Questions by diabetics, for diabetics.
Our regular contributor Jane Sandwood tackles the topic of how to quit smoking if you have diabetes. Have you managed to quit smoking? Do you have any advice to share? Tell us your experiences, here or on Facebook, and it might help the rest of the South African diabetes community.
The health risks of smoking with diabetes
The health risks of smoking with diabetes are well documented; however, curbing nicotine addiction while managing your diabetes adds another layer of complexity to a notoriously difficult task. In South Africa, the prevalence of diabetes is increasingly rapidly, which in turn raises the stakes for smokers with diabetes to quit while controlling glucose levels. Because standard nicotine replacement options such as patches and e-cigarettes aren’t safe for diabetics, either, many are left with the daunting prospect of going cold turkey without a tangible removal plan. Fortunately, a range of treatment options exists for diabetics looking to quit smoking while managing their disease.
Early stages and treatment plans
Before quitting, smokers should consult their doctors to determine the best course of action. Because smoking suppresses appetite, some research suggests that diabetics who quit smoking struggle to control their blood sugar levels. As a result, individual diets may need adjustment to prepare for withdrawal from nicotine. Doctors can work with patients to devise a schedule or pattern that best suits their needs.
Most smokers will attempt to quit dozens of times before they are successful. While some attempt to gradually wean themselves off cigarettes, others go “cold turkey” and quit all at once. Although individual results vary, some research suggests that smokers who quit “cold turkey” were more successful than those who quit gradually. At any rate, it’s important to remember that quitting smoking is a continual process, and not something that happens ‘all at once’–even if you can pinpoint your last cigarette to a specific day. It’s normal to have setbacks, and plenty of ex-smokers can attest to the efficacy of quitting cigarettes, even it takes more than one attempt.
Moving forward with quitting smoking
Normally, diabetics will be able to quickly observe improvements and results in their own health within weeks of quitting smoking, which can encourage efforts to absolve from nicotine. It is also a good idea to consult medically supported research on the trajectory of nicotine withdrawal to give you a broader sense of what’s happening to your body as you continue the process of nicotine withdrawal. It may also be a good plan to keep a journal logging changes in mood, diet, blood sugar level, and other related factors to track individual growth throughout the process.
Quitting smoking is a frightening prospect for anyone addicted to nicotine, least of all diabetics. However, many viable treatment plans exist to help curb nicotine in a manner that is effective and safe. It won’t take much time to benefit from the wide range of advantages to quitting smoking as you continue the ongoing process of diabetic care.
It’s one of the questions we get asked at Sweet Life all the time. Do I have to change my lifestyle – and my diet – to manage Type 2 diabetes?
Well, that depends. Most of the time, Type 2 diabetes is caused directly or indirectly by issues of diet and lifestyle – it’s sometimes called a ‘lifestyle disease’. That said, there is a strong genetic component, so it’s not helpful to think that you ‘gave yourself diabetes’. That kind of attitude isn’t going to help you live a healthy, happy life with diabetes.
Take a close look at your lifestyle. Do you think it’s one of the reasons you were diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes? Do you eat a lot of fried, fatty food? Is there enough fresh fruit and vegetables in your diet? Do you eat a lot of processed food or refined carbohydrates? Do you eat large portions, even if you’re no longer hungry? If so, it might be time for a lifestyle revamp. Take a look at Sweet Life’s Ask the Dietician articles for advice on a healthy diabetes diet.
Family with diabetes
One of the hardest things for newly diagnosed diabetics is making the changes necessary for their health, while still being part of the family. For many people, family meals are an important part of the day, and having to either eat a different variety of a meal or eat at different times or in a different way (a plate of food instead of sharing from communal plates, for example) is a difficult adjustment. Some families are fantastic at supporting the newly diagnosed, others find it too much of a challenge. Sweet Life has written about the challenges of family life with diabetes in our Partner’s Corner articles – you can find out more about families with diabetes here.
