Did you know that one of the top secrets of people living long and well with any type of diabetes is that they “erase” their blood sugar mistakes with exercise? Why does this work? It’s simple, really. Although your muscles account for only about 40 percent of your body weight, they can take up 80 percent of any glucose load that you get through your carbohydrate intake. Thus, by enhancing your muscles’ capacity to take up glucose with or without insulin, exercise comes closer than anything else to “erasing” your mistakes with your food, insulin, or other medications that lead to hyperglycemia. For example, people can eat more carbohydrate and process it more effectively following hard or prolonged workouts, but usually not at other times.
Much of this effect also is due to the action of insulin in your body following physical activity. When your insulin works better, you need less of it to have the same or even a greater glucose-lowering effect. The greatest enhancement in insulin action occurs in the few hours following exercise when your muscle glycogen is most depleted and requires replenishment. During this time, you will likely need considerably less insulin to process any carbohydrates that you eat, and you can get away with eating more carbs after exercise, particularly if it was strenuous and prolonged.
What are some of their other secrets to success with diabetes? They run the gamut of emotional, knowledge, control, dietary, other exercise, medication and technology, carry a toothbrush? For what purpose, you ask? To brush your teeth after eating to keep yourself from being tempted to eat more, of course. Actually, it’s actually a very good suggestion. It works well in the evenings, too, after you’ve finished your dinner. If you go ahead and brush your teeth soon after your meal is done, you should feel somewhat inhibited from eating dessert or snacking more afterwards.
There is likely an even more important reason to follow this advice: people with diabetes are more likely to develop periodontal (gum) disease, and good oral hygiene can help prevent problems. While poor oral hygiene is a factor in gum disease for everyone, having diabetes accelerates the process and can lead to tooth loss. Poor circulation and high glucose levels in saliva also promote the growth of bacteria residing on teeth and gums and plaque formation, which has actually been linked to a higher incidence of heart disease and strokes. The likely link is that oral bacteria can aggregate in the mouth, enter the bloodstream, and then attach to plaque developing in your coronary arteries, thus contributing to arterial plaque formation (not just plaque on your teeth). Periodontal disease also increases a potent clotting agent in the bloodstream called fibrinogen, which increases your chances of getting a blood clot that may cause a heart attack or stroke.
To cut down on plaque formation and excessive bacteria on your teeth (and gums), it is recommended that you brush your teeth at least twice daily and floss between them once a day. However, toothbrush trauma can cause gum recession, so learn how to brush correctly and always use a soft toothbrush. Also, don’t smoke as any type of smoking accelerates the progression of gum disease, as well as heart disease.
You can learn a lot from the inspirational individuals living with diabetes profiled in my book, 50 Secrets of the Longest Living People with Diabetes. In particular, the secrets given by the two Cleveland brothers from Syracuse, New York (Bob, living with diabetes since 1924, and Gerald, since 1932), sum up everything that you really need to focus on to live long and well with diabetes. First of all, both of them placed physical activity as number one on their list of their top secrets to longevity (as did many other old-timers).
The Clevelands’ second suggestion relates to monitoring of blood sugars, with their individual advice being to “be aware of what you’re doing” (Gerald) and to “keep a constant check on your blood glucose situation” (Bob). Doing so requires frequent blood glucose checks, along with vigilance about intake of carbs, fat, salt, and more that can affect your blood sugar.
Their third secret involves your emotional state and outlook on life. Bob advises everyone to “live a good, clean life,” replete with plenty of outdoor activities, a healthy diet, and a stable lifelong relationship. Gerald’s comments are that he’s “had a terrific life,” and he makes this comment in spite of having had to deal with diabetes for 76 years, longer than most people live. Both looking for the silver lining in any situation and appreciating what you do have appear to be keys to maintaining a positive outlook on life.
Finally, they both credit their longevity equally to their mother’s diligent care when they were younger and to advances in diabetes management over the past three-quarters of a century. “I marvel at being able to find out what my blood sugar is in only five seconds. There certainly have been great advances in diabetes care over the past 80 years!” says younger brother Bob. As Gerald says, “Have faith that the best things in life are ahead of you.”
As for the rest of the old-timers living with diabetes for 40 or more years, their secrets most frequently emphasized the following items as being what they consider to be most important to their longevity with diabetes:
- Maintaining a positive attitude about diabetes and life in general
- Setting goals, particularly ones that are focused on having good health habits
- Learning all you can about diabetes and how to control it and its potential complications
- Having a supportive spouse, family, or friends and involving other people in your diabetes care
- Sharing your diabetes with others or counseling them on how to live well with it
- Regularly monitoring your blood glucose levels
- Finding a good doctor, preferably an endocrinologist
- Always taking your insulin or other medications to control your blood sugars
- Watching your diet (whatever it may be)
- Exercising and staying as physically active as possible
Although none of these secrets is actually earth-shattering, taken as a whole, they do strongly suggest that certain behaviors are more important than others. Moreover, they emphasize the point that what people have to do to live long and well with diabetes is possible for anyone. Yes, you too can live a long and healthy life with diabetes. If your diabetes has not been that well controlled up to this point, it’s still not too late to start reaping some of the health benefits of improving your control now. You may even be able to slow the progression of or reverse some of your complications with a little more diligence to your blood sugars.
Diabetes care is rapidly changing nowadays, and there are new monitoring tools and medications to better control glycemic peaks and valleys. Most of the people who gave their secrets for my book have gone through a significant portion of their lives with diabetes without all of these tools, or even adequate education, available, so think how much better you should be able to manage by having all of them at your disposal.