Sweet Life diabetes community blog.
The millenary practice of yoga is fast gaining ground on a worldwide scale; known as an efficient stress buster that brings practitioners greater vitality and a better mood, it also helps prevent heart disease, which is good news for people with diabetes.
Heart disease a risk for people with diabetes
Adults with diabetes have a higher likelihood of heart disease for various reasons. Those with Type 2 diabetes, in particular, may have conditions that can increase this risk, including high blood pressure, high cholesterol and triglyceride levels, and obesity. Leading a sedentary lifestyle is another modifiable major risk factor for both cardiovascular disease and insulin resistance, so one way to reduce the risk for heart attack or stroke is to keep physically active through aerobic activity and, new studies indicate, yoga.
Yoga as a means to reduce cardiovascular disease risk
In a review of 37 randomized controlled trials, researchers from the Netherlands and the USA found that yoga can provide the same benefits in risk factor reduction as commonly recommended activities such as cycling or fast walking. These two forms of exercise could have comparable working mechanisms; that is, yoga could have more physiological benefits, and exercise more relaxing effects than was originally thought.
As a deeply spiritual practice affecting physical and mental health positively, yoga is being embraced in a plethora of mental health settings, including rehabilitation centres for substance abuse. Science is more accepting than in the past of so-called ‘alternative therapies’ like yoga since numerous studies have shown that spirituality is linked to greater happiness and reduced anxiety and depression – key factors in managing diabetes from an integrated perspective.
In the studies, yoga practice was associated with significant improvement in Body Mass Index (BMI), blood pressure, and lipid levels, particularly when patients also took medication.
Yoga and aerobic activity a winning combination
Another, more recent study, presented at the American College of Cardiology in 2017, found that those who already have heart disease but practiced yoga in addition to aerobics, saw twice the reduction in BMI, blood pressure, and cholesterol levels, as those who practiced either of these activities exclusively. Combining these activities could also increase exercise capacity and improve heart function.
Of course, even if you only have time for yoga, you will still be doing yourself plenty of good, since heart rate variability (an indicator of optimal heart health) is higher in yoga practitioners. Yet another study showed that yoga can reduce atrial fibrillation (‘heart quivering’) while improving heart rate, blood pressure, and general quality of life.
If you have diabetes, it is important to lower your likelihood of heart disease by staying active, keeping to a healthy weight, and tapping into the potential of combining yoga and aerobic activities, making time for each throughout the week. By boosting physiological changes and lower stress levels, you can kill two birds with one stone, finding greater enjoyment and vitality as an added bonus.
Bridget McNulty finds out what reflexology is all about, and if there’s any chance it can help those with diabetes.
Before I went for a reflexology session, I didn’t know much about it. I knew it was more than a foot massage, but didn’t really see how pressing a few points on my feet could affect my health and wellness.
Reflexology, it turns out, is a therapy that uses specific finger, thumb and hand pressure techniques on the different reflex areas, or zones of the feet, to correlate with different organs of the body. A reflexologist can tell you a lot about your body by feeling for congestion and imbalances in the feet, which show up as tightness, sensitivity or grainy areas. They can also ‘read’ the feet: the shape of the feet, the valleys and peaks, and how they respond to pressure.
The South African Reflexology Society has been recognized by the medical profession, and all reflexologists have to register with the Allied Health Professions Council. But what does a reflexology session actually feel like? Well, at first it is a little uncomfortable. The therapist looks for areas of tension or imbalance, and these are rubbed or pressed until they loosen. It’s like having a really firm massage: not painful, but not necessarily soothing. It is deeply relaxing, though, an hour of having your feet worked on feels like a few hours of sleep, and Lulu Beyers, the therapist I went to, says she has a lot of insomniacs as patients!
Reflexology, like most alternative therapies, has to be given on a regular basis to really see the results and changes in the body – the changes are slow but can be very positive, especially when it comes to treating complications of diabetes, like numbness in the feet. There have been a number of studies done on diabetes and reflexology (including self-reflexology, like the example below). The studies are mainly in Korea and China, as reflexology is an accepted form of healing in the East. (It began in 2330BC in Egypt, then spread to India, and from there to China and Japan.) Many of these studies show that reflexology is helpful in improving peripheral neuropathy, especially tingling sensation and pain, as well as slightly lowering blood sugar – perhaps due to a reduction in stress from the relaxing nature of the treatments – and an improvement in fatigue and mood.
