Type 2 diabetes is usually blamed on people’s genes or their behavior, not on the environment. But diabetes rates are soaring worldwide. Genes could not change that fast. Here are five ways environmental changes are causing diabetes.
This information is updated from my book Diabetes: Sugar-Coated Crisis, published in 2007. Since then, things have changed, mostly for the worse. Hopefully, knowing how the environment makes people sick will help you protect yourself against it.
Unhealthful food. People were not made to eat large quantities of refined carbohydrates — the “white things,” such as sweets, breads, pastas, etc. These foods don’t occur in nature and do not trigger normal digestion and absorption.
Refined carbohydrates. Carbs that have had their bran and germ layers — which contain most of the fiber and nutrients — removed are widely available, cheap, taste good, and may well be addictive. They raise your serotonin and dopamine levels, making you feel good for a short while. Then your blood glucose drops and you feel miserable again, and you need another fix.
Barriers to physical activity. People used to move their bodies in the course of work, food gathering, transportation, and recreation. Most of this is now done by machines, so you have to consciously seek physical activity. This is much harder when you have too many other demands, not enough support, and mixed motivation. (“Life is hard enough already without having to exercise.”)
Stress. Stress is the body’s response to a threat, often called the “fight-or-flight” response. Stress hormones, particularly cortisol, raise blood glucose levels and blood pressure. They do this so muscles involved in fight or flight will have enough fuel.
Under stress, only the cells actually being used to run away or fight will open to insulin. Other cells close off (become “insulin resistant”) to save the glucose fuel for the cells that are working. Stress also causes the liver to release even more glucose into the blood for fight or flight.
Stress is a life-saving response when you’re being chased by a bear. But with modern stresses, we can’t fight or flee. Note that being chased by a bear only lasts a few minutes. Then your system can recover. But modern stresses go on 24/7, so we can’t recover.
Social isolation. People don’t realize how social mobility and moving all the time endangers health. Social isolation is increasing, and it is stressful. Loneliness may be the number one cause of premature death. Humans are primates, and like all the apes, we feel better and stronger when we have other people on our side.
Exposure to chemical pollution. As I have written here before, chemicals in food, water, plastic packaging, and cleaning and beauty care products have all been found to increase insulin resistance and diabetes.
Notice that these risks are not evenly spread through society. People with less money, less education, and less social status usually have less access to healthful food. They also have more barriers to exercise, more stress, and often more exposure to chemicals.
People who have had hard lives, like a history of trauma or a difficult childhood, also have more of these risk factors.
Unless you are completely paralyzed, physical activity is always possible. Even if you can’t walk, there are seated exercises. If you have trouble getting moving, here are some strategies that might help.
Reducing stress may be the most important thing. Keys are getting out of stressful situations, finding help, and accepting that you are not perfect and it’s OK to make mistakes. Read more about reducing stress here.
Along with reducing stress, you can manage it with relaxation, prayer, meditation, social support, and other approaches mentioned here.
Chemical pollution may be harder to avoid. And since nobody knows for sure if a particular case of diabetes is caused by pollution, it’s hard to get anyone to take it seriously. Still, you want to avoid heavy metals like arsenic, lead, and chromium. Try to reduce exposure to some of the chemicals mentioned on a website called Diabetes and the Environment.
If you are lonely or lack support, you are in a crowded boat. Reach out to someone in your neighborhood, church, workplace, or online to find some connection. Some of these ideas might be useful too.
The point is: Diabetes isn’t your fault. Your genes and/or behavior may have played a role, but the environment is much more important. Do the best you can with the life you’re in, and don’t be afraid to make some changes. Start with small steps. Any success, no matter how small, reduces stress and makes the next step easier.