Remember that it’s important to sit down and explain to your family why you need to make certain changes, and how they can benefit from them too. Those who have adopted a healthier lifestyle – one that’s rich in fresh food and regular exercise – not only see the effects in their blood sugar results, but in their overall wellbeing.
Have you had to change your lifestyle because of diabetes?
Ask the dietician: Genevieve Jardine
From the community: “I don’t understand the whole ‘low carbs high fat or high protein’ idea – how do carbs, fat and protein work together? Is there a happy middle ground, or does it need to be all or nothing?” Wessel Jones
To understand what all the fuss is about, we need to look at the history of diabetes treatment. Treating diabetes (both Type 1 and Type 2) by lowering carbohydrates (carbs) has come and gone out of fashion over the last century. This debate is not a new one and it is probably not going to go away.
Before the invention of insulin, the only way for a diabetic to survive was to cut out the foods (carbs) affecting blood glucose. With the advent of insulin, the focus switched from lowering carbs to lowering fat to help reduce heart disease. Fast forward a couple of decades and we can see that we have failed in reducing obesity, diabetes or heart disease. It’s not as simple as just diet: it’s about physical activity, stress, diet and environment.
How do carbs work in the body?
What is quite simple is that carbs cause blood sugar to rise and the more carbs you eat, the higher the blood sugar goes. If a person wants to control their blood sugar, it’s a very good idea to reduce carbs. The big question is: how low do you go? A “low carbohydrate diet” can have anything from 20g to 130g of carbohydrate per day.
Remember: One portion of carb (a medium apple, a slice of bread) = 15g carb
The amount of carbs depends on the individual, their control, their medication and their weight. There is a growing amount of scientific evidence that low carb diets improve glucose control and help with weight loss.
Where do fat and protein fit in?
When carbs are cut, the amount of protein or fat (or both) go up. And this is where the debate heats up. The concern is not the low carb, but the increase in saturated fat or fat in general. Remember that not all fat is the enemy and there are good fats that play a very important role in the body.
A benefit of protein and fat is that in the immediate, they do not cause the same spikes in blood sugar. When you lower carb intake you have an immediate blood sugar lowering effect. When this happens, and you have fewer spikes and dips in blood sugar, your appetite is better controlled. The fuller you feel, the less likely you are to snack and the fewer kilojoules you consume. The fewer kilojoules you consume, the more likely you are to lose weight.
The problem with the low carb approach is that, like everything else, it needs to be a lifestyle. When you add carbs back into your diet you will put on weight, especially if you have increased your fat and/or protein. You can’t have it all: full fat products and also carbs. The most important goal is to increase your vegetable intake and try to eat as close to nature as possible. Eat foods in their most original form.
When it comes to deciding on the right ratio of carbs : fat : protein, work with a dietician. It may take time to find your correct balance and you need to be monitored properly with blood tests and possible medication adjustments.
For radio presenter and TV actor Kini Shandu, Type 2 diabetes gave him new meaning. Here’s what he has to say about his condition.
Kini Shandu is a radio presenter on one of KZN’s biggest radio stations, Gagasi FM, a TV personality on SABC’s biggest telenovela, uZalo, and the founder of Inqaba Media. He’s also a father of two and a Type 2 diabetic.
When were you diagnosed?
I was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes in 2010 – six years ago now.
How did you cope with the diagnosis?
It wasn’t easy coming to terms with the new lifestyle, especially because I felt I was too young to be diabetic.
Has it become any easier with time?
Yeah, it has. It became easier once I came to accept that it was my new reality. Having family and friends who support me all the way makes a great difference.
What’s the hardest part about being diabetic for you?
The pressure of making sure I don’t default on my medication: having to keep my medication kit with me, even when I’m travelling. We are all human and we can forget, but this is a challenge I just have to face. Reminders on my cellphone help me a lot!
How do you balance a busy life with eating right and exercise?
I jog every morning and I try by all means to eat as clean as I can. There are times when I miss junk food, but knowing the damage it could do is enough to switch my brain straight to its senses.
You’re a radio presenter on Gagasi FM, do you talk about diabetes at all?