Whether this is because of the nurturing nature of the treatments, an improvement in blood circulation from the massaging movements of reflexology or because of the endocrine system (especially the pancreas) being activated through pressure points is still to be discovered. But there is certainly no harm in having reflexology as part of your diabetes programme. Think of it as putting your feet up on the diabetic table, made up of the right medication, a healthy diet and regular exercise.
Try out this simple self-reflexology at home:
Press on each of these glands of the endocrine system (pictured below) with the base of a ball point pen for a few minutes at least once a week.
Ask the expert: Andy Blecher, podiatrist
“In my opinion, having time out to put your feet up and have them massaged can be good for your overall wellbeing – and if there’s some evidence that it helps with circulation and peripheral neuropathy in diabetics then patients should give it a try.”
Sweet Life editor and Type 1 diabetic Bridget McNulty shares her pregnancy story – and what she wishes she’d known before she fell pregnant.
How long have you been diabetic?
I was diagnosed in October 2007… It was a very dramatic diagnosis: I was admitted to ICU for five days and was apparently only three days away from a diabetic coma because my blood sugar was so high.
Did you have to prepare to fall pregnant?
I told my endocrinologist ahead of time that my husband Mark and I were thinking of having a baby, and he gave me the go-ahead because my blood sugar was already well-controlled: my HbA1c results were 7.0 and below for the year before I fell pregnant. I also mentally prepared for the pregnancy, because I knew it would require a lot of discipline and that my diabetes would become even more of a full-time job than it already was!
How did having diabetes affect your pregnancy?
I had to be in extremely tight control throughout – HbA1c results of 6 and below (which I didn’t think was possible before I fell pregnant!) and blood glucose results of 7.8mmol/l or below an hour after eating… Where possible. I also had to test even more frequently than usual (up to 8 times a day). I had HbA1c tests every month and saw my endocrinologist every month, and I couldn’t indulge in pregnancy cravings like eating a whole tub of ice-cream! I had to be very strict with my diet. But it’s amazing how much easier it is to do when your motivation is the health of your baby.
How was the birth experience?
As smooth as I could have hoped for. I chose to have an elective C-section: it was either that or an induction, as all babies born to diabetic moms have to be born at 38 weeks. In the week before the birth my blood pressure started creeping up, and I was retaining a lot of water. Because diabetics are at greater risk of pre-eclampsia, my gynecologist decided to bring the birth forward two days, from the Monday to the Saturday. It was hugely exciting, and hugely nerve-wracking. Arthur, my baby boy, was born totally healthy and weighed in at a (very) healthy 4.5kg. We fell in love with him instantly.
What was it like having a young baby, with diabetes?
It was a real challenge in the early days. Breastfeeding plays havoc with blood sugar control, and causes really persistent lows. Sleep deprivation is tough to deal with, and it’s so overwhelming having a new baby and trying to learn how to be a parent that my diabetes kind of took a back seat for a while. I remembered to inject and test, but that was about it.
What do you think the biggest challenge of a diabetic pregnancy is?
Although 9 months doesn’t seem like that long at first, it feels like a really long time to be non-stop super-disciplined.
What advice would you offer to diabetics who are struggling?
You will feel so much better if you get your blood sugar under control. It is so worth it in terms of health and energy and general happiness to do what it takes to get good control. I know how hard it can be, but the reward is a healthy, happy life with diabetes – and that’s about as good as it gets.
What makes your life sweet?
My two sweet children, my wonderful husband, my awesome family and friends and the sweet life I’m living!
“I’m sure all husbands worry about their pregnant wives, but it’s extra worrying because my wife is diabetic and has to be in such strict control – or it could really harm our baby. I’m trying to be supportive, but sometimes it’s difficult… Especially because she’s so emotional!” Mark Roberts.
You have my sympathy!
Women who are pregnant can be on a real rollercoaster ride of emotions – highs and lows and everything in between. While some women seem to ‘bloom’ during pregnancy and are full of life, happiness and vitality, other women are tearful and apprehensive.
Pregnancy is a powerful experience: huge hormonal changes and a life-changing event are a lot to deal with. A woman who has diabetes has even more on her plate.
It is wonderful that you are supportive. Part of the support that you give should be helping your wife eat the right kind of diet, check her blood sugar regularly and do the right exercise.
The fear you have about the health of your baby is real, but this is also relevant for any pregnancy. Hopefully you have planned the pregnancy and worked out an action plan with your health care team. If your wife is keeping to her programme, the risk of anything going wrong is minimal. Contact her gynae or endocrinologist if you feel that something is not right: it is natural to worry, but one of the best solutions is not to nag her.
