Daily:
The Environmental Factors That Push Borderline Genes into Full-fledged Diabetes
We’ve seen so far that to get Type 2 Diabetes you seem to need to have some diabetes gene or genes, but that not everyone with these genes develops diabetes. There are what scientists call environmental factors that can push a borderline genetic case into full fledged diabetes. Let’s look now at what the research has found about what some of these environmental factors might be.
Your Mother’s Diet During Pregnancy May Have Caused Your Diabetes
Many “environmental factors” that scientists explore occur in the environment of the womb. Diabetes is no different, and the conditions you experienced when you were a fetus can have life-long impact on your blood sugar control.
Researchers following the children of mothers who had experienced a Dutch famine during World War II found that children of mothers who had experienced famine were far more likely to develop diabetes in later life than a control group from the same population whose mothers had been adequately fed.
Glucose tolerance in adults after prenatal exposure to famine. Ravelli AC et al.Lancet. 1998 Jan 17;351(9097):173-7.,
A study of a Chinese population found a link between low birth weight and the development of both diabetes and impaired glucose regulation (i.e. prediabetes) that was independent of “sex, age, central obesity, smoking status, alcohol consumption, dyslipidemia, family history of diabetes, and occupational status.” Low birth weight in this population may well be due to less than optimal maternal nutrition during pregnancy.
Evidence of a Relationship Between Infant Birth Weight and Later Diabetes and Impaired Glucose Regulation in a Chinese Population Xinhua Xiao et. al. Diabetes Care31:483-487, 2008.
This may not seem all that relevant to Americans whose mothers have not been exposed to famine conditions. But to conclude this is to forget how many American teens and young women suffer from eating disorders and how prevalent crash dieting is in the group of women most likely to get pregnant.
It is also true that until the 1980s obstetricians routinely warned pregnant women against gaining what is now understood to be a healthy amount of weight. When pregnant women started to gain weight, doctors often put them on highly restrictive diets which resulted in many case in the birth of underweight babies.
Your Mother’s Gestational Diabetes May Have Caused Your Diabetes
Maternal starvation is not the only pre-birth factor associated with an increased risk of diabetes. Having a well-fed mother who suffered gestational diabetes also increases a child’s risk both of obesity and of developing diabetes.
High Prevalence of Type 2 Diabetes and Pre-Diabetes in Adult Offspring of Women With Gestational Diabetes Mellitus or Type 1 Diabetes The role of intrauterine hyperglycemia Tine D. Clausen, MD et al. Diabetes Care 31:340-346, 2008
A study conducted among members of New York State’s Mohawk tribe found that the odds of being diagnosed with diabetes in this population was almost 4 times higher in members who had high concentrations of PCBs in their blood serum. It was even higher for those with high concentrations of pesticides in their blood.
Diabetes in Relation to Serum Levels of Polychlorinated Biphenyls and Chlorinated Pesticides in Adult Native Americans Neculai Codru, Maria J. Schymura,Serban Negoita,Robert Rej,and David O. Carpenter.Environ Health Perspect. 2007 October; 115(10): 1442-1447.Published online 2007 July 17. doi: 10.1289/ehp.10315.
It is very important to note that there is no reason to believe this phenomenon is limited to people of Native American heritage. Upstate NY has a well-known and very serious PCB problem–remember Love Canal? And the entire population of the U.S. has been overexposed to powerful pesticides for a generation.
More evidence that obesity may be caused by exposure to toxic pollutants which damage genes comes in a study published January of 2009. This study tracked the exposure of a group of pregnant Belgian woman to several common pollutants: hexachlorobenzene, dichlorodiphenyldichloroethylene (DDE) , dioxin-like compounds, and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). It found a correlation between exposure to PCBs and DDE and obesity by age 3, especially in children of mothers who smoked.
Intrauterine Exposure to Environmental Pollutants and Body Mass Index during the First 3 Years of Life Stijn L. Verhulst et al., Environmental Health Perspectives. Volume 117, Number 1, January 2009
These studies, which garnered no press attention at all, probably have more to tell us about the reason for the so-called “diabetes epidemic” than any other published over the last decade.
