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Functional Medicine for Managing Gut Health in Patients with Diabetes

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Functional Medicine for Managing Gut Health in Patients with Diabetes

Diabetes has become a widespread and escalating health concern, affecting millions of individuals globally, with projections anticipating its prevalence to rise to 642 million by 2040. Type 2 diabetes (T2DM) constitutes 90% of cases. With over 1 million annual deaths, diabetes ranks as the ninth leading cause of mortality. Recent research has shed light on the connection between gut health and diabetes, revealing the role the digestive system plays in metabolic disorders. This evolving understanding has paved the way for innovative and holistic treatment options in the realm of functional medicine. Focusing on gut health has emerged as an important component in the multifaceted management of diabetes.

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Understanding the Gut-Diabetes Connection

T2DM is a chronic metabolic disorder characterized by elevated blood sugar levels resulting from a combination of insulin resistance and impaired insulin secretion. Insulin, a hormone produced by the pancreas, normally facilitates the uptake of glucose by cells for energy. However, in individuals with T2DM, cells become resistant to the effects of insulin, and the pancreas struggles to produce enough insulin to overcome this resistance. The development of T2DM involves genetic, lifestyle, and environmental factors. Genetic predisposition can contribute to insulin resistance, while sedentary lifestyles, poor dietary choices, and obesity further exacerbate the condition. Excess body fat, particularly abdominal fat, is associated with the release of pro-inflammatory substances that interfere with insulin signaling.

Beyond genetic and lifestyle influences, compromised gut health is an additional factor contributing to diabetes. The gut microbiome, an intricate ecosystem of trillions of microorganisms, primarily bacteria but also archaea, viruses, and fungi, plays a critical role in maintaining optimal function. Dysbiosis, marked by reduced diversity and abundance of commensal organisms, is linked to dysfunction and various pathologies. In T2DM, dysbiosis is associated with increased inflammation, decreased glucose tolerance, and insulin resistance. Numerous studies highlight a strong link between changes in gut microbiome composition and diabetes development. Disturbances in the Bacteroidetes/Firmicutes phyla balance, for example, are associated with inflammation and T2DM, while bacteria such as Lactobacillus plantarum, Roseburia intestinalis, Akkermansia muciniphila, and Bacteroides fragilis seem to protect against metabolic disorders.

The gastrointestinal (GI) tract acts as a barrier, separating digestive contents from the body's internal environment. Normally, the mucosal lining prevents potentially harmful substances in the gut from entering the bloodstream. Dysbiosis, however, can lead to intestinal permeability, commonly known as leaky gut. This compromise in the intestinal barrier allows large molecules like undigested food particles, toxins, and bacteria to travel into the bloodstream. Dysbiosis-induced intestinal permeability triggers endotoxemia, a condition in which bacterial endotoxins are in the bloodstream, promoting inflammation.

Short-chain fatty acids (SCFA) are produced by the gut microbiome through the fermentation of dietary fibers and non-digestible carbohydrates. Acetate, propionate, and butyrate are the major SCFAs produced during this microbial fermentation. Low SCFA production, especially low butyrate, often observed in dysbiosis or an imbalance in the gut microbiome, has been linked to insulin resistance and impaired glucose metabolism. Butyrate has been shown to improve blood sugar metabolism by promoting the production of glucagon-like peptide-1 (GLP-1) and peptide YY (PYY), which in turn stimulate insulin secretion. Insufficient SCFA levels may contribute to a proinflammatory state and compromise the function of the intestinal barrier, leading to increased permeability. This heightened permeability can contribute to the systemic inflammation observed in T2DM.

A bidirectional relationship exists between gut health and diabetes, which further complicates matters. Elevated blood sugar (hyperglycemia) levels, characteristic of diabetes, provide a favorable environment for the proliferation of opportunistic or pathogenic bacteria while reducing beneficial microbial strains. Chronic hyperglycemia also triggers an inflammatory response that compromises the integrity of the gut lining. As a result, the permeability of the intestinal barrier increases, facilitating endotoxemia. This creates a vicious cycle, perpetuating a state of systemic inflammation and fueling insulin resistance.