Mood swings tend to happen most frequently in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy. The mood swings usually decline between 3 to 6 months because the levels of the hormones become more constant. Here your wife will start to feel better and have more energy and hopefully be less emotional.
The emotions are difficult to cope with, I agree. It can be very helpful to allow yourself time out if the going gets tough! Remember that a pregnancy affects both partners: the golden rule is to talk about how you are feeling. You must voice your worries, concerns and anxieties. This goes a long way to relieving them.
Most importantly, don’t forget to take time for you and your wife to relax together and enjoy this wonderful, intimate and very exciting time.
Sometimes just being supportive and loving is the best thing you can do.
Enjoy your baby!
– Jeannie Berg, Diabetes Educator
Ask the dietician: Cheryl Meyer
From our community: “I’ve just been diagnosed and have no idea what to eat. Please help me! I just need some basic ideas of what to keep in my cupboard so I can make easy healthy meals…” John Tabenga.
Stocking your pantry is a fantastic place to start – healthy eating isn’t only about your kitchen, it begins when you wheel your trolley down the aisles of your local supermarket. Arming yourself with a well-planned grocery list will not only get you in and out of the shops quickly, it will also keep your healthy eating plan on track.
To help get you started I have put together a basic list to help you stock your fridge, freezer and pantry with healthy options:
- Oat bran
- Rolled oats
- Low GI muesli
- Baby potatoes
- Sweet potatoes
- Wholewheat pasta
- Brown rice
- Corn: frozen, canned or fresh
Breads & crackers
- Rye, wholewheat or low GI bread
- Wholegrain crackers: Provitas, Ryvitas, Finn Crisp
- Multigrain melba toast
- Wholewheat wraps
- Wholewheat pita bread
- Canned beans, lentils and chickpeas (drain and rinse well)
- Dried beans, lentils and chickpeas
- Low-fat milk
- Low-fat yoghurt
- Low-fat cottage cheese
- Ricotta cheese
- Hard cheeses: mozzarella or reduced fat cheddar
Tip: When choosing hard cheese, aim for less that 25g fat per 100g.
Meat, poultry, fish & eggs
- Lean beef and pork, trimmed of fat
- Chicken, trimmed of skin
- Lean cold meats
- Fish rich in omega 3s: Fresh, frozen or tinned salmon, trout, tuna, pilchards, sardines, mackerel
- Hake or kingklip fillets
Fats and oils
- Olive / canola / avocado oil
- Unsalted nuts
- Peanut butter
- Low oil dressings and mayonnaise (less than 5g fat per 100g)
- Frozen vegetables: green beans, peas, carrots, cauliflower, broccoli.
- Fresh vegetables
- Tinned tomato
- Tinned asparagus
- A variety of fresh fruit
- Pre-cut frozen fruit
- Canned fruit (in juice) for treats
- Olive oil
- Unsalted nuts
- Lean or game biltong
- Popcorn kernels to prepare homemade popcorn with a dash of oil and salt
Store cupboard basics
- Non-stick cooking spray: Spray n Cook
- Beef, chicken and vegetable stock powder
- Lots of herbs and spices
Tip: Read food labels and compare different brands within each food category.
With these pantry essentials, you should be able to whip up all kinds of delicious diabetic-friendly meals… Check out our recipes here if you’re looking for inspiration!
Ajita Ratanjee is a registered dietician on the Sweet Life Panel of Experts. She shares some of her diabetes dietary tips with us today.
Blood sugar control is of the utmost importance for a diabetic. To date, many diabetics have a challenge keeping their glucose levels controlled. A combination of the following 3 factors ensure good glucose control:
- Use of medication (oral meds or insulin injections)
Foods to avoid
Most diabetics I meet are familiar with the “AVOID” list of foods. These are the obvious sugars e.g. Sugar, sweets and chocolates, sugary cooldrinks, cakes, pastries, biscuits, ice-cream, puddings etc. If you’re a diabetic and continue consuming the above list, then you are literally accelerating the chances of complications of diabetes: nerve damage, blurred vision, kidney failure, sores on feet etc.
However there are many who are compliant with the “AVOID” list yet may still find that their blood sugar levels remain elevated. Many years of clinical experience working with diabetics has allowed me to create a shortlist of other foods that are most likely spiking your blood sugar and you’re not even aware they are the cause. They are “healthy” food choices; however they tend to spike blood sugar and are not the best choice for a diabetic.