BPA and Plasticizers from Packaging Are Strongly Linked to Obesity and Insulin Resistance
BPA, the plastic used to line most metal cans has long been suspected of causing obesity. Now we know why. A study published in 2008 reported that BPA suppresses a key hormone, adiponectin, which is responsible for regulating insulin sensitivity in the body and puts people at a substantially higher risk for metabolic syndrome.
The impact of BPA on children is dramatic. Analysis of 7 years of NHANES epidemiological data found that having a high urine level of BPA doubles a child’s risk of being obese.
Bisphenol A and Chronic Disease Risk Factors in US Children. Eng, Donna et al.Pediatrics Published online August 19, 2013. doi: 10.1542/peds.2013-0106
You, and your children are getting far more BPA from canned foods than what health authorities assumed they were getting. A research report published in 2011 reported that the level of BPA actually measured in people’s bodies after they consumed canned soup turned out to be extremely high. People who ate a serving of canned soup every day for five days had BPA levels of 20.8 micrograms per liter of urine, whereas people who instead ate fresh soup had levels of 1.1 micrograms per liter.
Canned Soup Consumption and Urinary Bisphenol A: A Randomized Crossover Trial Carwile, JL et al. JAMA. November 23/30, 2011, Vol 306, No. 20
Nevertheless, the FDA caved in to industry pressure in 2012 and refused to regulate BPA claiming that, as usual, more study was needed. (FDA: BPA)
BPA is not the only toxic chemical associated with plastics that may be promoting insulin resistance. . Phthalates are compounds added to plastic to make it flexible. They rub off on our food and are found in our blood and urine. A study of 387 Hispanic and Black, New York City children who were between six and eight years old measured the phthalates in their urine and found that the more phthalates in their urine, the fatter the child was a year later.
Associations between phthalate metabolite urinary concentrations and body size measures in New York City children.
Susan L. Teitelbaum et al.Environ Res. 2012 Jan;112:186-93.
This finding was echosed by another study:
Urinary phthalates and increased insulin resistance in adolescents Trasande L, et al. Pediatrics 2013; DOI: 10.1542/peds.2012-4022.
And phthalates are everywhere. A study of 1,016 Swedes aged 70 years and older found that four phthalate metabolites were detected in the blood serum of almost all the participants. High levels of three of these were associated with the prevalence of diabetes. The researchers explain that one metabolite was mainly related to poor insulin secretion, whereas two others were related to insulin resistance. The researchers didn’t check to see whether this relationship held for prediabetes.
Circulating Levels of Phthalate Metabolites Are Associated With Prevalent Diabetes in the Elderly.Lind, MP et al. Diabetes. Published online before print April 12, 2012, doi: 10.2337/dc11-2396
Chances are very good that these same omnipresent phthalates are also causing insulin resistance and damaging insulin secretion in people whose ages fall between those of the two groups studied here.
Use of Herbicide Atrazine Maps to Obesity, Causes Insulin Resistance
A study published in April of 2009 mentions that “There is an apparent overlap between areas in the USA where the herbicide, atrazine (ATZ), is heavily used and obesity-prevalence maps of people with a BMI over 30.”
It found that when rats were given low doses of this pesticide in thier water, “Chronic administration of ATZ decreased basal metabolic rate, and increased body weight, intra-abdominal fat and insulin resistance without changing food intake or physical activity level.” In short the animals got fat even without changing their food intake. When the animals were fed a high fat,high carb diet, the weight gain was even greater.
Insulin resistance was increased too, which if it happens in people, means that people who have genetically-caused borderline capacity to secrete insulin are more likely to become diabetic when they are exposed to this chemical via food or their drinking water.
