Chances are that you have heard of type 1 diabetes, the kind of diabetes that usually strikes children and young adults. This is the kind of diabetes that absolutely requires the injection of insulin for survival. And if you read this blog, you certainly know about type 2 diabetes. This is the kind of diabetes that usually follows a process of insulin resistance and weight gain in mid-life. It does not necessarily require insulin for control.
Most of our readers have not, however, heard very much about type 3 diabetes. This disease is a condition of extreme insulin deprivation and sugar damage that is localized to the brain itself, and that can cause symptoms similar to Alzheimer's disease. Fortunately, it may be preventable.
In fact, some scientists even believe that Alzheimer's disease really is a kind of "diabetes of the brain." The unusual thing about type 3 diabetes is, however, that unlike Alzheimer's, it seems to come and go, and it can strike at very early age. Even children and teens can suffer mental impairment related to insulin sensitivity in the brain.
In "diabetes of the brain," two symptoms are particularly noticeable:
1. Both men and women with this condition have trouble remembering words.
2. Women who have this condition, more than men who have this condition, become insensitive to cues for negative emotions. They essentially become "sweeter" in the face of stress, although sometimes unnaturally so.
There are a lot of things type 3 diabetes is not. It not caused by poor circulation. It is not caused by a shortage of antioxidants or vitamins. It is not caused by heavy metals or environmental toxins. It is not something you can fix by doing crossword puzzles or by having lots of friends or getting lots of exercise. And although it is associated with a shortage of insulin in the brain, it is not a condition that taking lots of insulin can treat. The explanation is a little hard to follow, but here are the basics.
1. The brain needs insulin to activate the neurons that control long term memories. It also needs insulin to stay "plastic," capable of finding new pathways to access old information when something goes wrong with an individual neuron.
2. In type 2 diabetes, the rest of the body become insulin resistant, and more and more insulin is needed outside the brain to keep blood sugar levels normal. This extra insulin keeps the brain going, too, but at a cost, which is:
3. High insulin levels cause tangles of protein to form in the brain, especially in the temporal lobe.
Just as too little insulin keeps the brain from getting the sugar it needs to run and repair itself, too much insulin causes changes in the structure of the brain that are similar to Alzheimer's. In type 3 diabetes, however, the brain can still find alternate pathways to recover memories and to respond to emotions, although this may be by fits and starts, sputtering thoughts instead of smooth thoughts.
So what does all this have to do with what you can do to prevent type 3 diabetes? To maintain your brain health, you have to do two things, not just one:
1. Keep blood sugar levels normal, but
2. Keep insulin levels normal, too.
If you are not taking insulin for your diabetes, this means you need to fight insulin resistance even if you are managing to keep your blood sugar levels in check. You need to achieve normal weight. You need to eat smaller meals that don't stress your pancreas. You also need to avoid steroid medications, infections, and stress as much as you can, because all of these also increase insulin resistance. If you have insulin resistance, you may have good blood sugar levels, but the high insulin levels may damage your brain.
If you are taking insulin for your diabetes, then you need to be very sure that you are not using insulin to "cover" for big meals or sugary desserts. It's easy just to take a few units more (or a lot of units more) to keep your blood sugar levels down, but every time you do this, you risk damage to your brain. If you are taking more than 100 units of insulin a day (and you weigh less than 100 kilos/220 pounds), then you really need to make improving insulin resistance a high priority.
Type 3 diabetes doesn't have to take away your memory and emotional response. You probably can avoid this phenomenon entirely if you just keep your blood sugar levels in check by diet. And if you do use insulin, don't use insulin as a way to eat lots of food and desserts. Use insulin to help your diet efforts, not to replace them.