Other foods that spike blood sugar
These foods should also be avoided:
- any 100% fruit juice,
- dried fruit,
- energy drinks,
- flavoured bottle water,
- energy bars,
- muesli (containing nuts and dried fruit),
- popcorn, and
100% Juices and dried fruits are a concentrated source of natural sugar resulting in blood sugar elevation. Most energy drinks are loaded with sugar and are not suitable for diabetics. Energy bars tend to be marketed as low-fat, however that is not the same as sugar free (at all!)
The important thing to remember is that a diabetic should be aware of all foods that elevate bloods sugar levels. Grains, fruit and vegetables are all healthy but they need to be eaten in the correct portions to keep sugar controlled. Protein helps to stabilize sugar and thus an extra serving of meat / fish / chicken / egg etc. will not elevate glucose as much as an additional slice of bread / rice / potato.
The magic diabetes diet lies in the correct proportion of carb to protein at meals and snacks, and the correct portions at every meal and snack.
Choosing the right food
Fatty fish are high in omega 3 – tuna, sardine, salmon and mackerel are high in essential fatty acid. These are protective towards cardiovascular health and have anti-inflammatory properties. Diabetics are at high risk of heart disease thus omega 3 supplements are highly recommended. Make sure that you use good quality omega 3 that is heavy metal free.
Alcohol is metabolized as a sugar so plan in your glass of wine (preferable red and dry) or whiskey.
My key message in a nutshell would be – it’s not just about “no sugar” but rather getting the carbohydrate and protein balance. Test your glucose regularly; at different times of the day. This enables you to monitor your control throughout the day. Test your sugar before a meal or 2 hours after a main meal. Keep a record of your blood sugar readings.
At Easy Health Wellness we assist our clients by teaching them how to exchange carbs and how to count carbs to ensure that they always are in balance at each meal and snack, and they can enjoy variety in their eating plans. We also stock a fabulous range of sugar-free products to support our diabetic’s client needs.
The diabetic way of eating is a very healthy way of eating. We can all do with avoiding the refined carbs and eating regularly.
Find out more at www.easyhealthwellness.com or call 012 997 2783.
Did you know that diabetics are more at risk of developing heart disease? Here are the facts and what you can do about it.
- Both Type 1 and Type 2 diabetics are at risk of cardiovascular disease (CVD). CVD includes both heart disease and problems with the circulatory system, including strokes.
- What can you do? Get tested! A risk assessment will check your blood pressure, lipids and lipoproteins and see if you need to be concerned.
- Quit smoking! If you are a diabetic smoker, your risk of developing CVD doubles.
- Other risk factors also play a part: obesity, physical inactivity and a family history of CVD.
- Eat a heart-healthy diet. Cut down on saturated fats and avoid trans fats that raise cholesterol. Eat lean meat and choose a low fat diet as much as possible.
- If you have any feelings of numbness, confusion, impaired vision, severe headache or difficulty speaking, go to a hospital immediately. This could be signs of a TIA (Transient Ischemic Attack) – a warning sign for a stroke.
- Type 2 diabetics are twice as likely to have a heart attack or stroke.
- Eat plenty of fibre to help lower cholesterol. Wholegrain breads, cereals, fruit, veggies, oatmeal, beans and pulses are all full of fibre.
- Changing your lifestyle can decrease your risk of heart disease (and improve your blood sugar!) Time to get active…
- Hypertension is an important risk factor for diabetics and CVD. Your blood pressure should not be over 130/80 – the ideal is 120/80. The secrets to good blood pressure are to drink less alcohol, don’t eat too much salt, keep at a healthy weight, exercise, stop smoking and visit your doctor regularly. You can do it!
Looking for inspiration beyond your front door? Claire Barnardo has some great ideas for enjoying the outside more.
- Unwind in nature
Whether it’s rain or shine, heading outdoors can be inspiring. Try the beach, or climbing a mountain, walking through a forest or playing in a park. There’s no better way to relax than by being in nature.
- Magical markets
Looking for a new way to do breakfast or lunch? Meet your friends at a market and indulge in something fresh, organic and delicious. While you’re there, you can shop for arts and crafts and stock up on your holiday gifts too.
- Open air concerts
Another way to celebrate the outdoors is by booking to see a concert outside. Whether it’s musicians in the botanical gardens, a weekend festival, or a play in an amphitheatre, there are all kinds of musical treats to choose from.
- Picnic perfection
Picnics are the best way to meet up with friends and family. Shake things up by changing the time of day – have a breakfast picnic or a sundowner picnic somewhere with a beautiful view. Keep the kids busy with games while you put your feet up and enjoy a holiday read. Don’t forget to pack healthy snacks!