Functional Medicine Lab Testing for Gut and Diabetic Analysis

Blood tests, like fasting plasma glucose and hemoglobin A1c (HbA1c), are used to diagnose diabetes. Additional functional medicine lab testing can be ordered to further evaluate gut and metabolic health, providing comprehensive insights into microbiome balance, inflammation, and blood sugar metabolism.

CardioMetabolic Panel

The Doctor's Data Cardiometabolic Panel assesses various markers related to cardiovascular and metabolic health. This comprehensive panel includes lipid measurements, markers of inflammation, insulin resistance, and other key indicators relevant to both heart health and metabolic function. In diabetes management, monitoring cardiometabolic markers is important due to the increased risk of cardiovascular disease (CVD). Markers of inflammation, like high-sensitivity C-reactive protein (hs-CRP), are included in the panel. Elevated inflammation levels may exacerbate insulin resistance and contribute to the progression of diabetes while simultaneously increasing the risk of cardiovascular complications. Insulin resistance markers like fasting insulin and HOMA-IR (Homeostatic Model Assessment of Insulin Resistance) are also included in the panel.

Comprehensive Stool Test

Genova's GI Effects is a stool test designed to provide detailed insights into gastrointestinal function. The test analyzes various components of GI health, including microbial balance, digestive function, inflammation, and SCFA.

Cyrex Intestinal Permeability

Cyrex’s Array 2, or Intestinal Antigenic Permeability Screen, measures biomarkers related to intestinal barrier function. Antibodies to components of the intestinal barrier, such as zonulin and tight junction proteins, are indicative of intestinal permeability.

Oxidative Stress

Oxidative stress refers to an imbalance between reactive oxygen species (ROS), inflammatory molecules, and the body's antioxidant defense mechanisms that can neutralize ROS. While ROS can serve useful functions in the body, at high concentrations they damage proteins, lipids, and DNA. In the context of diabetes, oxidative stress is associated with insulin resistance, wherein elevated ROS levels interfere with insulin signaling pathways, impairing glucose uptake by cells. Pancreatic beta-cells, responsible for insulin production, are susceptible to oxidative damage, compromising their function and further contributing to glucose dysregulation. Furthermore, oxidative stress contributes to mitochondrial dysfunction, disrupting energy metabolism.

Precision Point’s Advanced Oxidative Stress test measures % reduced glutathione, oxidized glutathione, and total glutathione. It also measures 8-OHdG and F2-Isoprostane.  8-OHdG is a modified nucleoside and a biomarker for oxidative DNA damage. F2-isoprostanes are prostaglandin-like compounds that are formed through the peroxidation of arachidonic acid, a polyunsaturated fatty acid present in cell membranes. Glutathione is an important antioxidant. GSH is the active, reduced form of glutathione that neutralizes ROS. GSH becomes oxidized to GSSG during the process of neutralizing ROS. Assessing the levels of reduced glutathione, oxidized glutathione, and total glutathione, along with calculating the GSH/GSSG ratio, provides a comprehensive understanding of the redox status within cells (48).

Systemic Inflammatory Markers

Systemic inflammation can be seen in the context of compromised gut health and diabetes. Markers such as c-reactive protein (CRP) and erythrocyte sedimentation rate (ESR) are commonly used to monitor inflammation. The liver produces CRP in higher amounts in the presence of inflammation. ESR measures how quickly red blood cells separate from a blood sample. Inflammation increases the tendency of red blood cells to clump together, making them fall to the bottom faster, causing a higher ESR.

Micronutrient Panel

Compromised gut health can cause poor digestion and absorption. Certain nutritional insufficiencies are also associated with diabetes. The Spectracell Micronutrient Test measures 31 vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients to identify any nutritional deficiencies.

