Reversing your type 2 diabetes–or at least putting it into remission for years—is possible, according to George King, MD, research director and chief scientific officer at the Joslin Diabetes Center.
“The strongest support comes from bariatric surgery,” says Dr. King, author of Reverse Your Diabetes in 12 Weeks. “Of people who undergo bariatric surgery and who have been on diabetes medications for years, fully 50 to 60% percent of these people can go off all medications in five years.”
Without surgery, Dr. King says that it has long been known that at least five to 10% of people who go on a very changed diet, lose weight and increase their activity can get off all medications for type 2 diabetes and stay off them for ten to 20 years.
“What that tells me is that it’s definitely possible to reverse type 2 diabetes; you just need to find the correct path,” says Dr. King
The only caveat, he says, is how long you’ve had the disease. Diabetes is a condition in which the pancreas cannot properly produce insulin to regulate levels of glucose in your body. Over time, this can cause the beta cells in the pancreas to burn out, making it more difficult to compensate for the body’s inability to use insulin effectively.
“But most people with type 2 diabetes have enough residual beta cells that if they take the pressure off their beta cells with diet and exercise, their health will improve,” says Dr. King.
Experts suggest a number of steps to help reverse type 2 diabetes including:
Changing Up Your Diet
With the goal of scoring a hemoglobin A1C below 6.5, Dr. King proposes a diet high in complex carbohydrates, mostly vegetables. While he notes that “there is no magic diet,” he advises eating plans such as the Rural Asian Diet, outlined in his book, or the Mediterranean Diet, which are both semi-vegetarian, low in fat and about 60-70% carbohydrates, mostly from non-starchy vegetables.
“People get confused about carbohydrates,” he says. “Some carbs are good. Eating some high fiber foods, like brown rice, won’t cause spikes in blood sugars if you are eating a mainly vegetarian diet.”
Neal Barnard, MD, author of Dr. Neal Barnard’s Program for Reversing Diabetes, takes this strategy one step further and recommends a vegan diet for reversing the disease. His says his plan, which he finds the “easiest and effective diet to lose weight” attacks the cause of insulin resistance that promotes diabetes. Within the vegan diet, which is extremely low fat, he also urges patients to stick to low-glycemic foods: “Rye or pumpernickel bread rather than white, sweet potatoes rather than white.”
He asks patients to commit to three weeks on the diet with the first week spent exploring vegan foods that they might like.
“We’re not encouraging people to change their diets or throw their medicines in the trash,” says Dr. Barnard. “They should talk to their doctors first.”
While Dr. Barnard’s vegan plan allows people to eat all they want, Dr. King suggests that cutting the amount of food eaten can be beneficial. To help, he recommends switching from a 12-inch dinner plate to a 9-inch one, which will look full and help in eating “a lot less.”
Upping Your Exercise
Increasing activity and exercising the right way can improve your insulin sensitivity and help you to get off many medications even without losing weight, says Dr. King. Most people walk about 2000 steps a day; it takes about 2500 steps to make a mile.
“Consider doubling or tripling the steps you take daily. Get up every half-hour and walk around or if you can, go up the stairs two or three floors. Try over six months to reach 10,000 steps a day,” says Dr. King.
As you build up your endurance, Dr. King suggests adding regular aerobic activity, such as walking or biking, and a strength training routine, working up to 150 minutes per week.
“The most important thing is to find something you enjoy, so you will do it for years,” says Dr. King.
Catching Extra Z’s
Although most Americans get less than six hours of sleep a night, it’s “very clear people need at least six to eight hours a night,” says Dr. King. “If you don’t get enough sleep you will increase your insulin resistance,” he says, a bad move for those prone to type 2 diabetes.
Turning Down the Heat
The human body has two types of fat--white fat and brown fat. White fat is lighter in color and is the predominant fat in the body. It has fewer blood vessels than brown fat and provides the largest energy reserve in the body. Excessive amounts of white fat throughout the body is associated with an increased risk of breast, colon, esophageal, gallbladder, and pancreatic cancer as well as sleep apnea, knee arthritis, and diabetes.
Brown fat is found primarily in the front and back of the neck and upper back. Its purpose is the burn calories, not store them which is why it's sometimes referred to as the good fat. Brown fat can also improve insulin sensitivity even if you don’t lose weight, says Dr. King.
While research continues to look for a way to activate brown fat in the body, one trick is to simply turn down the thermostat. “People like to work out in the heat, but it’s really better to work out in cool temperatures,” says Dr. King, who recommends keeping the thermometer as low as 62 degrees.
Perhaps most importantly, when it comes to trying to reverse your type diabetes, you don’t need to do everything at once.
“Try three or four things to start,” says Dr. King. “You can make significant progress.”