- Fruit picking
Want to spend the day on a farm? Plan a self-picking adventure and pick your own cherries, strawberries, figs, or peaches. This is a fantastic way to enjoy fresh air and seasonal fruit. Just be sure to check the weather beforehand!
- Raise your glass
Why not make your own diabetic-friendly iced tea, lemonade, or ginger beer? You could also arrange a tea-tasting for friends in your garden, with a selection of flavoured teas in pretty cups. Or toast to life with sugar-free champagne!
Being a supportive partner can be both a gratifying and a challenging role – especially when living with a person with diabetes. Diabetes affects the whole family, not just the one taking medicine.
Want to know how you can help?
1. Try to keep food temptations away and have healthy options at home. Support the diabetic in your family by having everyone eat healthy. And don’t nag if they sometimes ‘cheat’ or stray from their eating plan.
2. Make time to do exercise together – lots of fun exercises can be done as a family. Make exercising regularly a habit for both of you.
3. Remind your partner to see their medical team on a regular basis. Help them set up a few questions to ask so they get as much as possible out of the visit.
4. Set a reminder to have their monthly medication fetched from the pharmacy in time. Encourage them to test their blood sugar often.
5. Educate yourself about diabetes. Learn as much as you can, from the right sources – Dr. Google is not always right!
6. Learn to know the signs of hypoglycemia (low blood sugar) and what to do about it. Know how to test your partner’s blood glucose if necessary, and how to inject glucagon in an emergency.
7. If sexual problems arise, talk about it. Counseling may help if one partner feels rejected, and there is medication for erectile dysfunction if it becomes a problem. Just ask!
8. Look out for any signs of depression, mental fatigue or diabetes burn-out. Take action on these signs, as depression is not something that will heal itself.
9. Respect your partner’s personal decisions. This is sometimes very difficult, but you need to show your faith in them – diabetes is, at the end of the day, their condition.
10. Help your partner maintain balance in their life. Offer them a shoulder to lean on and help them to find solutions to their problems – but don’t try to solve the problems for them.
– Jeannie Berg, Diabetes Educator
A weekend hike is not just a fun, affordable activity for the whole family, it’s also one of the best ways to enjoy South Africa’s natural beauty. And a great way to get fit! What more could you ask for? Nicole McCreedy leads the way.
Hiking is good for the heart and the soul. Being in nature can help you to de-stress and reduce anxiety levels after a busy week, and when you hike you get all the same benefits of walking – and a few more. Hiking is a powerful cardiovascular workout that is known to reduce cholesterol, which means less risk of heart disease, and it can improve blood pressure. Keeping your heart fit and healthy is important for all diabetics.
So what’s in a hike? The following ingredients:
1 x beautiful trail
1 x pair of shoes
1 x backpack to carry all the essentials
1 x spirit of adventure
What to bring on your hike:
Luckily, you don’t need much equipment to hike. It’s important to research the route beforehand, though, especially if you’re going seriously off-road. Make sure you always hike with other people and pack these essentials:
- A cellphone in case you need to make an emergency call
- A GPS or map so that you don’t get lost.
- Enough water. It’s easy to become dehydrated, especially in warm weather.
- A low blood sugar snack (like dried fruit or juice).
- A mid-hike snack (like fresh fruit, crackers or nuts) to help you maintain your blood sugar levels.
- Your glucometer, strips and insulin, if necessary.
- A hat and sunblock to shield you from the sun.
- Rain gear if it looks like rain!
How to prepare for a hike
Ask the expert: Sarah Hall, Biokineticist
The nature of hiking means that your terrain is unstable and unpredictable. Each step is different from the one before and requires a combination of balance, strength and stability, using one leg at a time. Here’s how to prepare for a hike:
- Start by doing exercises with one leg at a time to isolate muscle groups and encourage improved balance and joint stability. This is called unilateral training.
- Strengthen your glutes and calves to help with climbing and hiking for a longer period of time. Choose exercises like step-ups, standing side leg raises, static lunges and single leg balancing. Try to do 3 sets of 20 of each.
- Alignment is key. Your spine will be taking the load with each step, so be sure to keep your hip, knee and ankle in one straight line for all exercises.
- Always include core exercises that strengthen your abdominals and try to keep your posture upright during the hike.
- To prevent injury during the hike, ensure that you take regular breaks and stretch.
Taking care of your feet
Ask the expert: Anette Thompson, Podiatrist
Here are 5 tips to take care of your feet while out and about hiking:
- Condition your feet It is important to train the muscles, tendons, and ligaments of your ankles and feet for hiking with a backpack.