Salivary Adrenal Panel

In individuals with diabetes, persistent hyperglycemia can be influenced by stress-induced hormonal releases, leading to elevated blood sugar levels. Stress triggers the release of catecholamines and glucocorticoids, like cortisol, increasing insulin requirements and promoting insulin resistance. Genova's Adrenal Stress Profile with Cortisol Awakening Response measures the diurnal rhythm of cortisol with four salivary measurements throughout the day. It also measures the Cortisol Awakening Response (CAR), which can provide more information on how the body is responding to stress.

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Addressing Gut-Related Complications in Diabetes

Diabetic patients can contend with gut-related complications. One prevalent issue is gastroparesis, a condition characterized by delayed emptying of the stomach, leading to symptoms like bloating, nausea, and erratic blood sugar levels. High blood sugar levels in diabetes can damage nerves, causing the muscles of the stomach to not work properly (14). Intestinal dysbiosis and permeability are also common concerns, exacerbating insulin resistance and metabolic dysfunction.

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Functional medicine uses comprehensive and personalized approaches to address the root causes of diseases, considering the interconnectedness of various bodily systems. In the context of diabetes, functional medicine considers gut health to be a fundamental component in the multifaceted management of this condition, using tools like dietary changes, lifestyle modifications, and targeted supplements to optimize function.

Dietary Strategies for Gut Health in Diabetic Patients

Specific dietary modifications can be used to both improve gut health and optimize blood sugar regulation in individuals with diabetes. A low-glycemic diet, which focuses on consuming carbohydrates that have a minimal impact on blood sugar levels, helps regulate glucose and insulin responses. The glycemic index ranks carbohydrates on a scale from 0 to 100 based on their impact on blood sugar levels. Foods with a low GI are digested and absorbed more slowly, leading to a gradual and steady increase in blood glucose levels. By choosing low-GI foods, individuals can better manage their blood sugar levels, avoiding rapid spikes and crashes. This can contribute to sustained energy levels, increased satiety, and improved insulin sensitivity. Carbohydrate foods with a low GI typically include whole, minimally processed foods such as whole grains, legumes, non-starchy vegetables, and certain fruits.

The Diabetes Plate Method is a simple and visual approach to meal planning designed to help individuals with diabetes manage their carbohydrate intake and maintain balanced meals. It involves dividing a plate into specific portions to guide the distribution of different food groups: half the plate with non-starchy vegetables, one-quarter for lean proteins, and one-quarter of the plate for whole grains or starchy vegetables. By visually dividing the plate in this manner, this method helps individuals manage their carbohydrate intake and maintain stable blood sugar levels.

High-fiber foods, such as whole grains, legumes, and vegetables, not only contribute to blood sugar balance but also support a healthy gut microbiome by promoting the growth of beneficial bacteria. Probiotic-rich foods, like yogurt and fermented foods, can also be used to introduce beneficial bacteria to the gut, fostering microbial diversity and enhancing digestive function. An antioxidant-rich diet, emphasizing polyphenols and phytonutrients primarily through foods like vegetables and fruits, helps combat oxidative stress associated with diabetes and improves microbiome composition (50, 66).

The Mediterranean diet emphasizes whole, nutrient-dense foods, including fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, fish, olive oil, nuts, and seeds, making it a great option for patients with diabetes and those wanting to optimize gut health. Rich in fiber, antioxidants, and healthy fats, the Mediterranean diet has been associated with improved glycemic control, reduced inflammation, better microbiome diversity, and enhanced cardiovascular health (43, 47).

The Role of Probiotics and Prebiotics

Probiotics are supplements that contain beneficial microorganisms like bacteria and yeast. Probiotics improve gut function by increasing microbiome diversity, enhancing intestinal barrier function, and preventing pathogens from colonizing in the GI tract. Prebiotics are non-digestible dietary compounds that promote the growth and activity of important microorganisms in the gut. These compounds are found naturally in certain foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes or can also be taken in supplemental form. Common prebiotic supplements include inulin, fructooligosaccharides (FOS), resistant starch, and galactooligosaccharides (GOS).