Yes, I do talk about it a lot. I’m fortunate to have Gagasi FM listeners who follow me closely: they know I’m diabetic and are very supportive. I also make sure I spread the word on every platform I get.
Could you tell us about your TV acting?
I play the character of Shaun, a lawyer, on the SABC1 telenovela, Uzalo, weekdays at 8:30pm. The character is the complete opposite of me, but I’m loving it and I’d like to do more TV gigs in the near future.
What advice would you offer to diabetics who are struggling?
Accept the situation and take it one step at a time. Diabetes is a silent killer, so take a stand and fight it. Surround yourself with people who love and support you.
What makes your life sweet?
The fact that I’m diabetic! Joking. I love my life, I live an awesome life, I live with no regret. I thank God for each and every day in my life: diabetes gave me a new meaning to life.
From our community blog:
I am new to this site.
Last night I was at the casualty section of Wilgeheuwel Hospital in Joburg because my 2 year-8-month year old son has been very listless and vomited and I thought he probably had gastro. He was diagnosed about 2 hours ago with Type 1 diabetes and was taken straight to ICU to be stabilised and to have tests done.
This was an overwhelming, terrifying moment for me — I know very little about Type 1 Diabetes and my OCD thinking went into a tailspin about “what if he is in a situation one day where there is no insulin available and and and…”
Forgive me for sounding so panicked, but I am utterly at sea and trying to come to grips with the news. I am writing in the hope that someone can tell me everything’s going to be okay – that the ‘episodes’ or emergency situations will be able to be handled with confidence and success, and that (bar all the huge adaptations we’ll make to our lives), he will be okay.
I’d really appreciate any comfort anyone can give to this totally inexperienced, upset mom.
My son is also a diabetic. He was diagnosed at age 12, nearly 6 years ago. I just wanted to say: hang in there. Your child will be okay. He will one day be able to cope with this all. Just remember that this is not your fault. Nothing could have prevented this. Do join our group on Facebook: Kids powered by insulin. This group has helped me through some tough times.
Remember there is light at the end of the tunnel. Keep the faith. It will get better, that I promise.
All will be okay as long as you take care of it and treat it accordingly.
Keep monitoring your son’s diabetes and it will be fine!
Oh my, I know the feeling of absolute devastation! I was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes three years ago at an oldish age, and I live alone, and thought the world had come to an end. Obviously for such a little one it is very difficult… I’m very aware of what I eat. Living with diabetes is difficult, but doable.
Sometimes the biggest challenge to eating a healthy diet is finding the right ingredients: here’s how Annora Mostert, the founder and group owner of Anja’s Pantry, and Alliyah Geldenhuys, who just opened Anja’s Pantry Plumstead, did just that.
Do you have a special interest in diabetes?
“It soon became clear that people with diabetes have the biggest need for healthy low carbohydrate and sugar-free food,” explains Annora. “So we involved trained nutritionists to guide us in what the right type of products should be for diabetics, and started to change the content of our pantry.” The result? All the products in Anja’s Pantry stores are now diabetic friendly. Some of the store owners also have close family members with diabetes, so as a team they work together to stock the right kind of products.
Do you think awareness is growing around healthy food alternatives?
“Absolutely! Social media is the biggest contributor creating awareness, but the awareness is now affecting policies. The research is so clear and the problem is so great that the South African government has followed the UK government in introducing a sugar tax next year on foods to try to curb the high sugar content in processed foods,” says Annora. As a result, all their stores offer a wide range of food products that are sugar-free and low carb so that those who want to avoid sugar can still have a variety of foods to choose from. “Our range of food products is now over 200 items with more being added all the time. This becomes a mini grocery store for the large percentage of the population that are either diabetic or pre-diabetic, those who have allergies or those who just want to lose weight while enjoying their food.”
How did you choose the location of Anja’s Pantry Plumstead?