- Get good footwear and socks Shoes that fit correctly are the most important way to keep your feet happy. When choosing socks, avoid moisture-retaining cotton: instead choose wool or synthetic socks.
- 3. Manage your toenails and skin Socks will catch on nails that are too long or that have rough edges, putting pressure on the nail bed. Take special care of the skin on your heels.
- Learn how to prevent blisters Experiment with different blister patching products and different taping techniques. Find what works for your feet and then perfect the method.
- Carry a small foot care kit A small foot care kit carried in a ziplock bag is easy to carry with your backpack. Include either Vaseline or talcum powder, a few alcohol wipes to clean the skin, some blister plasters and a safety pin to drain blisters (if necessary!).
Bridget McNulty goes for a reiki session to see what it can do for diabetics.
At first glance, reiki seems a little odd. How can it possibly help to have someone wave their hands over your body? What could this do for diabetes, really? But if you put your doubts aside for a minute, the effects of reiki can be quite profound.
To understand what reiki is, think back to the last time you stood in line at the bank, and someone came up behind you. Even though you couldn’t see the person, you could sense that they were in your space. This space is your energy field, and just like your body, the energy field becomes blocked from physical, emotional and mental experiences. These blockages can cause you to feel ill, or tired, or depressed – they literally block the flow of energy in your body. Reiki helps to unblock the energy field, which in turn unblocks the body.
So what does it feel like? Deeply relaxing. A reiki session generally begins with a conversation about whatever is bothering you, and then moves to the treatment, where you lie down and the healer moves their hands over your body. You’re fully clothed at all times, and while there may be some light pressing of the hands, it’s not a massage. Some people feel heat coming from the healer’s hands, others just feel relaxed and sometimes even sleepy. It is completely non-intrusive and actually very pleasant.
But what can it do for diabetes? That’s what I asked Debbie Caknis, the reiki healer I visited. “Reiki can help people with diabetes as historically it has been known to heal on the physical, emotional and mental levels of the personality,” she explained. “Therefore disease (or dis-ease, because the body is not at ease) is addressed on many different levels.” It’s not only a physical healing – emotionally you can begin healing stuck energy, and mentally you can learn how to cope with the management of the condition in a more positive way. “Reiki helps people to get to know their bodies and be able to respond to ailments in a conscious manner,” says Debbie.
What’s interesting here is the focus not just on the physical side of the condition, but also on the emotional and mental side. As all diabetics know, there’s a lot more to managing diabetes than just taking your medication, eating right and exercise. Reiki helped me to see my emotions around diabetes in a clearer way, and understand why I react the way I do to high and low blood sugar. It also took away a lot of stress, and we all know how badly stress affects blood sugar.
I left the session feeling calmer, more on top of my condition, and with a burst of fresh energy. In short, I was quite amazed what healing hands can do.
Want to give it a try? Go for a reiki session, or do a once-off course that enables you to do your own treatments at home.
Ask the expert: Ruth Scott, psychologist
“While it is easy to feel overwhelmed by all the treatment options out there claiming to ‘heal’ you, many forms of alternative therapy can really help to calm the mind and therefore relax the body. How you feel about your treatment is almost as important as the treatment itself.”
It’s the highest mountain in Africa, but that didn’t stop Neil Rae – a Type 1 diabetic for 50 years – from wanting to climb it. We chat to Neil, 63, about his preparation, the climb itself, and life with diabetes.
How long have you been diabetic?
I was diagnosed on the 13th December 1964: over 50 years. I’ve seen a lot of changes for diabetics in my time – there’s a lot more we can eat, the technology to monitor blood sugar levels is a lot more advanced and the insulin pen sets are much more convenient. We’ve come a long way since the gas cylinder with a tin cup that I used to sterilise my glass syringes when I was at university!
What made you decide to climb Kilimanjaro?
I grew up in Lesotho and I’ve always had a love for mountains. I don’t know how many decades ago, I said to myself I wanted to set a goal for my diabetes: to climb Kilimanjaro when I’d lived with it for 50 years. About 18 months ago I contacted Novo Nordisk, the people who manufacture my insulin, to ask if they’d like to partner with me. They were very excited to join the challenge. As you can see it’s been a long-term goal of mine…
What did you do to prepare?
I’ve always been a relatively fit person, and I do a lot of walking with my wife Shaye, in and around the streets of Johannesburg and in the Drakensberg. I was walking between 30 and 40km a week and over weekends doing long walks in Westcliff – they have a flight of 222 stairs built into the rock face, and with a heavy rucksack on your back it’s good training! I did the climb with my doctor, Dr Bruce Ilsely and David Broomfield from Novo Nordisk so as a team we were well prepared.
