The Many Faces of Diabetes
In Chinese medicine, we don’t have a diagnosis of Diabetes. But in its many forms, diabetes has always been known to us. So, it is confusing when someone asks us to treat their diabetes. We have to give them a good going over to decide what stage of diabetes they are in.
The Classic Western Medicine Diagnosis of Diabetes
Classically, in type II diabetes we are looking at a blood test that may reveal that our circulating blood sugars are high. This may be initiated by the patient coming to the doctor and talking about any variety of symptoms. These may include tiredness, extreme thirst, night sweating or getting hot, kidney dysfunction (most often frequent urination), general loss of eyesight cataracts or optic neuritis, numbness or neuropathy of the limbs, circulatory problems or pain as in phlebitis, heart problems or palpitations.
Though these are the main ones the list can continue with lots more subsidiary indications. Late onset of diabetes has a predictable history and courses through the patient's life to this inevitable result.
What Happens in the Pancreas?
We would like to blame it on age or being the member of a certain group. However, the picture of the disease probably started when we were much younger. The endocrine part of the pancreas, the Isle of Langerhans, secretes three major hormones. One is Insulin to help the body absorb and store circulating levels of blood glucose. The second is Glucagon which does just the opposite and brings up circulating levels of glucose in blood plasma between meals when the body is in fasting mode. The third one, called somatostatin, is still not largely understood and might just confuse our understanding at this juncture.
The body in its constant attempt at balance and homeostasis tries to keep glucose levels in the bloodstream at a balance. If it is too high its imbalance can create damage to the cellular and organ levels of certain areas of our body. These are where fine vascular impairment can be critical (the eyes, the kidneys, brain, and legs).
In type I diabetes the body turns off to its own ability to absorb and store insulin so it has to be injected externally. In type II diabetes, there are largely two reasons why you might find high levels of circulating glucose. The first is what we call insulin resistant diabetes.
Type II Diabetes
In some people, when fat stores get to a certain level, the body decides that it doesn’t want to store any more glucose or fats or anything else. So, it just leaves it in the bloodstream. The kidneys decide that it wants to work more frequently so it can spill out this excess glucose (polyuria). This creates a sort of diuretic process and the person gets infinitely more thirsty (polydipsia). Let’s say you haven’t gone to see the doctor even now and you begin to notice that you are infinitely more tired. Because the insulin is no longer being secreted properly, the glucagon may be secreted in its stead. This causes the body to start catabolizing or breaking down stores of fatfor glucose even as your kidneys are overworking to spill out the excess glucose.
All of this requires energy, which is only part of the picture. The other part is that due to all the catabolic activity another facet happens. Ketones, which are normally a source of energy in the body, like glucose, become overabundant and causes ketoacidosis. This greatly lowers the blood PH and let’s just say screws up the works big time. As well, it could eventually kill you. In fact, by this time much of the rest of your endocrine system, the thyroid, the adrenals etc. are all malfunctioning and so you are just way out of whack.
Who Gets Diabetes
Because of a history of too much of the wrong food and too little exercise, it is easy to understand how some people end up here. But type II diabetes also happens to the not so fat but very stressed. When we are very stressed, the body may go easily into some form of fight or flight mode. This is probably not the outright flight from charging rhino.
Instead, it is probably the fear of growing broke or divorce or any of the hundreds of things that the body-mind can dredge up or imagine. The body wants to keep up its stores of circulating plasma glucose. Stress has the same process and physiology regardless of whether it is real or imagined. So it floods the muscles with the sugar they need in a kind of fight or flight mode. To the body, it is as if there was an actual rhino to run from.
The disparity and the pain in the muscles may happen (hmmm, lactic acid buildup and fibromyalgia maybe?). While we don’t actually run from anything, an evolutionary reaction to our simpler former selves forms the same response. I have had many such individuals in my office over time. When I am successful, I get the patient to recognize that it is their response to stress that has to be treated. This allows us to have a fair amount of success at controlling their resultant high blood sugar levels.
Spleen Qi Deficiency and Diabetes
In Chinese Medicine, there are many subtler signs and symptoms on the road to full type II diabetic dysfunction. High blood glucose could be seen in any one of them. In the early stage, someone who is somewhat of a sugar abuser can have a general break down of the digestive process. We call this Spleen Qi (pronounced “chi”) deficiency. It is signaled by poor digestion and generally loose stool.
The problems may very well start here as the body’s efficiencies at converting food to blood and muscle start here. It is usually coupled with a condition called dampness. When you are damp you are more likely to avoid drinking water and just generally feel heavy and laden, especially on damp days. Again your bowels are looser, perhaps more frequent, and you are just generally more tired. On cold days, you will be colder. The extra weight you begin to put on is generally water weight. Because you are probably already allergic to absorbing sugars you chase sweets to keep your energy up.
Kidney Deficiency and Diabetes
The next step is something called Kidney Yang deficiency. In this case, you are likely to be cold all day long. As you wake up in the morning you will be stiff and low backaches are more the rule than the exception. The body starts to lose its ability to warm itself. Your joints will ache and feel loose, especially in cold damp weather, so you want to live like a lizard, laying on a rock someplace in the middle of the desert. If these inefficiencies are allowed to continue the body will advance to another type of deficiency called a Yin deficiency.
The blood does not only warm the body, it cools the body as well. This cooling energy is called Yin. Yin deficiency is a tendency to get hot at night and generally more thirsty. This would probably equate to the catabolizing process where the body starts to break down its own tissues to supply sugar to the system. Of course, a yin deficiency does not always equate to type II diabetes, but when it does the body is entering a very serious and desperate stage. This is where organ and vascular breakdown can begin to occur.
The real answer is to restore the body’s digestive efficiencies. When we find someone spiraling into the depths of a deficiency disease like type II diabetes, it has wandered far from the scope of most normal functions. It is not just the pancreas that is bad. The body has turned itself off to lots of substances that are integral to the digestive processes. For one, sugar is likely to be on the list, as it has become your biggest enemy. It would also be necessary to check your absorption of essential coenzymes like Vitamins C, B, and A. We would also see how your body is taking on Iron, Calcium and even amino acids the building blocks of proteins themselves.
The Emotional Level
With this much dysfunction comes a certain level of depression. Sometimes the lack of will to contribute to your own well being begins on the emotional level. and so emotional acupuncture may be warranted (see: Emotional Allergies). With this same commitment to bettering ourselves comes the onus of responsibility to exercise. I find that this is where resolutions to solve our own problems breaks down. I have had several patients that have been asserting for over a year to start a walking program but have not been able to get around to it.
Lastly, Chinese herbs have been used for centuries to control blood sugars and improve digestive function. Many of my patients swear by them and use nothing else.
Change Your Life
When a patient uses western therapeutic drugs to control blood sugars, they are not improving their health to elicit this response. They are merely tricking one of the body’s functions to control the level of sugar in the blood so that it does less damage.
In my mind, this does not amount to the same end. Whatever is the source of this wrong turn in your health, will still be there as you create an increasing dependence on the function of the drug. A patient can't come to us with the same mindset they have when they go to the doctor for simple solutions. Eventually, these will not work and then they are too far from the solution to manage the problem themselves. Helping you to manage your own health and set workable lifetime goals are the only things we offer.