Anja’s Pantry in Plumstead is right next door to a number of fast food restaurants. “We chose the location on purpose,” explains Alliyah, the owner of the store. “We want to provide healthier options to those in Plumstead and surrounds. It’s often difficult to prepare home cooked meals and so called ‘proper food’ with the fast paced lifestyles that many of us lead today. We end up simply settling for the quickest and easiest option available, but often these are unhealthy food choices. With our easy to prepare premixes and pre-prepared items such as pizza bases and meals, we are hoping to make it much easier for those wanting to enjoy a more nutritionally sound meal.”
Do you think there’s a particular need for healthy alternatives in the Muslim community?
“Yes! Traditional Muslim food is well known for being loaded with unhealthy fats, excessive carbohydrates and sugars. Diseases such as diabetes, high blood pressure and cholesterol are rife within the Muslim community and have sadly become a way of life for many within the community. I think it’s possible to ‘eat yourself healthy’, and that if we can share this vision and all that it stands for it will change the lives of many and allow Muslims to re-think their food choices.”
Do you have any advice for those who are struggling with their diabetes?
“Living a sugar-free and low carb life shouldn’t be that difficult,” says Annora. “We know that it is more expensive since real food items aren’t mass produced and made with lots of chemicals, but it saves so much on unnecessary medical bills.” Alliyah agrees. “An important part of managing your condition is to eat healthy meals and steer clear of certain items. Always read labels and check the ingredients of items that you purchase, as product packaging can often be misleading!”
What makes your life sweet?
For Annora, it’s feeling healthy and eating without feeling guilty. For Alliyah: “My amazing family, who made the opening of this shop a reality. It would never have happened without their help, guidance and support.”
Hypoglycemic episodes (hypos) can be a scary experience for all involved: here’s what you need to know to deal with one.
- A hypo is a sudden low blood sugar episode.
- The optimal blood glucose range is 4 to 7mmol/l. With a hypo, blood glucose levels are usually lower than 3mmol/l.
- Initial symptoms are nervousness, sweating, intense hunger, trembling, weakness, palpitations, or trouble speaking (depending on the person).
- The best thing to treat a hypo is fast-acting carbohydrates: 15-20g of sugary carb (a few sweets, 2 tablespoons of raisins, a tablespoon of honey or half a cup of fruit juice).
- The key is to catch low blood sugar early – as soon as it starts dropping – and treat it with a small dose of something sweet.
- If blood glucose drops too low it can get to the stage where the brain is not getting enough glucose.
- Symptoms of this are confusion, drowsiness, changes in behaviour, seizure and eventually coma.
- In case of a severe hypo, a glucagon emergency kit may be necessary. This once-off injection instantly raises the blood sugar, and is particularly useful when the person with diabetes is unconscious or unable to swallow.
- Notify all those close to you what to do in an emergency and how to use a glucagon injection.
- Test often to keep your levels as well controlled as possible.
From Facebook (Diabetic South Africans):
What’s the secret to a happy life with diabetes?
To not make it an issue. Treat it and forget it. Life is too short.
Most people suffer some type of illness, but we all have to just deal with it and get on with our lives.
Sorry to all those optimistic people out there… but there is no happy life with diabetes 🙁
Finding the right balance… While diabetes is not a good thing to have, one certainly does still have a happy life. Be informed… and that goes for your spouse and family members too.
Support and understanding from the people closest to you makes it easier to live with.
Ask the dietician: Cheryl Meyer
From the community: “Being both diabetic and pregnant makes it difficult to know what to eat – there are so many things I have to avoid! And I’ve been craving sweet things. Any advice?” Sameshnie Naidoo.
The diet for pregnant women with diabetes should be a healthy, well-balanced eating plan aimed at supporting the pregnancy and promoting blood sugar control. This is essential for the wellbeing of both mom and baby.
Of course, pregnancy and diabetes means that there are more foods on the “Do Not Eat” list, as your normal diabetic diet has a new list of things to avoid. But bear in mind that it’s only for nine months, and that it’s for the best possible cause: your healthy child.
Foods to avoid:
Here’s a list of foods that you shouldn’t eat when you’re pregnant because they pose a potential food safety risk and might make you ill or harm your baby.
- Soft cheeses e.g. brie, camembert, and blue-veined cheeses unless the label says they are made with pasteurised milk.