How did you know what to eat and drink while climbing, and how to balance your blood sugar?
Balancing blood sugar was obviously going to be a challenge – spending between 7 and 8 hours a day climbing up and up and up all the time. It was tricky to balance that amount of exercise with the food supplied by the people who organised the walk – we didn’t take any food with us. Normally my sugar is very well controlled, so the plan was to do very regular checks of my blood sugar levels, see what we were going to be given to eat and then decide how much insulin to take. It turned out that I didn’t eat very much – I became nauseous quite early on, once we were over 3500m.
What was the hardest part of the climb?
The hardest part for me were the ascents and descents because you had to climb up mountains and then down into valleys, and there was a lot of very rocky pathways – walking from rock to rock. Some days we went up and down two or three times in a day. We left Moshi on the Monday and we summited on the Thursday night/Friday morning. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to make the summit – I got up to about 5000m and my altitude sickness was so bad that Dr Bruce said to me, “If you carry on, you’re going to die”. Once I got back down to the base camp at 4600m, then I was fine: it wasn’t diabetes related at all.
What advice would you offer to diabetics who are struggling?
In my opinion, every diabetic who’s struggling has got to develop a lifestyle routine: get up in the morning, check your blood sugar, decide how much insulin you need and what you’re going to eat for the day. You have to have a definite lifestyle routine, and stick to it every day. Discipline is so important to a diabetic. If you don’t have the routine and don’t have the discipline, you’re not going to live with it for 50 years!
What makes your life sweet?
I’m very fortunate: I’m married to a lovely lady and I have two daughters and four grandchildren now. My family, my life and everything in it makes my life very sweet.
Type 1 diabetes used to be diagnosed in the young; Type 2, mostly in older people. But the picture is changing. Why? And what can we do about it? Carine Visagie asks the experts.
Since the 1980s, diabetes has rapidly increased – so much so that the global prevalence has nearly doubled since 1980, rising from 4.7% to 8.5% in adults. Over the past decade, Type 2 diabetes has become a massive problem in low- and middle-income countries and, for the first time in history, it’s a significant problem among the world’s children. What’s more, Type 1 diabetes is also on the increase.
It’s estimated that about 1.396 million of South Africans with diabetes remain undiagnosed, which makes it hard to judge the scale of the problem here. “But diabetes certainly is on the increase here, too,” says Johannesburg-based paediatric endocrinologist Prof. David Segal.
While the worldwide increase in Type 2 diabetes can be explained by unhealthy, modern lifestyles, rapid urbanisation (linked to inactivity and unhealthy eating patterns), a wider spread of the genes linked to the disease, and an ageing population, the reason for the increase in Type 1 diabetes is less clear.
To complicate matters, an increasing number of adults are presenting with latent autoimmune diabetes (LADA) – a form of Type 1 diabetes in which the progression of the disease is slow. As such, many adults with LADA are misdiagnosed as having Type 2 diabetes.
Type 1 diabetes in adults and the very young
At the start of the 20th century, diabetes was rare in children. By the end of the century, it increased substantially in many parts of the world and, right now, many countries are documenting higher numbers of Type 1 diabetes than ever before. Plus, the profile of patients is changing.
Across the world, this autoimmune disorder now often strikes at a younger age. And while similar research hasn’t been done locally, research shows that 50% of people newly diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes in the United Kingdom are over 30. This turns the long-held belief that Type 1 diabetes develops only in childhood on its head.
It’s long been known that both environmental and genetic factors contribute to Type 1 diabetes, but the exact triggers remain unknown. One of the theories, according to Johannesburg-based endocrinologist Dr Zaheer Bayat, is the hygiene hypothesis, which suggests that exposure to a variety of pathogens during early childhood might protect against Type 1 diabetes. A second theory suggests that certain viruses may initiate the autoimmune process involved. Another is that vitamin D deficiency plays a role. And a link between Type 1 diabetes and early exposure to cow’s milk is being explored.
According to Segal, being overweight or following the lifestyle of an obese person (being inactive and following an unhealthy diet) may also be a trigger. The “accelerator hypothesis” argues that Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes are in fact the same condition, distinguished only by the rate at which the beta cells in the pancreas are destroyed, and the triggers (or “accelerators”) responsible.
