Inactivity and obesity increase the risk for diabetes, but exactly how is unclear. Recent research suggests that inflammation inside the body plays a role in the development of type 2 diabetes.
The good news: An "anti-inflammatory" diet and exercise plan can help prevent and treat type 2 diabetes.
With type 2 diabetes, inflammation is internal.
How Inflammation Develops
People with type 2 diabetes don't produce enough insulin or their bodies can't use the insulin adequately. Insulin is a hormone that is made by cells in the pancreas. It controls the amount of sugar in the blood.
Insulin may also have an impact on tissue in the body. Its effects on tissue are influenced by many factors, including obesity and the accumulation of fat around the belly and on major organs in the abdomen. The fat cells can produce chemicals that lead to inflammation.
Scientists are only beginning to understand the role this form of internal inflammation may play in the development of chronic diseases like diabetes.
The Role of Inflammatory Chemicals
Decades ago, researchers identified higher levels of inflammation in the bodies of people with type 2 diabetes. The levels of certain inflammatory chemicals called cytokines are often higher in people with type 2 diabetes compared to people without diabetes.
Obesity and inactivity have long been known to be the most important risk factors that drive the development of type 2 diabetes.
How could carrying extra weight and sofa-sitting be connected to higher levels of inflammatory chemicals in the body and the development of diabetes?
Researchers discovered that in people with type 2 diabetes, cytokine levels are elevated inside fat tissue. Their conclusion: Excess body fat, especially in the abdomen, causes continuous (chronic), low levels of abnormal inflammation that alters insulin's action and contributes to the disease.
As type 2 diabetes starts to develop, the body becomes less sensitive to insulin and the resulting insulin resistance also leads to inflammation. A vicious cycle can result, with more inflammation causing more insulin resistance and vice versa. Blood sugar levels creep higher and higher, eventually resulting in type 2 diabetes.
Emotional stress can also increase levels of the chemicals of inflammation. It's unknown whether stress by itself can contribute to the development of diabetes, though.
Does inflammation cause diabetes? It's not as simple as that, however, researchers know for sure that inflammation is somehow involved in the development of type 2 diabetes.
Exercise to Fight Diabetes and Inflammation
Walking 30 minutes a day on most days has been proved to help prevent type 2 diabetes for people at high risk. Part of exercise's power for diabetes prevention may come from its anti-inflammatory effects.
Physical activity releases a flood of anti-inflammatory chemicals into the body. Exercise also causes the body's cells, especially muscle cells, to dramatically increase their sensitivity to insulin.
The increased insulin sensitivity from exercise also helps reduce chronic inflammation. The benefits are seen even with moderate exercise, like regular walking.
Diet can also contribute to chronic inflammation. And some foods have anti-inflammatory properties.
An anti-inflammatory diet by itself is not effective at preventing diabetes, however, unless it leads to weight loss. Weight loss and increased physical activity can have strong anti-inflammatory effects and both are important for reducing the risk of type 2 diabetes.
Foods with natural anti-inflammatory properties include:
- Healthy fats like omega-3 fatty acids, olive oil, flaxseed oil, and canola oil
- Most fruits and vegetables, like oranges, tomatoes, and leafy greens
Foods that tend to increase inflammation in the body include unhealthy fats, such as:
- Trans-fatty acids
- Vegetable shortening
- Red meat (beef and pork)
- Cheese, cream and other full-fat dairy