Relatively recent research has focused on the ability of gamma-amino butyric acid to reverse diabetes. In fact, a 2011 article about type 1 diabetes is titled ‘GABA exerts protective and regenerative effects on islet beta cells and reverses diabetes’.1 However – so far – all the research on GABA’s effects on diabetes has involved animal studies.
While it’s very likely that GABA in relatively large quantities will have beneficial effects in human type 1 diabetes – including improved insulin secretion and better blood sugar regulation – complete and permanent reversal of type 1 diabetes in humans also requires strict diet modification, and can be aided by other specific nutrients. Let’s start with the recently reported exciting research on the effects of GABA on type 1 diabetes in animals.
In type 1 diabetes, pancreatic islet beta cells (usually just called beta cells) are impaired and die. Beta cells are the only cells that produce insulin and without insulin production glucose (blood sugar) cannot be transported from the bloodstream into the cells of the body to be metabolized into energy or stored as fat. As a result blood sugar rises to higher than normal levels, and some of the excess sugar is excreted in the urine, contributing to one of the classic symptoms of type 1 diabetes, excessively frequent urination. Other symptoms include increased thirst, weight loss, vision changes, increased appetite, and fatigue, and the condition can lead to loss of consciousness, coma and even death.
When beta cells goon the blink
Why do the pancreatic beta cells stop working? Much of the problem has been traced to an ‘auto-immune attack’ on these cells by lymphocytes (a type of white blood cell) and other circulating cells of the immune system. Cow’s milk protein and gluten have been strongly implicated in ‘triggering’ auto-immune attacks on beta cells (more on that later); other antigens can trigger these attacks, too.
When type 1 diabetes is first detected, 70% or more of the beta cells may have been destroyed.2 Unless the pancreatic beta cells can be revived, those with type 1 diabetes must self-inject insulin (or one of today’s ‘almost but not quite insulin’ preparations) one or more times daily to help transport glucose from the bloodstream into the cells where it’s metabolized. Other patent medicines may be recommended to support health too, many of which have adverse effects. Blood sugar often must be monitored at least once a day, and diet must be watched more closely than usual.
The incidence of type 1 diabetes is increasing each year worldwide.3 Much research is being done to find effective ways to manage and control type 1 diabetes through the suppression of autoimmunity and perhaps the restoration of the function of the pancreatic beta cells.
Getting on board with GABA
Gamma-aminobutyric acid (or GABA), is best known for its role in the brain, where it’s an important neurotransmitter. But GABA is also made in large amounts by the beta cells of the pancreas,4 where it has a different role than in the brain. Research suggests that glucose may trigger the release of GABA in the pancreas, where it reduces death (apoptosis) of the beta cells. (For the technically inclined, GABA does this by acting on a receptor named ‘GABAAR’ which supports the ‘PI3-K/Akt–dependent growth and survival pathways’.)5
As pancreatic beta cells are being destroyed and insulin production is declining in type 1 diabetes, any therapy that would help prevent cell death would be very valuable.
GABA is synthesized by our bodies from glutamine and glutamate, both amino acids. Glutamine can be converted to glutamate, and glutamate itself is converted to GABA by the enzyme glutamic acid decarboxylase (GAD). While the amount of glutamate and GABA in the body is normally kept in balance, this balance can be disrupted by poor diet, and malnutrition, and specifically by vitamin B6 deficiency. It’s also disrupted in gluten sensitivity and autoimmune conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis.6
In a mouse model of rheumatoid arthritis, researchers found that orally administered GABA reduced the activity of certain cells (T cells) involved in inducing autoimmunity. Apparently, as a result, mice receiving GABA developed less arthritis or, if they had developed it already, showed milder symptoms. 7
Individuals with gluten sensitivity produce antibodies to the wheat protein gliadin. Anti-gliadin antibodies are known to also inhibit GAD production. Remember, GAD is usually metabolized into GABA, so when GAD is inhibited, significantly less GABA is produced.8
In studies conducted with mice, administering the enzyme GAD itself reduced the destruction of beta cells by T cells, and slowed the progression of type 1 diabetes.9 This fits, since antibodies to GAD (which would reduce or inactivate it) have been shown to be higher in type 1 diabetics than in the general population or those with type 2 diabetes. 10
GABA may slow,or even reverse,type 1 diabetes
But of course administering GABA is easier than administering the enzyme that makes it, so this is what has been done in other research. In recent animal studies, researchers have shown that therapeutic use of GABA may help maintain the pancreatic beta cells and slow, or even reverse, the development of type 1 diabetes.