- Processed cold meats or deli meats unless they are reheated until steaming hot.
- Refrigerated paté or meat spreads (canned options can be eaten).
- Refrigerated smoked seafood unless as an ingredient in a cooked dish e.g. a casserole.
- Raw or partially cooked eggs and dishes that contain these e.g. homemade mayonnaise.
- Raw or undercooked meat and poultry
- Unpasteurised juice
- Raw sprouts
- Raw or undercooked fish or shellfish
- The American Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND) recommends pregnant women avoid fish high in mercury e.g. shark, swordfish, marlin. And limit intake of fish and shellfish lower in mercury e.g. prawns, canned light tuna and salmon, to 360g or less per week.
The good news? You don’t need to give up caffeine entirely. The AND recommends keeping your intake below 300mg/day, which is about one or two servings of coffee or tea. And of course rooibos is naturally caffeine free, so you can have as much as you like!
Being both diabetic and pregnant can feel restrictive from a diet point of view… When you’re lacking motivation, just remember that everything you eat your baby is eating too: so put down the junk food and pick up a carrot!
A note on cravings:
Whether it’s pickles and ice cream or other odd combinations, both cravings and food aversions are common during pregnancy. Although the exact cause is unknown, taste perceptions may change with hormonal changes. Cravings are generally harmless*, unless foods you crave replace more nutritious foods, or all you want is junk food. If broccoli loses its appeal, for example, substitute another vegetable that you enjoy and tolerate.
*Cravings for non-food substances like sand or chalk (a condition called pica) can be dangerous as they contain lead or other toxic substances. If you’re craving non-food items, consult your doctor.
“My dad is a poorly controlled Type 2 diabetic, and he doesn’t seem to care. I keep telling him how serious his condition is and that he has to take care of himself, but he continues eating whatever he likes and says he’s too old to change. What can I do?” Celeste Damen.
It isn’t easy for people to hear that they have diabetes. Diabetes is a condition that cannot be cured: it has to be taken care of every day. People who have diabetes have to make some important changes in their lives, but if the change is forced on them, they may not want to do it.
This is what is probably happening with your dad. He most likely knows exactly how important it is to look after his diabetes, but might still be in denial or angry that this inconvenience has been brought into his life.
The fear you feel for your dad’s condition also projects to him, and he is probably trying to reassure you by giving you excuses that he is too old to change or that the situation is not that serious.
Instead of telling Dad what to do and being cross with him when he doesn’t do the right thing, you need to ask him what changes he is willing and able to make. Then encourage him to follow through on what the two of you have decided.
Diabetes has not only happened to him: it has happened to your whole family. This is something all of you have to accept. It’s a good idea to get the whole family to adopt healthy habits, so that there will be less temptation… Offer your dad help, but try not to be the Diabetes Police.
– Jeannie Berg, Diabetes Educator
Yoga is not only a fantastic form of strengthening exercise, it’s also great for calming the mind – something most of us with diabetes need to do! Bridget McNulty finds out more.
As a diabetic, the one thing I hear over and over is that exercise is good for me. And it is! But sometimes exercise feels a bit too much like… well… hard work. Not so with yoga. I started doing yoga a few months ago and I’m totally hooked – it has just the right balance of strengthening, balancing and heart-racing poses, and I love that we get to meditate after each class. I asked yoga teacher Tasha Saha why she thinks yoga is particularly good for diabetics.
“As well as better fitness and cardiovascular health, yoga massages and stimulates the function of the internal organs, balances the endocrine system and has measurable effects on the release of stress hormones,” she says. “All of these are factors that affect blood sugar, so it’s no surprise that several major studies have shown that regularly doing yoga can significantly reduce blood sugar levels.” Another aspect of yoga that sets it apart from other exercise is that it increases body awareness, which makes it easier to maintain a healthy weight and to make wiser food choices.
