Oriental Medicine has much to offer patients with diabetes who want to do everything possible to optimize their health — and if possible, to reverse the course of the disease or limit the damage it can do to them.
At this point in time, no one should doubt the global epidemic of human suffering that is dramatically increasing from diabetes and its complications: At least 366 million people currently carry the diagnosis — along with many more who have not been identified — and estimates predict the current figure will reach over 500 million by 2020. The International Diabetes Foundation, in announcing these figures, says 1 person dies every 7 seconds from the disease. What this may not adequately describe is that before dying, many of these patients have been on dialysis, have had amputations, have lost their eyesight or the ability to walk… this is serious stuff. And yet, the fact that it is becoming so “commonplace” presents its own danger — that is, becoming the “new normal.” We must not allow that to happen.
Tied to the epidemic of obesity and inactivity in children, approximately 1/3 of new pediatric cases of diabetes are Type II, the more preventable and correctable form of the disorder. The sharp rise in adult cases is chiefly Type II, as well. The good news is, many people have a chance to reverse this form of the disease, before it causes further damage. This involves: 1) eliminating harmful foods; 2) learning how to shop, prepare and consume appropriate amounts of healthy foods; and 3) making changes in lifestyle and attitudes. This also means increasing exercise, getting adequate amounts of rest, reducing stress, and finding ways to heal emotional problems that drive many to “numb-out” or seek comfort through harmful foods. What’s missing from this list? Seeking the care of a comprehensively-trained Licensed Acupuncturist!
Working in the field of Acupuncture & Oriental Medicine for 18 years now, I have helped many people with diabetes — both Type I and Type II. But over the last 10 years, the sharp increase I’ve seen in the number of patients coming for general medical care who have Type II diabetes, or have been told they are “pre-diabetic” is staggering — moreover, I find that many of these patients have poorly-controlled blood sugar levels despite being under a physician’s care, and routinely report to me blood sugar readings that are twice the normal level, or even higher. Some are on oral medication, some have insulin pumps, and some are careening on the edge of disaster with very little health care advice at all. This is why it’s so important to regularly tackle the subject of the daily diet, and walk people in the right direction! It’s also important for the prescribing physician and the patient’s other care providers to know the score; I seek collaboration wherever I can — and that may also involve the help of other family members. Who shops, and who cooks? I always want to know.
The common factor I see is that too many people aren’t getting out of the trap — and whether they’re in denial of the implications of the disease, or lack the knowledge about how to improve their nutrition, or can’t muster the will and determination to make change — they’re all risking the development of hypertension, cardiovascular disease, related circulatory problems (like numbness and tingling in limbs known as neuropathy); and are at risk for stroke, loss of eyesight (retinopathy), and damage to their kidneys (nephropathy.) Many also suffer from PCOS (connected to insulin resistance), migraines and other painful headaches, chronic depression, cognitive issues such as memory loss… the list is enormous.
The reason people tend to do better when they involve the care of a Licensed Acupuncturist who is skilled in dealing with diabetes is multi-faceted. But one key is: Patients tend to form a closer therapeutic relationship with an Acupuncturist they see frequently (common at the start) — as compared to a physician or NP they see infrequently, for a brief visit. If I am providing comprehensive Acupuncture & Oriental Medicine care, I will usually spend at least 12 hours of 1-on-1 time with a new patient, during the first 2 months of treatment. That same patient might have 30 minutes or less with their doctor or nurse practitioner. And as anyone who’s been to an Acupuncturist can tell you, we are interested in more than the presenting complaint — our entire approach is holistic, so we ponder the connections between symptoms, and consider body, mind and spirit as expressions of the Whole.
Diabetes might be a window through which I can ask, “Where are you getting the sweetness of life?” A question like this may elicit strong emotion — but it also opens the possibility of a different kind of healing conversation. Patients can begin to share what they’re really longing for — and it’s usually a form of human connection, a dream unfulfilled, or a way to resolve trauma that is blocking an experience of life’s sweetness. To me, this is part of the disease, and part of the solution.
Why see a Licensed Acupuncturist instead of a more conventional Nutritionist/Registered Dietician, Nurse Practitioner or perhaps an MD?
