The hidden link between digestion and diabetes…

It’s embarrassing. Most of us don’t even want to admit it, let alone talk about it. But trust me, with potentially millions of adults suffering from digestive troubles, or lactose intolerance, you’re far from alone.

They say misery loves company, and with so many experiencing this gut-wrenching misery you’re definitely in good company. But the truth is you share something else far more sinister with all those folks.

Because, believe it or not, if you’re lactose intolerant… or have a hard time digesting your food… then you have at least a 50-50 chance of developing diabetes in your lifetime.

Shocked? Let me explain. Tummy troubles are a ticking time bomb

A study published in April 2014 linked lactose intolerance to a significantly higher risk of type 2 diabetes. An earlier – and even more convincing – study published in 2000 revealed that over 50 per cent of people with type 2 diabetes had issues fully digesting their food. Combined, these two eye-opening studies provide good solid evidence of the connection between digestion and blood-sugar issues.

Of course, having spent 37 years practising medicine as a holistic doctor, this ‘revelation’ didn’t come as a big shocker to me. I made the connection between diabetes and digestion long ago.

When the majority of my type 2 diabetic patients complained of digestive disturbances I quickly began to put two and two together. I soon realised that their sluggish pancreases were likely to blame. They simply weren’t producing enough digestive enzymes to fully digest their food.

And the proof was in the cure. When I had these patients take digestive enzymes with each meal, their tummy troubles vanished almost like magic. That’s when I began to realise that digestion problems in an otherwise healthy person could be an early warning sign of future blood-sugar issues. Meaning that being aware of, and treating, these types of tummy troubles (and undiagnosed blood-sugar issues) early, could help head off further pancreas troubles – and perhaps even full-blown diabetes – at the pass. More on that a bit later.

Connecting the dots… the link between digestion and diabetes

Symptoms of poor digestion are…

  • getting full early
  • feeling bloated after meals
  • seeing undigested food in your stool (corn gets a free pass) and
  • increased gas

But despite this obvious connection, and the research, many doctors don’t take digestion troubles seriously. Unless there’s extreme weight loss, severe abdominal pain or a frank case of pancreatitis, few doctors even bother to test for pancreatic digestive enzyme efficiency/output. So the problem typically remains hidden, until one day diabetes rears its ugly head, of course.

The good news is that there’s a stool test that you can request from your doctor that measures the output and effectiveness of your digestive enzymes. It’s called the fecal elastase level and all major labs and hospitals are capable of doing this test. If you’re experiencing lactose intolerance, or general digestive troubles, and suspect your pancreas may be falling down on its job, don’t be afraid to talk with your doctor about having this simple test done.

Putting the cart before the pancreas

When you think of type 2 diabetes, most of us – doctors and laypeople alike – automatically think of roller-coaster blood sugars and the damage those elevated sugars do to blood vessels, organs or nerves. And for good reason, of course. The damage can indeed be devastating. But the truth is by ignoring, or underestimating, the influence the pancreas has on type 2 diabetes, we’re putting the cart before the pancreas. And we’re missing a golden opportunity to break that runaway diabetes horse before it’s too late.

The pancreas has two main functions in the body:

  1. To make insulin, which is called the endocrine function.
  2. To make digestive enzymes, which is called the exocrine function. And this small but powerful organ can only take so much abuse before it starts to give out and become unable to keep up with the workload.

Lighten the load on your overworked pancreas

Luckily, there’s one incredibly simple step we can all take right away to start to turn things around. We can dial back the severe stress we’re putting our pancreas through on a daily basis. We can ask it to do less.

Westerners – Americans in particular – eat too much.

If you overindulge, even if it’s good low-glycaemic food you’re eating, you’re forcing your pancreas to work extra hard to digest all that food. And when you continue to stress this critical organ, over time you end up depleting its precious reserves.

After years of going the extra mile to digest those mountains of food, you essentially end up with a tuckered out pancreas. Not only does the overworked organ have a hard time keeping up with producing the digestive enzymes you need, your damaged pancreas eventually has trouble producing enough blood-sugar-regulating insulin too. The result is wildly fluctuating blood sugars (often referred to as pre diabetes or metabolic syndrome), and eventually, if the tide isn’t turned, full-blown type 2 diabetes.

Emphasis on enzymes

Most people (including some doctors) mistakenly think that lactose intolerance is a dairy allergy. Lactose intolerance is, in fact, a symptom of a poorly-functioning pancreas which isn’t producing enough of the lactase enzyme.Similarly, people can be deficient in another important digestive enzyme called alpha galactosidase, which can lead to digestion issues as well. While you likely have never heard of alpha galactosidase before, chances are good you’ve heard of the enzyme supplement Beano. People take Beano, a form of alpha galactosidase, to help prevent excess gas when they eat beans or other gas-producing foods.

Small steps, BIG rewards

After slashing those portion sizes there are some other small steps you can take to help ease the pressure on your overworked pancreas. Chew your food more thoroughly and consider incorporating more foods into your diet that are naturally high in enzymes, such as papaya and pineapple.

If you’re lactose intolerant switch to lactaid-containing dairy products, and try taking a lactase enzyme supplement. And if you get bloated and gassy after eating certain foods like beans go ahead and give Beano, or a similar product, a try.

If those changes don’t do the trick, and you still find you’re suffering with digestive distress, then you can take supplements or medications that help your pancreatic exocrine function. Head to the healthfood store and pick up some digestive enzymes. These enzymes are broader spectrum and plant-based (usually derived from Aspergillus). They tend to be stronger than papaya or pineapple enzymes, and work in a broader variety of foods.

But if your digestive issues are much more serious, there are prescription strength digestive enzymes available as well. These enzymes, called Creon or Zenpep, are derived from the pancreases of pigs, and are significantly stronger than their over-the-counter counterparts.

When we give our pancreatic digestive enzymes the attention they deserve we naturally ease the stress that we’re putting our pancreas through. And pampering your pancreas is one sure way to reduce your risk of ever developing type 2 diabetes.

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