Preventing diabetes: Balancing nutrition, physical activity and mental health

We know physical and mental health go together, but you can see just how true that is with diabetes. November is National Diabetes Month, and this condition often goes undiagnosed. Untreated mental health issues can actually make it worse, but it’s important to understand that both are treatable. When one starts to improve, the other tends to get better, too.

Mindfulness, such as yoga or meditation, can help decrease stress which is linked to diabetes.

“If you can prevent diabetes, it is much better than treating it so it’s best to be aware of your risk factors even before you have symptoms,” said Dr. Lorena Wade, medical director of integrated care at Vaya Health. “Once you have symptoms you likely already have the disease. Diabetes leads to heart disease, chronic kidney disease, blindness and many other chronic health conditions that can really decrease someone’s quality of life and life expectancy.”

According to the National Institutes of Health, diabetes is the seventh leading cause of death in the U.S., affecting over 34 million people. There are two types of diabetes: type 1 and type 2. There’s no currently known way to prevent type 1, but it can be managed. Type 2 can be treated, and if caught in the prediabetes stage, it can be prevented.   

“Once a diabetic, always a diabetic,” said Dr. Wade. “But you can control it and minimize your risk of heart disease and other chronic conditions. We now have ways to prevent so many of these complications. It just requires a good relationship with your doctor and following the diet, exercise and medication plan. There have been so many advances in treatment that if you commit to that, you can still live a healthy life.”

Connecting the dots

Dr. Wade recommends wellness visits once a year with your primary doctor, or more often if they recommend it, to help prevent diabetes and other chronic conditions. People often delay getting tested for diabetes because they are in denial of the symptoms, don’t visit their doctor often enough, or might not realize the symptoms are connected. Mental Health America states that only a third of people with diabetes and mental health conditions receive a diagnosis and proper treatment, possibly because some of the symptoms from high or low blood sugar can be confused for depression or anxiety.

“You may not be aware that the depression you are feeling is a symptom of the diabetes because we know that those are highly correlated,” said Dr. Wade. “Or it could be that your depression or anxiety is also raising your cortisone level which could lead to a risk factor for actually getting diabetes. Those connections end up being quite strong. There are things that may not feel connected, but if you go see a medical professional, they would know the connection is there.”

Control what you can

People with diabetes are two to three times more likely to have depression than people without diabetes and are 20% more likely to have anxiety at some point in their life, according to the CDC. Stress causes the body to release a chemical called cortisol, which triggers the fight-or-flight response. Dr. Wade states that although that can help us avoid danger in certain situations, it can also lead to chronic stress which causes damage to the body by raising blood sugar levels. Over time, this leads to weight gain, insulin resistance and eventually diabetes.

“Even though you may not be able to control things that cause you stress, there are things you can do that will decrease the impact it has on your body and your health,” said Dr. Wade.

She recommends trying mindfulness with yoga or meditation to help decrease stress and balancing nutrition with physical and mental health. Eating a balanced diet, being physically active and getting regular sleep all contribute to our overall health. Another way to improve your overall health and help prevent diabetes is to quit smoking.

Smokers are 30-40% more likely to develop type 2 diabetes than nonsmokers, according to the 2014 Surgeon General’s Report. The report states that the chemicals in the cigarettes can interfere with the function of our body’s cells, causing inflammation and decreasing the effectiveness of insulin. Even if you don’t smoke, age, ethnicity, obesity and family history are all risk factors for type 2 diabetes. Find more information and see if you should get tested by taking a 60-second risk test online from the American Diabetes Association.

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