Chronic Exposure to the Herbicide, Atrazine, Causes Mitochondrial Dysfunction and Insulin Resistance PLoS ONE Published 13 Apr 2009
2,4-D A Common Herbicide Blocks Secretion of GLP-1–A Blood Sugar Lowering Gastric Peptide
In 2007 scientists at New York’s Mount Sinai Hospital discovered that the intestine has receptors for sugar identical to those found on the tongue and that these receptors regulate secretion of glucagon-like peptide-1 (GLP-1). GLP-1 is the peptide that is mimicked by the diabetes drug Byetta and which is kept elevated by Januvia and Onglyza. You can read about that finding in this Science Daily report:
In November 2009, these same scientists reported that a very common herbicide 2,4 D blocked this taste receptor, effectively turning off its ability to stimulate the production GLP-1. The fibrate drugs used to lower cholesterol were also found to block the receptor.
What was even more of concern was the discovery that the ability of these compounds to block this gut receptor “did not generalize across species to the rodent form of the receptor.” The lead researcher was quoted as saying,
…most safety tests were done using animals, which have T1R3 receptors that are insensitive to these compounds,
This takes on additional meaning when you realize that most compounds released into the environment are tested only on animals, not humans. It may help explain why so many supposedly “safe” chemicals are damaging human glucose metabolisms.
Trace Amounts of Arsenic in Urine Correlate with Dramatic Rise in Diabetes
A study published in JAMA in August of 2008 found of 788 adults who had participated in the 2003-2004 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) found those who had the most arsenic in their urine, were nearly four times more likely to have diabetes than those who had the least amount.
The study is reported here:
Arsenic Exposure and Prevalence of Type 2 Diabetes in US Adults. Ana Navas-Acien et al. JAMA. 2008;300(7):814-822.
The New York Times report about this study (no longer online) added this illuminating bit of information to the story:
Arsenic can get into drinking water naturally when minerals dissolve. It is also an industrial pollutant from coal burning and copper smelting. Utilities use filtration systems to get it out of drinking water.
Seafood also contains nontoxic organic arsenic. The researchers adjusted their analysis for signs of seafood intake and found that people with Type 2 Diabetes had 26 percent higher inorganic arsenic levels than people without Type 2 Diabetes.
How arsenic could contribute to diabetes is unknown, but prior studies have found impaired insulin secretion in pancreas cells treated with an arsenic compound.
Prescription Drugs, Especially SSRI Antidepressants Cause Obesity and Possibly Diabetes
Another important environmental factor is this: Type 2 Diabetes can be caused by some commonly prescribed drugs. Beta blockers and atypical antipsychotics like Zyprexa have been shown to cause diabetes in people who would not otherwise get it. This is discussed here.
There is some research that suggests that SSRI antidepressants may also promote diabetes. It is well known that antidepressants cause weight gain.
Spin doctors in the employ of the drug companies who sell these high-profit antidepressants have long tried to attribute the relationship between depression and obesity to depression, rather than the drugs used to treat the condition.
However, a new study published in June 2009 used data from the Canadian National Population Health Survey (NPHS), a longitudinal study of a representative cohort of household residents in Canada and tracked the incidence of obesity over ten years.
The study found that, “MDE [Major Depressive Episode] does not appear to increase the risk of obesity. …Pharmacologic treatment with antidepressants may be associated with an increased risk of obesity. [emphasis mine]. The study concluded,
Unexpectedly, significant effects were seen for serotonin-reuptake-inhibiting antidepressants [Prozac,Celexa, Lovox, Paxil, Zoloft] and venlafaxine [Effexor], but neither for tricyclic antidepressants nor antipsychotic medications.
Scott B. Patten et al. Psychother Psychosom 2009;78:182-186 (DOI: 10.1159/000209349)
Here is an article posted by the Mayo Clinic that includes the statement “weight gain is a reported side effect of nearly all antidepressant medications currently available.
Here is a report about a paper presented at the 2006 ADA Conference that analyzed the Antidepressant-Diabetes connection in a major Diabetes prevention study:
Treatment for Cancer, Especially Radiation, Greatly Increases Diabetes Risk Independent of Obesity or Exercise Level
A study published in August 2009 analyzed data for 8599 survivors in the Childhood Cancer Survivor Study. It found that after adjusting for body mass and exercise levels, survivors of childhood cancer were 1.8 times more likely than the siblings to report that they had diabetes.