Researchers worked with two strains of mice. One strain was normal until given streptozotocin, which directly kills pancreatic beta cells (but not alpha cells). When researchers gave the mice GABA injections daily beginning 7 days before giving streptozotocin, beta cell levels did not drop but alpha cells decreased. In these treated mice, insulin levels were higher, blood sugar levels were closer to normal, and there was an improved metabolic response up to 53 days after the mice received streptozotocin. This suggested to researchers that the beta cell mass and function had been maintained.
These investigators also administered GABA by injection to mice previously given streptozotocin followed by the development of severe diabetes. They reported that despite the prior beta cell damage, these mice actually regained some beta cell mass, improved insulin levels, and had lower blood sugars.
These same researchers also worked with another strain of mice which ‘naturally’ develop type 1 diabetes. One group of these mice were given placebo saline injections and developed high blood sugar at approximately 13 weeks of age (normal for this type of mice, technically called ‘non-obese diabetic’ or ‘NOD’ mice). Approximately 85% of their beta cells were destroyed. These control group mice developed a severe form of type 1 diabetes by 18 weeks of age and required insulin to survive.
By contrast, the same strain of NOD mice treated with injections of GABA before the onset of (otherwise inevitable) high blood sugar and type 1 diabetes were found to have just 15% of their beta cells inflamed (insulitis) by 13 weeks of age. They did not develop type 1 diabetes as time progressed, and they maintained nearly normal insulin levels and beta cell mass.
In summarizing the results, the researchers concluded that treatment with GABA had “increased beta-cell proliferation and decreased beta-cell apoptosis (cell death), which in turn increased beta-cell mass and induced the reversal of hyperglycaemia in these mice.” The GABA protected the beta cells of these mice!
(For the technically inclined, the GABA protected the beta cells from cytokines, as well as the damaging effects of autoimmune-induced macrophages and T cells. GABA stimulated Akt11, a type of kinase that has an effect on cell growth by preventing cellular apoptosis in beta cells.12)
Eliminate these two ‘trigger’ food groups
While it appears that GABA can play a role in reversing type 1 diabetes (and type 2, see next month’s Nutrition & Healing) reversal is much more likely if the causes that ‘trigger’ the auto-immune disease are completely removed or, in one circumstance, lowered to a normal level. (Of course it’s even better to prevent type 1 diabetes altogether! See page 1, column 1, for one proven way to do just that.)
At least as far back as the 1970s, an article in the Lancet suggested that gluten sensitivity might be a trigger for auto-immunity, including type 1 diabetes. But the practising doctor who first helped individuals suffering from auto-immune diseases to reverse them with diet changes and nutrient supplementation was Dr. Christopher Reading of Dee Why, a suburb of Sydney, Australia.
Dr. Reading advised any individual suffering from an auto-immune disease to totally eliminate all grains and all dairy products from their diets permanently. They were also to look for any other food allergies and remove any trouble foods, although they might be returned to the diet once the individual was recovered.
All gluten containing grains, all foods that can ‘cross-react’ with gluten or gliadin (there is laboratory testing available to identify cross-reacting foods, visit www.advancenutrition.co.uk/site/newsletter2/262 for details), and all dairy products must also be eliminated. Permanently!
In addition, Dr. Reading gave patients repeated intravenous infusions and intramuscular injections with every essential vitamin and mineral then available. He had observed that one of the effects of dairy products, and especially the gluten in grain, was an interference with the normal absorptive functions of the intestine. Injected nutrients bypassed that problem, giving the body more raw materials to heal itself.
You’ve read before (see Nutrition & Healing, December 2013) about Dr. Reading’s extremely impressive results in reversing lupus. In some individuals, these same methods also reversed type 1 diabetes!
But of course, if an individual’s beta cells are totally destroyed, it will be considerably more difficult – but not necessarily impossible – to reverse their type 1 diabetes. (More about that later, but you might guess it involves stem cells.) However, if type 1 diabetes is in its earlier stages, it’s possible to reverse it: The more remaining beta cell function, the better.
