Are Environmental Toxins Fueling Type 2 Diabetes?
Many of us first encountered diabetes in grade school when one of our classmates had the disease. We listened in shock as they described their daily regimen: glucose monitoring, multiple insulin injections, a rigid diet.
Those are the hallmarks of type 1 diabetes, an autoimmune disease that destroys insulin-producing beta cells in the pancreas. Without insulin, cells don’t know it’s time to take in glucose from the blood stream and the extra glucose becomes toxic to the eyes, kidneys, and most of the critical organs. Although not a cure, insulin injections help replace the signals usually produced by the pancreas, allowing cells to take in glucose.
Today, however, we are becoming increasingly concerned with type 2 diabetes. In most type 2 patients, it’s the insulin receptors within cells throughout the body that are the problem. For reasons not entirely understood, cells become resistant to insulin. This causes excess glucose to build up in the blood stream, which can be as bad as having no insulin at all; again, extra circulating glucose fuels inflammation, damaging organs and tissues.
We know there are a number of factors that play a role in type 2 diabetes. A diet of excess sugar and processed carbohydrates is often blamed as one of the issues because it causes frequent spikes in insulin. After a while, cells start to ignore insulin’s signals to take in glucose; they’ve had enough.
Being overweight or obese may also be a culprit, though the mechanisms are still poorly understood. Genetics can play a role as well because many people who exercise and eat well can still develop insulin resistance. Other studies point out the damaging effects of ongoing inflammation, which raises blood glucose, fuels insulin resistance and weight gain, and facilitates other precursors to diabetes and degenerative diseases.
This brings us to another contributing factor that’s gaining currency in the scientific community: excess exposure to toxins, which fuels inflammation and disrupts critical cellular and metabolic processes. Geneticists are fond of saying that genes are the gun, but the environment pulls the trigger. And it looks like environmental toxins may be driving our epidemic of type 2 diabetes and metabolic syndrome (aka prediabetes).
Chemicals and Diabetes
We hardly need to rehash the abundance of toxic chemicals in our environment. They’re in our air, water, food, clothing, body products, furniture, and packaging. We’re only now beginning to understand the numerous ways these toxins harm our bodies.
Let’s focus on one particularly troublesome chemical: bisphenol A, or BPA. Used in plastic packaging materials (particularly water bottles and premade meals), cash register receipts, and other common items, BPA demonstrates a number of troubling effects on health. Several animal studies link BPA with obesity and insulin resistance. Others show that BPA mimics a form of estrogen and causes severe metabolic effects. Further research suggests BPA increases risks of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and liver disorders.
These problems are not isolated to BPA. Studies have shown that a number of widely found persistent organic pollutants (POPs) damage mitochondrial DNA and beta cells, contributing to insulin resistance and, ultimately, type 2 diabetes. Arsenic and dioxin have also been linked to diabetes.
In addition to these common chemicals, scientists are finding that other, lesser known triggers may be part of the problem as well. Grilled meat is an example.
Meats cooked over high heat produce advanced glycation end products (AGEs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). These compounds damage cells, fuel inflammation, accelerate aging, and worsen obesity and type 2 diabetes. However, preparing meat in a protective marinade with antioxidant herbs such as rosemary is shown to reduce the formation of these harmful byproducts.
For optimal metabolic support against diabetes and metabolic syndrome, it’s critical to choose foods with a low glycemic index. This scale measures how quickly the body metabolizes a particular food item compared to glucose. Foods and ingredients with a low glycemic index have fewer sugars and are processed by the body slowly, while high glycemic index foods quickly spike glucose and insulin. Continual glucose spikes create a vicious cycle of blood sugar imbalances, inflammation, weight gain, and further insulin resistance.
On the other hand, low glycemic foods, such as green vegetables, lean protein, sprouted whole grains and legumes, raw nuts and seeds, and fiber-rich foods, are metabolized more slowly. As a result, we get a much more even and balanced glucose metabolism.
Exercise and mindfulness-based stress reduction should also be part of any metabolic support program. Exercise helps flush out toxins and improves cellular and overall metabolism. Mindfulness practices—specifically meditation, yoga, and t’ai chi—lower stress levels and the associated hormonal spikes. Elevated stress chemicals, such as cortisol and adrenaline, are linked to a number of conditions—diabetes is one of them.
Many nutrients, botanicals, and therapeutic compounds may also work to normalize insulin function, support blood glucose balance, help the body metabolize sugars and fats, reduce chronic inflammation, and minimize unhealthy cravings. In my practice, I use an integrative metabolic formula with kudzu root, ginseng, Chinese yam, cinnamon, holy basil, and other targeted ingredients to support insulin and glucose balance, and overall metabolic function.
Detox Your Metabolism
Regular, gentle detoxification is important for every area of health, particularly for optimal metabolism and digestion. The foundations of a successful detox program are whole, nutrient-dense foods that provide antioxidants, fight inflammation, and support the metabolic, digestive, and immune systems.
Mushrooms, both medicinal and culinary (many fall into both categories), are excellent detox allies. Essentially, they act like sponges and absorb toxins from stagnant, inflamed, or injured areas in the body. They’re rich in antioxidants, unique nutrients, and therapeutic compounds that help support glucose metabolism, insulin function, and healthy fat absorption, among numerous other benefits including immune modulation. Look for maitake, reishi, tremella, oyster, and cordyceps mushrooms for powerful metabolic, detox, and overall health support.
Fermented foods, with their abundance of probiotic bacteria, can also have a powerful impact on detoxification, as well as help metabolize sugars and make nutrients more available. Yogurt, sauerkraut, kimchee, and other fermented foods support metabolic and digestive health, as well as detoxification and immunity.
Though not commonly eaten in the United States, sea vegetables have been a staple in Asian cultures for millennia. They’re rich in vitamins and minerals and are known to remove heavy metals and radioactive isotopes, particularly iodine. They help detoxify the body and support glucose metabolism. Look for nori, dulse, arame, and kelp.
Don’t forget spices. Turmeric, in particular, does an excellent job of supporting detoxification and reducing inflammation through its active ingredient, curcumin. The spice also enhances digestion and bolsters immunity.
Another clinically proven ingredient for detoxification is modified citrus pectin (MCP), made from the pith of citrus peels and modified to precise molecular specifications for absorption into the blood stream. A number of studies show that MCP gently removes heavy metals and radioactive isotopes from the body. MCP also controls the inflammatory protein galectin-3, which has been linked to cancer, cardiovascular disease, and other serious conditions. In combination with sodium alginates from kelp, MCP offers important support against toxins and inflammatory conditions, including metabolic issues.
Because they’re often invisible and their ill effects are not always well-defined, we sometimes don’t think about environmental toxins. But if we’re aiming for metabolic (and overall) health, this is a growing problem we need to address. By taking steps to eliminate toxins from our systems, we support immunity, increase vital energy, and strengthen our glucose and insulin function—among other benefits. Removing toxins and preventing their accumulation is a relatively simple prescription, yet it helps us balance and fine-tune our intricate systems across nearly every area of health. The results are noticeable improvements in vital energy, metabolism, and much more.
By Isaac Eliaz, MD, MS, LAc