Even more significantly, those who had had full body radiation were 7.2 times more likely to have diabetes.
This raises the question of whether exposure to radiation in other contexts also causes Type 2 diabetes.
Diabetes Mellitus in Long-term Survivors of Childhood Cancer: Increased Risk Associated With Radiation Therapy: A Report for the Childhood Cancer Survivor Study.Lillian R. Meacham et al. Arch. Int. Med.Vol. 169 No. 15, Aug 10/24, 2009.
More Insight into the Effect of Genetic Flaws
Now that we have a better idea of some of the underlying physiological causes of diabetes, lets look more closely at the physiological processes that takes place as these genetic flaws push the body towards diabetes.
Insulin Resistance Develops in Thin Children of People with Type 2 Diabetes
Lab research has come up with some other intriguing findings that challenge the idea that obesity causes insulin resistance which causes diabetes. Instead, it looks like the opposite happens: Insulin resistance precedes the development of obesity.
One of these studies took two groups of thin subjects with normal blood sugar who were evenly matched for height and weight. The two groups differed only in that one group had close relatives who had developed Type 2 Diabetes, and hence, if there were a genetic component to the disorder, they were more likely to have it. The other group had no relatives with Type 2 Diabetes. The researchers then and examined the subjects’ glucose and insulin levels during a glucose tolerance test and calculated their insulin resistance. They found that the thin relatives of the people with Type 2 Diabetes already had much more insulin resistance than did the thin people with no relatives with diabetes.
Insulin resistance in the first-degree relatives of persons with Type 2 Diabetes. Straczkowski M et al. Med Sci Monit. 2003 May;9(5):CR186-90.
This result was echoed by a second study published in November of 2009.
That study compared detailed measurements of insulin secretion and resistance in 187 offspring of people diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes against 509 controls. Subjects were matched with controls for age, gender and BMI. It concluded:
The first-degree offspring of type 2 diabetic patients show insulin resistance and beta cell dysfunction in response to oral glucose challenge. Beta cell impairment exists in insulin-sensitive offspring of patients with type 2 diabetes, suggesting beta cell dysfunction to be a major defect determining diabetes development in diabetic offspring.
Beta cell (dys)function in non-diabetic offspring of diabetic patients M. Stadler et al. Diabetologia Volume 52, Number 11 / November, 2009, pp 2435-2444. doi 10.1007/s00125-009-1520-7
Mitochondrial Dysfunction is Found in Lean Relatives of People with Type 2 Diabetes
One reason insulin resistance might precede obesity was explained by a landmark 2004 study which looked at the cells of the “healthy, young, lean” but insulin-resistant relatives of people with Type 2 Diabetes and found that their mitochondria, the “power plant of the cells” that is the part of the cell that burns glucose, appeared to have a defect. While the mitochondria of people with no relatives with diabetes burned glucose well, the mitochondria of the people with an inherited genetic predisposition to diabetes were not able to burn off glucose as efficiently, but instead caused the glucose they could not burn and to be stored in the cells as fat.
Impaired mitochondrial activity in the insulin-resistant offspring of patients with type 2 diabetes. Petersen KF et al. New England J Med 2004 Feb 12; 350(7);639-41
More Evidence that Abnormal Insulin Resistance Precedes Weight Gain and Probably Causes It
A study done by the same researchers at Yale University School of Medicine who discovered the mitochondrial problem we just discussed was published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Science (PNAS) in July 2007. It reports on a study that compared energy usage by lean people who were insulin resistant and lean people who were insulin sensitive.
The role of skeletal muscle insulin resistance in the pathogenesis of the metabolic syndrome Petersen,KF et al. PNAS July 31, 2007 vol. 104 no. 31 12587-12594.
Using new imaging technologies, the researchers found that lean but insulin resistant subjects converted glucose from high carbohydrate meals into triglycerides–i.e. fat. Lean insulin-sensitive subjects, in contrast, stored the same glucose in the form of muscle and liver glycogen.