The Candida gluten connection
There’s a tiny bit of Candida normally present in every one of us from infancy. But since the 1940s, the nearly indiscriminate use of antibiotics has enabled Candida to silently overgrow in a much greater percentage of us than ever before. Testing for overgrowth of candida in the intestines (known as intestinal candidiasis) should be done, and if found, reduced to normal levels. For more information visit: www.candida-society.org/ncs.
How is Candida overgrowth in the intestine related to gluten sensitivity? In an interview about his research into this topic, W.F. Nieuwenhausen Ph.D. said: “I decided to compare the gluten sequences that are toxic to coeliac disease patients with the amino acid sequence data in the available databases. I found that one C. albicans protein [HWP1] that is used by the microorganism to bind to the intestinal lining contains multiple amino acid sequences that are identical or highly homologous to toxic gluten sequences.”13
Summarized, that means Candida contains a protein with amino acids connected in identical, or very similar, ways to amino acids in the gluten proteins that trigger the auto-immune process that ultimately destroys beta cells. Further details on this connection can be found in the original research article14, published before the interview noted above.
If a test comes back positive for potential intestinal Candida overgrowth, then treatments that don’t kill (or kill minimally) normal ‘friendly’ intestinal bacteria should be used. Doing this reduces the auto-immune antibody triggering effect of the Candida protein noted above, and improves the chances of reversing type 1 diabetes, while killing a minimum of ‘friendly’ bowel bacteria.
And for the record, although it should be obvious: Elimination of all refined sugar and refined carbohydrates, along with considerable reduction of carbohydrate in the diet is another important part of reversing type 1 (and type 2) diabetes!
Two other supplements fight type 1 diabetes
In addition to GABA (reviewed above), two other supplements you can purchase yourself have been shown to significantly improve pancreatic beta cell function.
Over a decade ago, research was done in individuals – mostly children and teenagers – who had recently been diagnosed with type 1 diabetes. They were asked to take niacinamide, a form of vitamin B3. Niacinamide was found to slow the progression of type 1 diabetes by up to one year before insulin injections became essential to control blood sugar, but after that insulin was still needed, so this use for niacinamide was abandoned.
Unfortunately, the researchers didn’t have these individuals also remove gluten containing grains, all the foods which ‘cross-react’ with gluten, and all dairy products. They weren’t checked for intestinal Candida overgrowth, either. So, although the niacinamide did appear to provide some defence, because it couldn’t do the job all by itself while the auto-immune attack on the beta cells continued as strong as ever, the promising vitamin treatment was forgotten.
But recently, a research group has published data showing that niacinamide should be a part of any programme to reverse type 1 diabetes. The title of the most recent publication says it all: Nicotinamide induces differentiation of embryonic stem cells into insulin-secreting cells.15 (‘Nicotinamide’ and ‘niacinamide’ are two names for exactly the same molecule.) Previous research indicated that niacinamide can increase the number of stem cells that turn (differentiate) into insulin-secreting beta cells16.
Most tissues contain dormant embryonic stem cells. As niacinamide can ‘persuade’ embryonic stem cells to become insulin-producing cells, it’s very likely that this is why niacinamide extended the time before insulin was needed in recently diagnosed type 1 diabetics by up to a year.
Powerful herb may help normalize insulin levels
Another supplement that has shown promise in helping to reverse type 1 diabetes is the herb Gymnema sylvestre. Remember those mice that were given streptozotocin which destroyed their beta cells and made them type 1 diabetic mice? Streptozotocin does the same thing to rats.
When streptozotocin-induced type 1 diabetic rats were given concentrated Gymnema, serum insulin levels rose ‘closer to normal’ and fasting blood sugar levels returned to normal in 20 to 60 days, depending on which fraction of Gymnema was used. The researchers wrote: “In diabetic rat pancreas, both GS3 and GS4 [the specific Gymnema extracts] were able to double the islet number and beta cell number… this herbal therapy appears to bring about blood glucose homeostasis through increased serum insulin levels provided by repair/regeneration of the endocrine pancreas.”17
In other words, not only were the number of beta cells doubled, but the number of islets (the small pancreatic structures containing both beta cells and alpha cells) were also doubled!