But which yoga to choose? In general, hot yoga (Bikram) and flow yoga (Ashtanga) are more demanding, so it’s better to begin with a slower practice like Hatha or Iyengar. Some poses (especially those that are active in the abdominal area and lower back) are particularly good for diabetics because they target the pancreas, promoting better function and helping to lower blood sugar levels. “But a balanced yoga session will work holistically on every system in the body,” says Tasha, “as well as the mind and emotions too – lowering stress levels and helping the whole person towards balance.”
I can honestly say that my yoga practice has helped me feel not only stronger and fitter, but calmer and more able to take on the daily challenges of diabetes.
Want to give it a try? Many yoga studios offer free trial periods or classes to beginners. Most gyms also offer yoga classes at a fraction of the price of private classes.
Ask the dietician: Genevieve Jardine
From the community: “My wife and I love having friends over for sundowners but never know what drinks to offer and what snacks to serve so that I can actually enjoy myself too. Any advice?” Riyaaz Benjamin.
Luckily, there is a way to enjoy (guilt-free) sundowners… It just takes a little planning. Let’s take a look at the when, what and where of it.
The main problem with sundowners lies with the timing. As the name suggests, they usually occur long after lunch and just before supper. This means that you may arrive hungry and tired with low blood sugar levels: a recipe for overeating, drinking (sugary) alcohol on an empty stomach, and filling up on unhealthy snack food. After sundowners, you may then go for supper, which means even more food and alcohol.
The key? Sundowners are best handled when prepared. Make sure you have an afternoon snack just before arriving (preferably one that contains protein to help stabilise blood sugar levels). Upfront, decide to either have the snacks as a replacement dinner (only a good idea if there are healthy snack options) or hold back and leave room for a light supper.
What is being dished up? The good news is that sundowner snacks are usually savoury and not sweet. The bad news is that savoury snacks – like chips and cream dip, sausage rolls and salty peanuts – are often high in starch and fat. Try to choose the healthiest options on the table, and don’t forget to dish up a plate rather than snacking so that you know exactly how much you’re eating.
Sundowners are also synonymous with cocktails (not the right choice of drink for anyone with diabetes!) When it comes to alcohol, good options are light beer, a wine spritzer made with Sprite Zero or soda water, or single spirit tots with diet mixers. Sparkling water with ice, lemon and cucumber is a refreshing drink if you’re not in the mood for alcohol.
Healthy snack ideas:
- Lean proteins like nuts, lean biltong and grilled strips of chicken or beef.
- Fresh vegetables like cucumber strips, baby carrots, baby tomatoes and celery sticks, served with a low-fat cottage cheese, avo or salsa dip.
The last thing to consider is where the sundowners are being held. If you’re hosting or going to a friend’s house, you can simply bring along what you would prefer to eat and drink. Restaurants can be more challenging, but easily overcome with a bit of forward planning. Call the restaurant beforehand and make sure that there are snacks or drinks on hand that you can enjoy. Most restaurants are more than willing to help – if not, at least you know and can plan for the evening.
Having diabetes doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy a cold drink and a delicious snack as the sun goes down, it just means you need to forward plan a little to enjoy it!
Are you looking for a fun way to get fit? Here are a few exercise classes specifically for people with diabetes – we’ll add to this list as we find more! Please email us with details of other fun fitness classes for diabetics.
Latha Singh: Chatsworth, Durban
I’ve been an exercise instructor for the past 28 years. I teach exercise classes for women and senior citizen groups in and around Chatsworth.
I would love to spread my knowledge and literally hold exercise classes at hospitals (like Chatsmed Garden Life Hospital) and other venues to make people aware of the importance of exercise, especially people with diabetes.
My classes are currently at:
- Malvern Library (Queensburgh): Monday and Wednesday from 8am to 9am
- Shallcross Heidi School Hall: Tuesday and Thursday mornings from 8am to 9am
- Woodhurst Library, Chatsworth: Tuesday and Thursday from 6pm to 7pm
- Mobeni Heights Temple Hall: Wednesdays from 10am to 11am
- Woodhurst Library: Thursdays from 11am to 11.30am
Kayla Murphy: Randburg, Johannesburg
We are a private biokinetics practice in Randburg, Johannesburg. We specialise in youth and adult diabetic exercise classes: Fit for Diabetes (see below PDF for more info).
