As our population gets heavier, the prevalence of diabetes is rising. According to the Ministry of Health, about 7% of Brazilians are diabetic, and the incidence increases with age. Among those above age 65, about 22% of the population is diabetic.
One problem that affects about half of diabetics is a condition called diabetic neuropathy, which is a chronic progressive damage to multiple nerves within the body. Often the person affected notices symptoms first in the feet and legs, but the problem can affect any nerves in the body.
This nerve damage is thought to be caused by progressive injuries to the small blood vessels that feed all our nerves. When the nerves don’t receive an adequate blood supply, they cannot function properly, and numbness or pain is often the result.
In the case of the legs, a person with diabetic neuropathy may notice numbness or tingling in the feet, or pain when walking or while sleeping. In the most severe form, the numbness can lead to serious problems such as ulcers or infections that are difficult to heal. In a man, if the nerves to the penis are affected, erection dysfunction is a common consequence.
But often the most difficult symptom is pain in the affected nerves, which can be debilitating and difficult to treat. Antidepressants often help, but frequently a combination of medications including pain pills are needed to alleviate the symptoms. It would be great if there were some other options than medications.
In 1994, a study done with 21 diabetics found that a low-fat, high fiber vegan diet was effective in giving complete nerve pain relief in 81% of the subjects who persisted on this diet for a month. They also lost an average of 5 kg.
A more recent study, presented at the American Association of Diabetes Educators in Orlando, Florida, and done on 15 patients, supported the results of the 1994 study, and found again that diabetics who went on a low-fat vegan diet had significantly more pain relief than diabetics who remained on their current diet. This research also confirmed all the subjects, diet or not, showed improvement with vitamin B12 supplementation, as diabetics are often B12 deficient.
Both of these studies were performed on a small number of participants, over a short period of time, and longer studies are now being carried out. But pending those results, it seems reasonable that diabetics who suffer the symptoms of neuropathy would be wise to discuss with their doctor about trying a low-fat, high fiber vegan diet. If it works, they might be able to get off or at least reduce the pain medication, and as a bonus, they will likely also enjoy a significant weight loss.
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