In addition, two research studies have reported on the effects of Gymnema in human type 1 diabetics using insulin. In one study, 27 individuals with type 1 diabetes were given a Gymnema extract. Less insulin was needed and fasting blood sugar and haemoglobin A1C levels were reduced. Elevated serum lipids became nearly normal. A control group, using insulin alone, had no change in insulin requirement, and no change in haemoglobin A1C or serum lipids.
The researchers wrote: “GS4 therapy appears to enhance endogenous insulin, possibly by regeneration/revitalization of the residual beta cells in insulin-dependent diabetes mellitus.”18
(Like GABA, Gymnema sylvestre can help with type 2 diabetes also; this information will be in next month’s Nutrition & Healing.)
Shining a spotlight on the sunshine vitamin
Although there is little research specifically showing that vitamin D can reverse type 1 diabetes, researchers studying type 1 diabetes prevention (see page one, column one) point out that vitamin D is a natural immunosuppressant (for the technically inclined, it reduces lymphocyte progression and cytokine production.)
But I’ll cut this short, since for the best health I recommend vitamin D to everyone (not just type 1 diabetics) who doesn’t live in the tropics. Everyone should take enough vitamin D to achieve a ‘tropical optimal’ level (60 to 100 nanograms per millilitre, measured as 25-hydroxyvitamin D) when the blood is tested. For most adults in the UK – unless getting considerable sun exposure – the amount of vitamin D required to do this is between 5,000 and 10,000 IU.
As we all are different, please make sure to consult with a doctor skilled and knowledgeable in natural medicine, both theory and practice, before taking larger than may be usual quantities of any specific nutrient.
Case report: Significant improvement in serum insulin levels
And now, a case report: A man in his 50s, who had been diagnosed with type 2 diabetes wasn’t improving with treatment that almost always makes at least a minor – and usually a major – improvement in the condition. A mineral analysis showed that the large majority of his minerals were below-median-level (a ‘malabsorption pattern’), so he was tested and found to have hidden gluten sensitivity, a major cause of poor mineral absorption.
As noted earlier in this article, gluten sensitivity is one of the major triggers of the auto-immune reaction that destroys pancreatic islet cells, so he was next asked to do Dr. Joseph Kraft’s test for both blood sugar and blood insulin response to a glucose challenge. (For more details, see next month’s Nutrition & Healing, but especially Dr. Kraft’s book Diabetes Epidemic and You, available online.)
His test confirmed that his diabetes had been misdiagnosed and that he was in fact type 1, not type 2. His insulin levels scarcely rose at all after a standard glucose challenge. It’s not a surprise that treatment for type 2 diabetes didn’t work!
He was advised to eliminate all gluten-containing foods and all dairy products from his diet permanently, and he worked with a Tahoma Clinic’s nutritionist to eliminate all refined sugar and carbohydrates from his diet, as well as limiting types and quantities of all carbohydrates.
He was also advised to take niacinamide, a 1,500mg time-release capsule twice daily, and Gymnema sylvestre, (400mg tablets by MediHerb®, available from online sources), two tablets twice daily. (GABA wasn’t recommended as this man was seen at Tahoma Clinic before the majority of research on the GABA and diabetes connection was published and found by Tahoma’s Clinic’s intrepid library and on-line researcher, Dr. Ron Steriti.) After 10 months his standard glucose-challenged serum insulin levels were significantly improved.
If your child or teenager develops type 1 diabetes, please work with a doctor skilled and knowledgeable in natural medicine. It may be possible to reverse it completely! Even if complete reversal isn’t possible it may be controllable with less insulin than average. If you develop diabetes as an adult, it’s more likely to be type 2 diabetes, but that’s significantly easier to reverse than type 1! (Some tools for doing this are mentioned in this issue of Nutrition & Healing, others will be in next month’s issue.)
Always work with a doctor skilled and knowledgeable in natural and nutritional medicine to make sure which type of diabetes you have. Although some treatments can overlap – for example, GABA and Gymnema help improve both type 1 and type 2 – there are also significant differences. But despite these differences, both can be improved, and type 2 eliminated in most cases if the programme is followed. And now you know that type 1 diabetes can sometimes be reversed, especially if caught early!
Wishing you the best of health,
Dr. Jonathan V. Wright
Nutrition & Healing
Vol. 8, Issue 5 – May 2014
Full references and citations for this article are available in the downloadable PDF version of the monthly Nutrition and Healing issue in which this article appears.