We are happy to do any free classes or participate in educational talks to get more involved and contribute to the diabetic community of South Africa.
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!
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.
If there’s one question we get all the time, it’s about the insulin pump: what is it, how it works and how to get it covered by medical aid. So we’ve gathered together all your Frequently Asked Questions, and found the answers.
Meet the expert
Name: Imke Kruger
How long have you been diabetic? 25 years
How long have you been on the pump? 5 years
What made you decide to get an insulin pump?
I battled to get my blood glucose under control on multiple daily injections, especially when doing sports. It was before my first 94.7 cycle challenge that my doctor suggested insulin pump therapy. It has changed my life! I can’t imagine life without my Accu-Chek Combo pump.
What do you love about the pump?
Everything! It helps me to live life the way I want to. I love the discreetness of it – I can give a bolus in a meeting or when going out with my friends, without anyone noticing.
What are some of the challenges?
The first two months were difficult to get used to sleeping with the pump, but now I don’t even realize that I’m wearing it. The challenge is more with diabetes – not the pump. It’s important to realise that insulin pump therapy is not taking the condition away. There are so many variables in diabetes, and that will always be a challenge.
When should someone consider getting an insulin pump?
- If they are experiencing severe hypoglycaemic (low blood sugar) episodes despite careful management.
- If they are on multiple daily injections, following a meal plan, testing their blood glucose levels 4 times a day, and still not getting target HbA1c results.
- If they have irregular eating, working and resting times.
Insulin pump therapy won’t work for those who aren’t committed to it, and there isn’t enough evidence to recommend it for Type 2 diabetics.
A more comprehensive description of the Indications and Contra-Indications to Pump therapy can be found in the SA Guidelines for Insulin Pump Therapy. A Amod, M Carrihill, JA Dave, LA Distiller, W May, I Paruk, FJ Pirie, D Segal, Association of Clinical Endocrinologists of South Africa (ACE-SA) JEMDSA 2013;18(1):15-19.
FAQ about the insulin pump from our community:
What is an insulin pump?
- Insulin pumps are portable devices attached to the body that deliver constant amounts of rapid or short acting insulin via an infusion set.
- The pump tries to mimic the release of insulin from a normal pancreas, but you have to tell it how much insulin to inject.
- It delivers insulin in two ways: a basal rate which is a continuous, small trickle of insulin that keeps blood glucose stable between meals and overnight; and a bolus rate, which is a much higher rate of insulin taken before eating to “cover” the food you plan to eat or to correct a high blood glucose level.
- Because the insulin pump stays connected to the body, it allows the wearer to change the amount of insulin they take with the press of a few buttons at any time of day. You can also program in a higher or lower rate of insulin delivery at a chosen time – when sleeping or doing sports, for instance.
Where do you buy an insulin pump and how much does it cost?
You need to be a patient at one of the accredited pump centres in South Africa. Your doctor will decide if you are a pump candidate according to the Association of Clinical Endocrinologists of South Africa (ACE-SA) guidelines. If you are, you will need a script to claim the pump through your medical aid, or buy it cash from one of the supplying pharmacies.
What are the advantages and disadvantages of using an insulin pump?
Insulin pump therapy improves metabolic control while giving you greater freedom and a better quality of life.
- Your metabolism stays more stable, with better HbA1c values and fewer low blood sugar episodes.
- You can be more flexible in your eating, if you understand the concept of carbohydrate counting.
- You can participate in sports whenever you feel like it — without having to plan in advance
Disadvantages are that you have too much freedom in making food choices, and that there is a risk of diabetic ketoacidosis (DKA) from pump malfunction or absorption problems.
Remember: Deciding on insulin pump therapy is not a simple decision and should be carefully discussed with your healthcare team.
Will my blood sugar control be better if I use an insulin pump?
It all depends on you. You can wear a pump and it can have no impact on your blood sugar. Or you can use a pump, and with the right settings, motivation and help from your healthcare team, you can have better blood sugar control.
