Type 2 diabetes is a condition that costs Americans terribly in terms of death, disability, and healthcare expenditures. This chronic condition is a vicious cycle type of illness. Glucose control tends to deteriorate over time. Most of these patients also have problems with blood pressure and cholesterol. Only about a third of type 2 diabetics have their pressure, sugar, or cholesterol under control as individual risk factors. Only 7% have all three risk factors controlled simultaneously to conservative goals. This sad fact has dramatic consequences. The lifetime risk of a diabetic having a heart attack or a stroke is 80%. For each risk factor that is controlled to goal using the right medication, the risk is reduced by roughly half. So when we control pressure, sugar, and cholesterol, the risk is reduced from 80% to 40% to 20% to 10%. Now maybe the risk is not really 10%, but it is very dramatically reduced, and in 10 years of experience with 450 diabetics, I believe that I have seen a very important reduction in vascular events that has been achieved by aggressively controlling these risk factors.

Everything bad that happens to a diabetic is fundamentally arterial or vascular. Obviously, the heart attacks, strokes, and amputations are vascular, but even the kidney, nerve, and eye damage relate to arterial damage as well. So the target here is not just the sugar or the cholesterol. The fundamental question is “how do we lower the sugar, cholesterol, and pressure with the maximum benefit on the artery?” Furthermore, how do we accomplish this in such a way that the patient’s life is minimally altered and this is sustainable?

In this post, I will focus on sugar control. Everyone agrees that type 2 diabetes is at its core a lifestyle illness. As one of my colleagues in South Carolina said, “There is nothing that we can do for diabetes that you cannot outrun with a spoon.” In other words, if the patient does not make some effort with diet and exercise, it is difficult and perhaps impossible to get risk factors to goal. I have controlled the sugar in disabled patients, but it is more difficult. Type 2 diabetes is a disease of elevated blood sugar. It is self-evident that sugar consumption must be limited. Less widely appreciated is the impact of starch or carbohydrate consumption. Processed starch becomes sugar in 2 minutes once it is consumed. When a person eats 100 calories of white rice, in 2 minutes, it is just as if he took a spoon and ate 100 calories of sugar out of the sugar bowl. The less processed a carbohydrate, the more slowly it is consumed.

Some understanding of nutrition is vital. Formal dietary instruction by a certified diabetic instructor is helpful but I see substantial variation in what patients are told. As a practical matter, I have found the South Beach diet to be very useful and just bought the book for a friend at Walmart for $12.00. I have recommended that diet for patients and found it very effective with sustainable effects on weight and sugar control. Dr. Agatson, the author, is a cardiologist famous for developing the CAT scan calcium score we use to determine cardiac risk. He teaches two very important concepts. First, we have to learn to limit starch and to eat our starch in the form of whole foods. Second, we need to limit fats, especially animal fats and trans fat. This program is attractive because it is effective, widely available, and supported by recipe books and pre-packaged items.

Next, we come to drug therapy. Doctors are trained in the treatment of diabetes with medication by learning about all of the medications that are available, and then they are left to decide which of these many medications they will use and in what order. There are several different classes of oral drugs with multiple drugs in each class. There are multiple types of insulin with differing durations of action. There is no real protocol that is universally agreed upon as best practice.

Type 2 diabetes is the later stage of the metabolic syndrome. Most type 2 diabetics have been metabolically abnormal for decades. They have been resistant to the effects of insulin for years, and just before they become diabetic, they have been maintaining their normal sugar by producing levels of insulin in the blood that are three times normal. As time goes on, they are unable to sustain that level of insulin production and when insulin levels fall, the sugar begins to rise. At the time of diagnosis, insulin production has fallen by 50% and the loss of the ability to produce insulin is aggravated by poor sugar control—a built-in vicious cycle. When it comes to diabetes, we just do too little too late.

In recognition of this fact, there was a recent consensus algorithm published in Diabetes Care. This is a joint statement from the American Diabetes Association and the European Association for the Study of Diabetes. They emphasized the importance of diet and exercise as first therapy. Most notably, in my view, the authors went on to say, “The authors recognize that for most individuals with type 2 diabetes, lifestyle interventions fail to achieve or maintain metabolic goals, either because of failure to lose weight, weight regain, progressive disease, or a combination of factors. Therefore, our consensus is that metformin therapy should be initiated concurrently with lifestyle intervention at diagnosis.” Most medications for diabetes cause weight gain. Metformin has modest effects in assisting with weight reduction and it is the only medical treatment for diabetes that is proven to lower the incidence of heart attack and stroke by 40%. That effect is on a par with the best cholesterol and pressure treatments.

If treatment with metformin fails, it is generally because insulin production is at least relatively inadequate. The most effective and rational next step is to instruct the patient in a self-adjusted insulin shot using Lantus or Levemir. In the protocol I use, the patient is able to rapidly bring the sugar safely down and most patients are at goal with this reasonably simple approach. It seems to me that the proven vascular benefits of metformin would be preserved in these patients since all we are doing is replacing insulin that they cannot make themselves. Most patients are really surprised at how easy this is to work with and how much better they feel when their sugar is controlled.