Can diabetes be reversed?
LAST UPDATED: Aug 03, 2023
3 MIN READ
HERE'S WHAT WE'LL COVER
Type 2 diabetes is a chronic disease but lifestyle changes like diet modifications and weight loss can halt the hallmark features of the illness: ineffective insulin production and irregular cellular responses to that hormone. By some clinicians, a person with blood sugar levels within normal ranges for three months without treatment is considered to be in “remission.” That said, the damage done to the body by diabetes is so widespread that other doctors include associated complications in the definition of the disease. That means that a person with blood vessel or nerve damage due to diabetes is still considered to have the disease, even when their blood sugar is under control without the use of medications.
Research shows that while many people can get their blood sugar under control to the point that they no longer need medications for their diabetes—one technical definition of “diabetes reversal” or remission—fewer will have no residual signs of damage from the disease.
Definitions aside, though, getting your blood sugar under control and maintaining lifestyle changes that help you stay within healthy blood sugar ranges are important and achievable.
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What can you do to reverse diabetes?
While it may sound repetitive, it does bear repeating: diet and exercise are the two most effective things you can do to reverse diabetes. Weight loss among people with obesity and diabetes following bariatric surgery had a lot more diabetes remission than people who didn’t undergo the procedure. More importantly, they had a much lower risk of stroke and heart attack than people who hadn’t gone through significant and sustained weight loss.
Exercise, in addition to helping people lose weight, actually plays its own independent role in helping your body control blood sugar. Both cardio workouts (like jogging and Zumba) and weight lifting have been shown to increase the body’s ability to process sugar without insulin and increase a person’s sensitivity to insulin, which is the mechanism that’s “broken” for people with type 2 diabetes. Long-term studies following sustained exercise regimens have been proven to reduce the risk of death from the most serious complications of diabetes, like heart attack and stroke.
What causes diabetes in the first place?
Diabetes is caused by a combination of genetic and environmental factors (like diet and physical activity). These factors cause insulin resistance, which is the first step towards diabetes. So what is insulin resistance?
Everything we eat contains sugar in some form or another, and our bodies use that sugar as energy to power our cells. A hormone called insulin acts like a key, opening the door to our cells to let that sugar in. But for people who have consistently high levels of sugar in their bloodstream, the cells can stop responding to that signal, a condition known as insulin resistance, in an effort to ensure that the cells don’t get too much sugar. This leaves the sugar in the bloodstream where it shouldn’t be, and that sugar can travel around our bodies and cause damage to the blood vessels and nerves, as well as to larger structures like the heart and kidneys.
At the same time, as the body tries to release more and more insulin to “open the door” to the cells, it can exhaust the insulin-producing cells in the pancreas resulting in another component of diabetes: insulin insufficiency (or not enough insulin).
While genetics play a crucial role in a person’s predisposition to developing diabetes, the amount of sugar in our diets is a crucial factor in the development of diabetes.
How to reverse diabetes
While there’s no sure method for reversing diabetes that will work for everyone, you can stop the progressive damage by controlling your diet and getting into a regular exercise routine. While lifestyle changes may be touted for their reliability, anyone who has tried them knows just how hard they can be to maintain.
Consulting with your healthcare provider about integrating medications into your regimen is an important step for anyone with type 2 diabetes. Some drugs, like Ozempic and other GLP-1 agonists, can help people lose enough weight to be able to maintain a more active lifestyle, effectively tackling two birds with one stone.
While medications aren’t right for everyone, speaking with your doctor about how to best manage your diabetes is the first step when it comes to reversing diabetes and stopping the damage it can cause.
Gillani, S. M. R., Raghavan, R., & Singh, B. M. (2021). A 5-year assessment of the epidemiology and natural history of possible diabetes in remission. Primary Care Diabetes, 15(4), 688–692. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.pcd.2021.04.007. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/33967016/
Kirwan, J. P., Sacks, J., & Nieuwoudt, S. (2017). The essential role of exercise in the management of type 2 diabetes. Cleveland Clinic Journal of Medicine, 84(7 Suppl 1), S15–S21. https://doi.org/10.3949/ccjm.84.s1.03. Retrieved from https://www.ccjm.org/content/84/7_suppl_1/S15
Kirwan, J. P., Solomon, T. P., Wojta, D. M., et al. (2009). Effects of 7 days of exercise training on insulin sensitivity and responsiveness in type 2 diabetes mellitus. American Journal of Physiology. Endocrinology and Metabolism, 297(1), E151–E156. https://doi.org/10.1152/ajpendo.00210.2009. Retrieved from https://journals.physiology.org/doi/full/10.1152/ajpendo.00210.2009
Sheng, B., Truong, K., Spitler, H., et al. (2017). The Long-Term Effects of Bariatric Surgery on Type 2 Diabetes Remission, Microvascular and Macrovascular Complications, and Mortality: a Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Obesity Surgery, 27(10), 2724–2732. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11695-017-2866-4. Retrieved from https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11695-017-2866-4