1. Licensed Acupuncturists receive significant training in Dietary Therapy and Nutrition and in providing lifestyle coaching and psychological support, as part of a comprehensive approach. In contrast, these are areas in which many conventional physicians receive virtually no training, or may simply not work in a practice that allows time for this level of care.
2. I can evaluate/diagnose an individual’s condition comprehensively — for diabetes is just part of the total picture of what’s going on; design and carry out the clinical treatments (with acupuncture and Chinese herbal medicine) that addresses the underlying weakness in metabolic/endocrine function; educate and coach my patient through difficulties, and provide resources that suit their individual needs; and handle the additional problems that diabetes generates… for example, peripheral neuropathy, cardiovascular disease, problems with cognition/memory, sleep disturbances, thyroid problems, menopausal imbalances… Everything – all of you – is taken care of, simultaneously. Holistically.
I’m also plugged into a community where I can draw on the advice or assistance of other progressive Nutrition professionals and integrative physicians. I try to advocate for each patient’s wellness, individually, as I advise clients to make changes in their food and lifestyle choices, and show them that positive change is possible. Many Type 2 diabetics can revert to normal physiology, through rigorous adherence to a healthy regimen: diet, exercise, treatment.
Appointments at my office begin by taking a 90-minute diagnostic oral history, and my questions begin to unlock the details needed to make a good diagnosis of the scope of the problem, the amount of education/skills they need regarding diet and lifestyle, etc. Hands-on care usually begins during the 2nd visit, in the style of traditional Chinese Medicine. At this early stage, visits are 90-minutes in length — so as I’m examining and treating my patient, we are also continuing the conversation about their lifestyle, their relationships, their bad habits with food, their shopping and cooking questions, and their need to understand more about how diabetes ties into their other health concerns. This is just the kind of rapport it takes, to really know what someone needs to make change! As I see deeply into the heart of my patient, I can better judge what they need to heal…really heal.
There is nothing more difficult than fostering change in a patient’s habits and attitudes — what they buy, prepare, consume; how they behave in social situations, where they may feel obligated to drink or eat things they know aren’t good for them; reluctance to try new things; the addiction to “treating” oneself, to counteract feelings of deprivation or sadness… And this is why I believe that without a supportive and knowledgeable health “coach” – one of my many hats – it’s really hard to expect someone to change enough to effectively address diabetes.
But, it’s more than establishment of a good healing relationship, that brings about success. I’d say it’s the therapeutic paradigm itself, and the targeted therapies that we provide, which makes all the difference. Oriental Medicine sees the problem of diabetes (or any other condition) through a different lens than allopathic medicine does. Its theories are focused on an understanding of Energy, which the Chinese call Qi. Its therapeutic strategies (herbs, acupuncture, diet, bodywork, meditation, exercise) have been refined for over 3000 years. The treatments themselves are targeted to help the body recover its proper cellular and metabolic functions — and to revitalize and restore the function of organs and other tissues that have become weakened, or damaged. Any doctor, East or West, will have to admit: We run on energy! And whether we talk about Qi or mitochondria — there is a certain magic that happens in the process of eating and digesting food, and making useful energy from that, to power our body and mind and spirit. Qi is the foundation — and if that’s not strong and abundant, you’ll have trouble healing your body. Many of my patients say they “didn’t get what all this Qi-stuff” was about — until they felt energy coursing through their body, and started to come alive in a new way. Then, those questions seem to disappear!
Finally, care must always be tailored to the individual patient’s needs and goals. Patients who make steady and deliberate progress will not need to see me as frequently as those who require more help to stay on course. Some people also have advanced disease when they come for care, and I may need to see them more often to get a good healing response. As a Board-certified Chinese herbalist, I customarily prescribe professional-grade herbal formulas which can accelerate progress and provide support on days when patients are not having Acupuncture. Sometimes, clinical treatments diminish as the client spends more time learning about food, nutrition and cooking — and in the coming year, I hope to offer more of these classes in a group format. Getting healthier can be delicious!!
I hope the next time you speak to a friend or family member with diabetes, at whatever stage, you might think to ask them: Would you consider Oriental Medicine? And if they make a face, maybe you can just send them this article… 🙂
(first published November 14, 2011)
Wishing you the best of health,
Christy Allen, L.Ac., Dipl.O.M.