Is type 2 diabetes reversible? With diet, exercise, and weight loss, some people can restore their blood sugar and insulin to normal levels, so they no longer need medication. Not everyone can do this -- it depends on how long you've had the disease, how severe it is, and your genes.
Many people who have type 2 are overweight. The more you weigh, the harder it is for your pancreas to make the amount of insulin your body needs to control blood sugar, says Yehuda Handelsman, MD, an endocrinologist in Tarzana, CA.
It was the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney, Australia. Eight of the top swimmers in the world were lined up, ready to hit the pool for the 50-meter freestyle. The buzzer sounded. They propelled themselves into the water. In just under 22 seconds, the race was over. American Gary Hall Jr. had won gold, tying with teammate Anthony Ervin for the medal.
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That's why, when you're newly diagnosed with the disease, doctors typically recommend that you lose 5% to 10% of your body weight and try to build up to 150 minutes of physical activity per week.
"Five to 10 percent should be sufficient to control your diabetes. But how to reverse it? This may require losing, say, 25% of your body weight," Handelsman says. Exactly how much weight a person must lose to bring their insulin and blood sugar back to non-diabetes levels varies by the individual, and getting there requires radical change.
In a study in the United Kingdom, researchers supervised 11 people with type 2 diabetes who cut their calories to just 600 per day for 2 months. In that time, they each lost about 33 pounds and their diabetes went into remission. Three months later, seven of the 11 were still diabetes-free.
To stay that way, you have to keep the weight off. "People use the term 'reversal' when they can go off medication," but you need to keep practicing healthy habits to stay off the meds, says Ann Albright, PhD, RD, director of the division of diabetes translation at the CDC. That might mean more exercise and a more restrictive diet than you'd need to simply control diabetes.
Lifestyle alone doesn't cause the disease, though. "Not everybody who is overweight or obese gets diabetes. The ones who do get it have a genetic predisposition," Handelsman says. If you reverse diabetes through lifestyle changes, you'll still have a greater risk of developing the condition again than someone who has never had it.
Also, the longer you've had type 2, the less likely it is you can reverse it, because the disease damages your insulin-producing cells. "If you have diabetes for 20 years and then you lose weight, you may not have any cells that produce insulin left," Handelsman says.
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