Type 2 diabetes still on the increase
In South Africa, Type 2 diabetes remains a massive health problem that accounts for more than 90% of diabetes cases. This condition, in which the pancreas either doesn’t produce enough insulin or the body doesn’t use it effectively, still predominantly occurs in adults. “But, for the first time, we’re also seeing young adults and adolescents with Type 2 diabetes,” says Bayat.
Ethnicity, family history and gestational diabetes combine with increased age, overweight/obesity and smoking to increase a person’s risk. In this country, the high incidence of Type 2 diabetes is also closely linked to the rapid cultural and social changes we’ve experienced over the last 20 to 30 years. With them came physical inactivity and unhealthy eating – both important risk factors.
According to Fiona Prins, diabetes specialist nurse practitioner, researchers are also currently investigating how, genetically, some of us store fat differently – a factor that could play a role in diabetes risk and management. “Some people may have ‘thrifty genes’, which would allow them to cope better on meals that are eight hours apart,” she says. “But this goes against all our messaging of eating three meals a day (or six, in the case of diabetics).”
Part of the problem, adds Segal, is that many of us don’t quite know what obesity is – we think we’re just overweight when, in fact, we’re obese. His advice is clear: “You have to lose weight to halt the progression to diabetes. It’s the only way.”
Jenny Russell, support group expert, adds: “Go and see a dietician who specialises in this field. They can do a thorough history and advise on an eating plan that suits you. Then simply get moving – every bit of exercise counts.”
From our community: “I know that as a diabetic I should always try and be good, but sometimes it’s hard… What can I snack on without feeling too guilty about it (but that will also be a treat)?” Charne Smith.
A treat is something that tastes great, is normally high in fat and refined carbohydrate, and is eaten to either celebrate or make you feel better… But how do you have your treat and prevent it from totally messing up your blood sugar levels for the day?
Treats are not forbidden, but they should not be too often or too big. It all comes down to self-control and portion control. The occasional block or two of chocolate should not mean disaster for your blood sugar: it’s when you eat the whole slab that things spiral out of control. Everything in moderation is the key.
If you battle with cravings, you need to understand that the last bite never tastes as good as the first bite. The feel good rush you get from the first bite of a treat starts to fade as you continue eating, but your blood sugar levels start to increase.
What does this mean? You only need a small amount to feel like you’ve had a treat. You don’t need the whole slab, packet, bowl or slice…
How to cheat:
- Split a dessert with your partner. It might drive them nuts, but it will keep your blood sugar and weight down. Better yet, plan ahead and choose a light main course so that you can have a small dessert on those special evenings out.
- Choose biscuits and cakes that don’t have icing, or remove the icing and jam from cakes. Icing has twice the amount of sugar as the cake or biscuit.
- Choose a dessert like apple crumble (without the ice-cream or cream) or two small scoops of ice-cream. Just remember to keep portions small.
- Spoil yourself with some good diabetic-friendly ice-cream (low fat/low sugar), lite custard and diabetic friendly puddings.
- Opt for small “bite” sized chocolates or chocolates with wafer inside (e.g. Kit Kat Fingers).
- Dark chocolate with a high percentage of cocoa is better for you as it is higher in antioxidants. Dark chocolate is also bitter so people tend to eat less of it: usually a block or two is enough.
- Salt and vinegar popcorn instead of crisps will keep your fat content low and help with salt cravings. When going to the movies, choose a small popcorn and a diet drink.
Remember: Spoiling yourself on the odd occasion is allowed. Always test your blood sugar levels to see how they react and you will learn to better control these situations.
If you’re diabetic, you probably know all about testing your blood sugar… But are you doing it the right way? Here are some top tips.
- The goal is always to keep your blood sugar in a healthy range: not too high and not too low.
- Checking your blood sugar often makes it easier to understand the relationship between blood sugar levels and exercise, food, medication and things like travel, stress and illness.
- Blood sugar readings also give your doctor, diabetes nurse educator or clinic sister information to help you adjust medication and food, if your numbers are often too high or too low.
- Modern blood sugar meters only take 5 seconds and need just a tiny drop of blood.
- Pricking the tip of the finger is the easiest place to get the drop of blood.
- Before you test, it’s important to wash your hands with soap and water and dry them properly.
- Type 1 diabetics should test before every meal, to decide how much insulin to take.
- Before a meal, blood sugar readings should be 4 to 7mmol/l*.
- Two hours after a meal, blood sugar readings should be 5 to 10 mmol/l*.
- Keeping a blood sugar log is a very helpful tool for all diabetics. Write down your blood sugar test results, along with the date, time and what food you ate. This can make it easier to see if there are patterns in your blood sugar readings.