The researchers conclude that:
the insulin resistance, in these young, lean, insulin resistant individuals, was independent of abdominal obesity and circulating plasma adipocytokines, suggesting that these abnormalities develop later in the development of the metabolic syndrome.”
In short, obesity looked to be a result, not a cause of the metabolic flaw that led these people to store carbohydrate they ate in the form of fat rather than burn it for energy.
The researchers suggested controlling insulin resistance with exercise. It would also be a good idea for people who are insulin resistant, or have a family history of Type 2 Diabetes to cut back on their carb intake, knowing that the glucose from the carbs they eat is more likely to turn into fat.
A study of pancreas autopsies that compared the pancreases of thin and fat people with diabetes with those of thin and fat normal people found that fat, insulin-resistant people who did not develop diabetes apparently were able to grow new beta-cells to produce the extra insulin they needed. In contrast, the beta cells of people who developed diabetes were unable to reproduce. This failure was independent of their weight.
Beta-Cell Deficit and Increased Beta-Cell Apoptosis in Humans With Type 2 Diabetes. Alexandra E. Butler, et al. Diabetes 52:102-110, 2003
Once Blood Sugars Rise They Impair a Muscle Gene that Regulates Insulin Sensitivity
Another piece of the puzzle falls into place thanks to a research study published on Feb 8, 2008.
Downregulation of Diacylglycerol Kinase Delta Contributes to Hyperglycemia-Induced Insulin Resistance. Alexander V. Chibalin et. al. Cell, Volume 132, Issue 3, 375-386, 8 February 2008.
As reported in Diabetes in Control (which had access to the full text of the study)
The research team identified a “fat-burning” gene, the products of which are required to maintain the cells insulin sensitivity. They also discovered that this gene is reduced in muscle tissue from people with high blood sugar and type 2-diabetes. In the absence of the enzyme that is made by this gene, muscles have reduced insulin sensitivity, impaired fat burning ability, which leads to an increased risk of developing obesity.
“The expression of this gene is reduced when blood sugar rises, but activity can be restored if blood sugar is controlled by pharmacological treatment or exercise”, says Professor Juleen Zierath. “Our results underscore the importance of tight regulation of blood sugar for people with diabetes.”
In short, once your blood sugar rises past a certain point, you become much more insulin resistant. This, in turn, pushes up your blood sugar more.
A New Model For How Diabetes Develops
These research findings open up a new way of understanding the relationship between obesity and diabetes.
Perhaps people with the genetic condition underlying Type 2 Diabetes inherit a defect in the beta cells that make those cells unable to reproduce normally to replace cells damaged by the normal wear and tear of life.Or perhaps exposure to an environmental toxin damages the related genes.
Perhaps, too, a defect in the way that their cells burn glucose inclines them to turn excess blood sugar into fat rather than burning it off as a person with normal mitochondria might do.
Put these facts together and you suddenly get a fatal combination that is almost guaranteed to make a person fat.
Studies have shown that blood sugars only slightly over 100 mg/dl are high enough to render beta cells dysfunctional.
Beta-cell dysfunction and glucose intolerance: results from the San Antonio metabolism (SAM) study. Gastaldelli A, et al. Diabetologia. 2004 Jan;47(1):31-9. Epub 2003 Dec 10.
In a normal person who had the ability to grow new beta cells, any damaged beta cells would be replaced by new ones, which would keep the blood sugar at levels low enough to avoid further damage. But the beta cells of a person with a genetic heritage of diabetes are unable to reproduce So once blood sugars started to rise, more beta cells would succumb to the resulting glucose toxicity, and that would, in turn raise blood sugar higher.
