Hidden In Plain Sight
by Carl Lowe
October 7, 2003
Today, a devastating disease is
striking millions of Americans. Sixteen million Americans
already have this disease, and every day another 2,200
Americans learn they have it. The spreading epidemic:
The potential ramifications: Millions of people more
susceptible to heart disease, dementia, infections,
amputations and blindness. Lowering your risk for diabetes
is relatively simple and terribly important. Because dealing
with some of its effects once you are its victim can be much
Signs of Trouble
"Approximately one in four individuals over the age of 60
has type 2 diabetes, which is a remarkable statistic," says
Gerald Shulman, MD, of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute
at Yale University. "And, if you add impaired glucose
tolerance [a condition that often leads to diabetes], you're
talking about 40% of the population."
The economic burden of this epidemic is staggering,
estimated at about $100 billion a year and growing.
If you never exercise, carry around a substantial amount
of stomach fat and have seen your weight climb significantly
over the years, you are among the people at higher risk for
These lifestyle habits eventually render your body unable
to efficiently process blood sugar. In technical terms,
researchers investigating how the body uses and misuses
blood sugar have identified what they have called "syndrome
X" or "metabolic syndrome," a condition that puts you at
high risk for both diabetes and heart disease.
If you have three or more of the following signs, you now
have metabolic syndrome and, unless you change the way you
live, may eventually suffer diabetes (Circulation 7/14/03):
* Fat around your middle
* High blood pressure
* High triglycerides (blood fats)
* Low level of HDL ("good" cholesterol)
* High fasting blood sugar
In a study of more than 6,000 men in Scotland, having
three of these metabolic problems almost doubled the risk of
heart disease and more than tripled the risk of diabetes. If
you have four of these risk factors, your risk of heart
disease just about quadruples, and your diabetes risk
skyrockets almost 25 times.
The cells in your body get the energy they need to
survive when they take sugar out of your blood and oxidize
it along with fatty acids. Normally, insulin, a hormone-like
substance released by the pancreas, speeds the absorption of
blood sugar by the cells. When your pancreas cannot make
insulin at all or makes too little, you suffer what is
called type 1 or juvenile diabetes. This condition is
usually treated by taking insulin.
But if your pancreas secretes what should be enough
insulin for glucose absorption, and your cells are still
unable to take sufficient sugar from your blood, you have
what is called type 2 or adult-onset diabetes.
Understanding exactly why cells develop difficulties in
taking sugar out of the blood and using it for energy has
long troubled medical investigators. This condition, before
it develops into full-blown diabetes, is called insulin
resistance. Researchers have now linked it to malfunctioning
mitochondria, the little structures in cells that make the
energy that keeps cells functioning.
Scientists have long known that, as you age, you become
more susceptible to diabetes. And when researchers compare
the mitochondria in young people with those found in the
cells of the elderly, they find that older mitochondria are
The mitochondria within the cells oxidize glucose and
fatty acids to make energy. (They accomplish this in a
complicated metabolic action called the Krebs cycle.)
Difficulty with this process, or insulin resistance, can
occur when fat and fatty acid waste products accumulate in
your liver and muscle tissue.
"We hypothesized that there were two routes to this type
of fat accumulation," says Dr. Shulman. "One is that the fat
cells might release more fatty acids to be delivered to
muscles and/or defects in mitochondrial oxidation might then
lead to the accumulation of these fatty acids."
Research confirms that fatty molecules probably collect
in muscle cells because the mitochondria's ability to burn
fat breaks down over the years. On average, mitochondrial
activity dips about 40% in older people.
Dr. Shulman thinks that the final coup de grace in the
development of diabetes from insulin resistance takes place
when the mitochondria malfunction in the insulin-producing
cells of the pancreas.
Although Dr. Shulman says that more research is needed to
understand why mitochondrial function slips with age, he
recommends keeping your mitochondria from slacking off by
exercising. Studies now show that regular physical activity
can probably increase the mitochondria in your muscles by
activating release of an enzyme called AMP kinase. "...an
encouraging note in this study is that-since we've shown
that exercise leads to more mitochondria by activation of
[the enzyme] AMP kinase-by staying active, the elderly
might...maintain mitochondrial content and head off such
health problems," says Dr. Shulman. "This is yet another
reason for seniors to maintain an active lifestyle," he
Maitake for Metabolic Syndrome
Another natural way to fight the metabolic syndrome is
with an extract of the maitake mushroom (Grifola frondosa).
The extract, called sx-fraction, is attracting research
investigating its ability to help the body manage blood
sugar more efficiently. In one study, five people with
diabetes improved their blood sugar levels with sx-fraction
(Diab Med 2001; 18).
This research found that taking maitake sx-fraction is
often accompanied by drops in blood glucose levels ranging
from 30% to 63%. According to Mark Kaylor, PhD and Ken Babal,
CN, in Syndrome X and SX-Fraction (Woodland), "...Studies
have demonstrated that whole maitake or its fractions are
potent agents for improving 'diabetic conditions.'"
Take the Whole Grains Home
Eating a daily dish of whole grains, like whole wheat and
brown rice, can also reduce your risk of diabetes (AJCN
8/22/03). In a twelve-year study of more than 40,000 men
between the ages of 40 and 75, researchers found that those
who ate three servings of whole grains a day cut their risk
The researchers found that even overweight people lowered
their chances of diabetes by eating whole grains and
Consuming more magnesium also helped; whole grains
contain amounts of this mineral missing in refined-grain
foodstuffs. Magnesium improves insulin response.
In an age of junk food, our simple taste for sugar and
refined grains may threaten our health. Yet, your defense
against this scourge is no further away than simply eating
more fibrous foods and going for a simple, everyday walk.