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Diabetes and Omega-3

Author: Donald Rudin, MD, Clara Felix


Although it was known in ancient times, diabetes has been an increasingly common problem in this century. It is now among the leading causes of death from noninfectious disease in the United States.

Two hormones produced by the pancreas--insulin and glucagon--cooperate to keep blood sugar, called glucose, at the correct level. When glucose levels are too high, the pancreas sends out insulin to force glucose from the bloodstream into the body's cells. If glucose levels are too low, glucagon sends glucose into the bloodstream for additional energy.

Diabetes occurs in two forms. The most serious form--called juvenile or Type 1 diabetes--usually strikes in childhood. It may arise from an attack by the immune system on either the insulin-producing cells of the pancreas or on the insulin receptors within the tissues. In juvenile diabetes, an essential fatty acid deficiency can cause the immune system to turn against the body instead of defending it.

The more common form--called adult-onset or Type 2 diabetes--usually appears later in life. In people who are predisposed by heredity to this form of diabetes, a diet high in sugar and fiberless carbohydrates can eventually stress the insulin production mechanism. Hypoglycemia, or low blood sugar, may represent an early phase of diabetes, in which a hair-trigger response from the overworked pancreas sends out too much insulin. Eventually, the body stops responding to the pancreas's signals, and blood levels of both insulin and sugar go up.

As we've seen, all hormones, including insulin and glucagon, exert their control over the cells by stimulating production of local regulatory chemicals called prostaglandins. In turn, the prostaglandins pass the message of the hormones to the individual cells. The prostaglandins are made from essential fatty acids. Therefore, a deficiency of essential fatty acids, or of the vitamins or minerals they need to be effective, interferes with prostaglandin production. This can intensify adult-onset diabetes even though adequate insulin is produced.

The essential fatty acids also affect the ability of the body's cells to respond to insulin. In a 1993 study, Australian researchers learned that insulin resistance is related to what kinds of fatty acids make up the cell membranes. The more Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids there are in the cell membranes of adult diabetics, the more their tissues respond to insulin.

Some diabetics seem to be blocked from converting short-chain Omega-6 linoleic acid into the longer-chain acids needed for both cell membranes and prostaglandins.  Noted researcher David Horrobin and others are using supplements which contain an Omega-6 oil called gamma linolenic acid (GLA), to bypass the blocked processes. Damage to nerves, a big problem for many diabetic persons, has been halted or even reversed by GLA supplements.

Degeneration of the eye's retina--the projection screen on which light that passes through the eye is thrown--is a common cause of blindness in severe cases of diabetes. An Omega-3 oil called DHA is the most abundant polyunsaturated fat in the retina, an oil that is normally made by the body from the basic Omega-3 oil, ALA. However, the high blood-sugar levels seen in diabetes block the conversion of ALA into DHA. The block may be partly overcome by eating foods, mainly fatty fish, that contain ample amounts of ready-made DHA.

As we've seen in the case of cancer, studies now indicate that dietary fiber can help to prevent diabetes or to affect its course by reducing insulin requirements. I think Omega-3 supplements can do the same thing. A fiber deficiency, coupled with an Omega-3 deficiency, magnifies all the blood sugar problems seen in diabetes. Normally, fiber acts as a buffer in the digestive tract by slowing the release of sugar into the bloodstream.


Since I began to study Omega-3 deficiencies in the early 1980s, research in this field has seen an exponential surge. Between 1985 and 1993, close to 5,000 medical studies on Omega-3 fatty acids emerged worldwide. If anything, the pace has quickened since then, as more and more optimistic reports on Omega-3 benefits in terms of heart disease and other ailments are confirmed.

The original focus of these studies was on the cardiovascular system, but it soon expanded to include studies on cancer, arthritis, psoriasis, and various inflammatory and immune disorders, including kidney disease. Though the emphasis remains on heart disease--the major killer in industrialized countries such as the United States--it is becoming evident that many of these conditions are a result of modernization, and that balancing the essential fatty acids in our diet will rid us of some of the diseases that plague our modern world.


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