As the concentration of glucose in their blood rose, these people would not be able to do what a normal person does with excess blood sugar–which is to burn it for energy. Instead their defective mitochondria will cause the excess glucose to be stored as fat. As this fat gets stored in the muscles it causes the insulin resistance so often observed in people with diabetes–long before the individual begins to gain visible weight. This insulin resistance puts a further strain on the remaining beta cells by making the person’s cells less sensitive to insulin. Since the person with an inherited tendency to diabetes’ pancreas can’t grow the extra beta cells that a normal person could grow when their cells become insulin resistant this leads to ever escalating blood sugars which further damage the insulin-producing cells, and end up in the inevitable decline into diabetes.
Low Fat Diets Promote the Deterioration that Leads to Diabetes in People with the Genetic Predisposition
In the past two decades, when people who were headed towards diabetes begin to gain weight, they were advised to eat a low fat diet. Unfortunately, this low fat diet is also a high carbohydrate diet–one that exacerbates blood sugar problems by raising blood sugars dangerously high, destroying more insulin-producing beta-cells, and catalyzing the storage of more fat in the muscles of people with dysfunctional mitochondria. Though they may have stuck to diets to low fat for weeks or even months these people were tormented by relentless hunger and when they finally went off their ineffective diets, they got fatter. Unfortunately, when they reported these experiences to their doctors, they were almost universally accused of lying about their eating habits.
It has only been documented in medical research during the past two years that that many patients who have found it impossible to lose weight on the low fat high carbohydrate can lose weight–often dramatically–on a low carbohydrate diet while improving rather than harming their blood lipids.
Very low-carbohydrate and low-fat diets affect fasting lipids and postprandial lipemia differently in overweight men. Sharman MJ, et al. J Nutr. 2004 Apr;134(4):880-5.
An isoenergetic very low carbohydrate diet improves serum HDL cholesterol and triacylglycerol concentrations, the total cholesterol to HDL cholesterol ratio and postprandial lipemic responses compared with a low fat diet in normal weight, normolipidemic women. Volek JS, et al. J Nutr. 2003 Sep;133(9):2756-61.
The low carb diet does two things. By limiting carbohydrate, it limits the concentration of blood glucose which often is enough to bring moderately elevated blood sugars down to normal or near normal levels. This means that there will be little excess glucose left to be converted to fat and stored.
It also gets around the mitochondrial defect in processing glucose by keeping blood sugars low so that the body switches into a mode where it burns ketones rather than glucose for muscle fuel.
Relentless Hunger Results from Roller Coaster Blood Sugars
There is one last reason why you may believe that obesity caused your diabetes, when, in fact, it was undiagnosed diabetes that caused your obesity.
Long before a person develops diabetes, they go through a phase where they have what doctors called “impaired glucose tolerance.” This means that after they eat a meal containing carbohydrates, their blood sugar rockets up and may stay high for an hour or two before dropping back to a normal level.
What most people don’t know is that when blood sugar moves swiftly up or down most people will experience intense hunger. The reasons for this are not completely clear. But what is certain is that this intense hunger caused by blood sugar swings can develop years before a person’s blood sugar reaches the level where they’ll be diagnosed as diabetic.
This relentless hunger, in fact, is often the very first diabetic symptom a person will experience, though most doctors do not recognize this hunger as a symptom. Instead, if you complain of experiencing intense hunger doctors may suggest you need an antidepressant or blame your weight gain, if you are female, on menopausal changes.
This relentless hunger caused by impaired glucose tolerance almost always leads to significant weight gain and an increase in insulin resistance. However, because it can take ten years between the time your blood sugar begins to rise steeply after meals and the time when your fasting blood sugar is abnormal enough for you to be diagnosed with diabetes, most people are, indeed, very fat at the time of diagnosis.
With better diagnosis of diabetes (discussed here) we would be able to catch early diabetes before people gained the enormous amounts of weight now believed to cause the syndrome. But at least now people with diabetic relatives who are at risk for developing diabetes can go a long way towards preventing the development of obesity by controlling their carbohydrate intake long before they begin to put on weight.
You CAN Undo the Damage
No matter what your genetic heritage or the environmental insults your genes have survived, you can take steps right now to lower your blood sugar, eliminate the secondary insulin resistance caused by high blood sugars, and start the process that leads back to health. The pages linked here will show you how.