November is National Diabetes Awareness Month, with November 14th marked as World Diabetes Day. It’s a month and day to bring public health awareness efforts and initiatives for those living with diabetes or for those who may be at risk. Afterall, it affects about 37 million Americans (both adults and youth), and 537 million adults and 1.2 million adolescents worldwide.
What is Diabetes
Diabetes is a chronic disease that occurs in two ways: either when the pancreas does not produce insulin or when the body cannot effectively use the insulin it produces. Glucose (sugar) is broken down from the food we eat and insulin is needed to carry it from the bloodstream into the cells of the body. These types of diabetes are commonly referred to as type 1 and type 2. There is also gestational diabetes which occurs during pregnancy.
Type 1 diabetes is typically diagnosed in children and young adults but can occur at every age and in people of every race, shape, and size. It’s an autoimmune disease where the body destroys the cells in the pancreas that make insulin. Experts think that genetics and environment, such as viruses, may be factors that trigger the disease. People with type 1 diabetes can live a full life with the help of insulin therapy, diet and other tools to manage their disease.
Type 2 diabetes is the most common form of diabetes, where the body doesn’t use insulin properly. Type 2 diabetes can be controlled with healthy eating and exercise, but others may need medication or insulin to better manage blood sugar levels. Certain factors increase the risk of Type 2 diabetes, such as being overweight or obese, having a family history of diabetes, being 45 or older, physical inactivity and certain health problems such as high blood pressure. People with prediabetes (high blood sugar levels, but not high enough to be diabetic) or having had gestational diabetes are also at higher risk.
The biggest – and key – differences between the two types of diabetes is that type 2 can be prevented with lifestyle and diet changes, while type 1 cannot be.
Connection to Gut Health
Researchers are learning more and more every year about how the gut (also known as the digestive tract) plays a major role in health and disease, including diabetes. The trillions of microbes (bacteria, fungi, viruses, and other organisms) found in the gut help us to digest food. And when you put all of them together, we have what we call the microbiome. A healthy microbiome protects our immune system and may decrease the risk of autoimmune diseases.
In general, your overall physical and mental health is directly tied to the health of your microbiome. So, what can you do to protect our microbiome and keep all those organisms nice and healthy if you do have diabetes?
Here are 7 ways to keep your gut healthy when you have diabetes…
Manage blood sugar levels daily.
Managing your blood sugar levels by choosing foods with fiber, protein, and healthy fats is very important. Elevated blood sugars are believed to disrupt our gut bacteria in some way and thus can increase the risk for infections and illness.
Only take antibiotics when needed.
Don’t take antibiotics unless you need them. Antibiotics wipe out bad bacteria in the gut, but they also wipe out good bacteria. So, make sure to talk to your doctor and determine if an antibiotic or other medication is truly needed.
Eat probiotic-rich foods.
Eating probiotic-rich foods is a great way to help replenish the good bacteria” in your digestive tract. You get the most benefit from consuming them consistently over time. Kefir is great for adding probiotics to your day, and each cup contains 10g of protein. But, you may be wondering about the sugar content of kefir, and that’s a totally valid concern when managing diabetes. Rest assured, kefir is actually a great way to get those probiotics in and manage your diabetes at the same time. Because kefir also contains protein and fat, the likelihood of a blood sugar spike is very small. Protein and healthy fats both slow down how quickly your body absorbs the sugar from kefir and creates a nice steady blood sugar response, especially when eaten together and with fiber included. Plus, some research has shown that people who consume kefir daily have lower HgbA1c levels compared to those who do not drink kefir.
Don’t forget about prebiotic fiber.
Don’t forget to get your pre-biotic fiber in, too! Just like we need to add good bacteria (probiotics) to our gut, we also need to feed those good bacteria with prebiotic fiber. Prebiotic fiber can be found in plant foods, especially bananas, apples, whole-grain oats, flaxseed, legumes (peas, beans, lentils), garlic, onions, asparagus, artichokes, and both oat and wheat bran, among others. Eat whole foods whenever possible, versus highly processed foods that may include these (frozen meals, sugary cereals, etc.).
Eat more plants
Eat more plants in general. In addition to prebiotic fiber, a diet rich in a wide variety of plant-based foods is associated with a healthy gut, and the best part about this is that we know from research that this doesn’t have to mean adopting a completely vegan or vegetarian diet. You can still enjoy your favorite animal foods while prioritizing plant-based foods as well. Just keep portions relatively small per serving compared to the plant foods on your plate at the same time.
Move your body more.
Move your body in some way each day! This doesn’t have to be a trip to the gym. It can be anything you enjoy doing. Research has shown that consistent movement or exercise is helpful in maintaining a healthy GI tract and a healthy immune system.
Manage stress levels.
Manage your stress levels as best you can. Think about the last time you went through a mentally or emotionally stressful time. Usually, your tummy is the first part of you to feel the effects, along with your brain. Many people experience uncomfortable physical GI symptoms when they’re experiencing mental or emotional stress. Further proof that our GI tract is tied to more than just physical health. Our gut-brain connection is so important!
Putting it all together
Managing your gut health is a key component of managing diabetes, and many of the same behavioral strategies we use to manage diabetes (nutrition, exercise, stress management, etc.) also impact gut health.
For more information on managing blood sugars and enjoying tasty and delicious food while living with diabetes, head on over to milkandhoneynutrition.com.
About the Author
“I’m not a fan of rigid food rules at all, but when you have type 1 diabetes (or any other health condition that alters the way you want to eat) you’re forced to analyze everything that goes in your mouth. It is my mission to provide you with headful recipes and resources to help you properly manage your health condition while letting you experience true joy and contentment from the food you’re eating.” – Mary Ellen