Probiotic supplementation modulates the composition of the gut microbiota, countering dysbiosis and promoting SCFA production. These microorganisms exert anti-inflammatory effects, reducing chronic low-grade inflammation associated with insulin resistance. Probiotics also impact glucose metabolism, improving insulin sensitivity and lowering fasting blood sugar levels. Probiotics such as Lactobacillus, Bifidobacterium, and Akkermansia have been used specifically in patients with metabolic disorders. Prebiotics have also been shown to modulate the gut microbiome composition, reducing glucose levels, inflammation, and insulin resistance.

Integrative Therapies and Lifestyle Modifications

Integrative and complementary therapies, including practices such as acupuncture, stress reduction techniques, and physical activity, are increasingly recognized as valuable additions to treatment plans for diabetes and gut health.

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Acupuncture

Acupuncture is a traditional Chinese medical practice that involves inserting thin needles into specific points on the body to stimulate various physiological responses. These acupuncture points are believed to be associated with channels of energy flow, known as meridians. The goal of acupuncture is to restore balance and harmony to the body's energy, known as Qi. It has been used as a complementary treatment in a variety of gastrointestinal disorders and is thought to improve GI function by regulating GI motility, barrier function, visceral sensitivity, and the gut-brain axis. It has also been shown to improve fasting plasma glucose and HbA1c levels in diabetic patients.

Physical Activity

A sedentary lifestyle is a risk factor for the development of metabolic disorders like diabetes. Physical activity reduces obesity, upregulates antioxidant mechanisms in the body, reduces inflammation, and improves insulin sensitivity and glucose control.  Exercise has also been shown to improve microbiome diversity. A combination of aerobic exercise, such as brisk walking, jogging, or cycling, and resistance training, like weightlifting, to address both cardiovascular fitness and muscle strength is optimal. The American Diabetes Association recommends at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity per week, spread over at least three days, along with two or more sessions of resistance training per week.

Stress Management

Chronic stress triggers the activation of the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, which can negatively impact glucose regulation and insulin sensitivity. Stress also alters the composition of the microbiome and can trigger intestinal permeability. Mind-body practices, like mindfulness, breathing, yoga, and biofeedback, help to restore balance to the neuroendocrine system and reduce feelings of stress. Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) therapy has been shown to improve blood glucose regulation in individuals with diabetes specifically.

Monitoring and Personalized Adjustments in Treatment 

Routine blood test monitoring is a fundamental component of diabetes management, providing information on glycemic control, potential complications, and overall health status. HbA1c should be retested every 3-6 months. Other health markers like lipids, estimated glomerular filtration rate (eGFR), and blood pressure can also be utilized to monitor for the development of any diabetes-related complications (2).

Functional medicine practitioners utilized specialized lab tests not only to formulate personalized treatment plans but also to monitor progress and make necessary adjustments to treatments. Beyond just routine markers looking at glucose control, providers can also monitor changes to microbiome composition, inflammation, oxidative stress, and hormones. This proactive and personalized approach ensures that adjustments are made based on individual responses, fostering more precise and effective strategies for managing both gut health and diabetes.

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Managing Gut Health in Patients with Diabetes: Key Takeaways

The development of diabetes is multifactorial, involving a complex interplay of genetic, environmental, lifestyle, and metabolic factors that collectively contribute to the onset and progression of the condition. Gut health, including microbiome composition and barrier function, has a significant impact on inflammation and metabolic function. Functional medicine testing offers an in-depth understanding of an individual's unique health landscape, enabling tailored interventions to optimize diabetes management.

The information provided is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice. Always consult with your doctor or other qualified healthcare provider before taking any dietary supplement or making any changes to your diet or exercise routine.
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