Can acupuncture help to manage diabetes?
There are currently estimated to be around 4 million people in the UK who are living with diabetes – and a further million people who have the disease but don’t know they have it because they are yet to be diagnosed.
In all, that equates to roughly 1 in 12 people across England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.
And that doesn’t take into account the many thousands of people who live at risk of the disease through poor cardiovascular health or poor lifestyle choices, or both.
There are two types of diabetes – Type 1 and Type 2 – but both occur when the body is unable to produce enough insulin to control blood sugar levels that are most commonly associated with diet and lack of exercise.
In cases of type 2 diabetes – the most common form of the disease – the body still produces insulin, but not at a sufficient level to allow the pancreas can’t keep up with the high blood sugar levels that result from poor diet and lack of exercise.
In some cases, the pancreas is producing insulin, but the body doesn’t recognise it. This is known as ‘insulin resistance’ and causes the pancreas to go into overdrive to generate more and more insulin – until eventually it’s unable to keep up.
It’s common for people to have undiagnosed insulin resistance, which in turn puts them at greater risk of prediabetes.
And, of course, if you are insulin-resistant, taking insulin doesn’t help. There is currently no recommended pharmaceutical treatment for insulin resistance – the general consensus among health professionals is that increased exercise, improved diet and weight loss where appropriate can improve the condition.
The risk of developing type 2 diabetes is increased if your diet is high in carbs and fat but low in fibre, if you don’t take enough exercise, or if you have high blood pressure. Age and alcohol consumption can also be factors later in life.
Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune condition in which the immune system attacks and destroys your insulin-producing beta cells, leading to insulin deficiency. There has been a lot of research into what causes type 1 diabetes, but so far there are no clear answers.
Type 2 diabetes can be prevented with the right lifestyle choices.
If you have diabetes or you think your current lifestyle puts you in danger of developing the disease, then there are some quick and easy steps you can take to mitigate both risk and impact. And acupuncture can certainly play an important role in this.
How can acupuncture help?
The immediate changes you can make to your daily routine are around food and exercise, and I’ll come onto those shortly.
However, let’s start with acupuncture, which has been used for centuries to treat people with what we now know as type 1 and type 2 diabetes.
One of the key reasons why acupuncture can help with diabetes is because it’s a treatment that releases endorphins into the system.
Endorphins have two functions – first they help to reduce pain (which is a symptom of diabetes for many people) and second, they stimulate the endocrine system.
The endocrine system manages the production of hormones, and hormones are important in the context of diabetes because hormones are responsible for the efficient functioning of the body’s organs – including the pancreas.
If the endocrine system is working efficiently, then the pancreas’ ability to produce insulin in also improved.
But now a number of studies – including one carried out by researchers in China as recently as 2018 – have suggested that acupuncture may itself help to regulate the production of blood sugar.
This means acupuncture can attack the causes of diabetes from both sides – supporting improved insulin production whilst also managing the blood sugar production that can lead to diabetes developing in the first place.
Beyond that, acupuncture can also stimulate digestive function, combating the slow digestion that can be caused through high glucose levels in the blood. And to cap it all, diabetic neuropathy – nerve damage caused by the disease – can be mitigated or even prevented through acupuncture.
Change your lifestyle to change your diabetes risk
The easiest changes you can make are associated with the food and drink you put in your mouth.
Depending on what’s appropriate for you, choosing lean meats such as chicken and turkey, or swapping fatty cuts for leaner options is a positive move in the right direction. Similarly, avoiding too much saturated fat such as cheese and butter will help to reduce the fat content in your diet.
Pile up your plate with dark green vegetables, choose wholemeal or wholegrain bread, oats and bran along with bananas to up your fibre intake.
You should also reduce the amount of refined sugar in your diet. If you drink alcohol, consider eliminating it from your diet as it rarely, if ever, has a positive impact on physiology.
And then take opportunities to increase the amount of exercise you do. That doesn’t have to mean joining a gym – but aiming to walk when you might otherwise drive, using the stairs instead of the lift, and putting a brisk 20-minute walk into your daily routine will all have a noticeable impact on your general wellbeing.
Having said all that, I’ll repeat the advice I also always offer which is that you should consult your GP or other clinical health practitioner before making significant changes to your exercise levels – particularly if you have taken little or no exercise in the recent past.
If you’d like to know more about how acupuncture can help to reduce or mitigate the impact and risk of diabetes, please get in touch for an informal chat. We’d love to tell you more. You can also find out more about acupuncture for diabetes here.