Will I still have to test my blood sugar as much?
A pump patient needs to be a motivated patient who tests regularly, around 4 times a day.
Are there insulin pumps that have a Continuous Glucose Meter attached?
Yes there are – it’s a good idea to discuss with your healthcare team which pump would best suit your needs
How would the insulin pump be used for sports? Are there special casings made or will I have to play without it?
You can engage in any kind of physical activity while wearing an insulin pump. But for sports with intensive body contact and water sports we recommend temporarily disconnecting the insulin pump (not for longer than 1 hour). Special cases and pouches can protect the pump, but it’s always a good idea to insure it as well.
At what age can you put a child on the insulin pump and how easy is it for them to adapt?
I would say at any age, but it’s best to get advice from your pediatric endocrinologist. Children often adapt the easiest of all age groups to insulin pump therapy.
What is the risk of infection?
If you follow the right hygiene steps, the risks are low. You should always disinfect the pump site before inserting the infusion set. It is also critical to replace the infusion set every three days.
How much is an insulin pump with and without medical aid?
That depends on the type of medical aid plan and whether the medical aid covers the costs fully or partly. It would be best to discuss this with your healthcare team or your medical aid. If your doctor agrees that pump therapy is the best option for you, they will send an application to the medical aid.
Ask the expert: Dr Claudine Lee, GP
“Pump therapy is a beautiful and practical way of delivering insulin that tries to fit in with you, the patient, in terms of meals, exercise and illness, as well as just living a normal life.”
Ask the dietician: Cheryl Meyer
We asked our community what they most wanted to know about diabetes and food – here are 10 frequently asked questions, answered by our expert dietician.
- Must I cut sugar out of my diet completely?
Small amounts of sugar can be included in your diet, but too much sugar or sweet food is not recommended as part of a healthy eating pattern.
- What can I eat when I feel like chocolate?
Treats like chocolate can fit into a healthy diet, as long as you keep these points in mind:
- Try to have treats with a meal, e.g. as a dessert.
- Watch your portion size: choose a small portion or share.
- Put a healthy twist on treats – check out these great recipes for ideas
- Do I have to buy special sugar replacements, or can I just use less sugar?
Small amounts of sugar, jam, and honey have little effect on blood glucose levels, so small amounts of sugar can be included in your diet, e.g. a scrape of jam on wholewheat bread.
- How important is fibre in a diabetic’s diet?
Fibre keeps your digestive tract working well, can help lower your cholesterol level and can improve blood glucose control if eaten in large amounts. Another benefit of fibre is that it adds bulk to help make you feel full. Given these benefits, fibre is important to include in a diabetic’s daily diet – and in the diets of those who don’t have diabetes!
- How many vegetables should I be eating in a day?
The amount of vegetables you need depends on your age, gender and level of physical activity. On average, an adult woman will need 2½ cups a day, while an adult man will need 3 cups, and children will need between 1 to 2 cups a day.
- How much protein do I need to balance out carbohydrate?
Protein should account for about 15 to 20% of the total calories you eat each day – roughly a fist-sized portion at each meal.
- Is too much fruit bad for diabetics? And grapefruit?
Fruit (any kind, grapefruit included) can be included as part of your diet, but controlling portion size is vital. Limit your portions to a fist-sized or tennis-ball sized portion at a time.
- How do I manage food for my diabetic child?
Provide structured, nutritious meals and snacks for your child and make healthy eating and lifestyle changes as a family (don’t single out one family member). Remember that they are a child first and a diabetic second. Work with your child’s diabetes health care team to help your little one grow up healthy and happy!
- My sugar is always high – am I eating wrong?
Diabetes is managed with diet, exercise, tablets and/or injections. Check in with your doctor to make sure your food choices, exercise levels and medication are on track to keep your sugar within your target range.
- How can a diabetic lose weight in a healthy way?
The best way to lose weight for good is to find an approach to eating that makes sense, doesn’t cut out whole food groups and has you eating regularly and feeling well.