In type 1 diabetes, the body’s own immune system attacks cells in the pancreas, known as beta-cells, which produce the hormone insulin. Insulin is needed for moving glucose out of the blood stream and into muscles and other tissues. The condition is usually diagnosed after around 70 per cent of the beta-cells cease to function and type 1 diabetics need to inject a synthetic form of insulin to replace the missing hormone.
In type 2 diabetes, too, insulin production tends to decline, with the beta-cells dying off faster than normal. Several different factors appear to be involved in this, including high blood sugar and blood fat levels, inflammatory compounds and high levels of the hormone leptin. More people with type 2 diabetes now inject insulin than those with type 1.
At one time, it was thought that losing the ability to produce insulin was permanent and irreversible. But as I wrote here, scientists have discovered recently that beta-cell function can come back – in animal models of diabetes, at least. Now, a study published in the journal Nature on 20 August has shown just how remarkable this capacity for regeneration could be. The pancreas looks to be even more adaptable and to possess a greater potential for self-healing than was previously assumed.
The researchers, at the University of Geneva in Switzerland, are the first to reveal a mechanism by which other cells in the pancreas called delta-cells, (which produce somatostatin, another pancreatic hormone) revert to a precursor-like cell state before being ‘reborn’ as beta-cells in diabetic mice.1 Although this only appears to happen in young mice with type 1 diabetes, it provides further evidence that loss of beta-cell function might not be the end of the story.
Science is moving ahead fast in this area. An internet search for “beta-cell regeneration” brings up hundreds of studies carried out over the last few years. And some of the most interesting research is on compounds that could help to increase beta-cell numbers and so kick an ailing pancreas back into life. While Big Pharma is looking for chemicals it can patent as the next generation of money-spinning diabetes drugs, some natural substances have already been identified that could halt declining insulin production or help people who are currently injecting insulin to make a little more of their own.
A natural body chemical that appears to be vital for the regeneration of beta-cells is GABA (full name gamma–aminobutyric acid). Better known for its role as a neurotransmitter in the brain, GABA has been shown in new research to encourage the proliferation of beta-cells and prolong their lives. In a new study where human pancreatic cells were grafted into the pancreas of diabetic mice, raising GABA levels led to regeneration of the human cells, increased insulin production and lowered blood sugar levels in the experimental mice.2 Other research has also shown that GABArestores beta-cell mass and reverses type-1 diabetes in severely diabetic mice.3
How to help your beta-cells to regenerate
Although supplements of GABA are available, trying to directly boost body levels of neurotransmitters is often hit-and-miss. A better approach might be to help your body make more of its own GABA.The amino acid L-glutamine is the raw material for GABA production, aided by vitamin B6 (which acts as an essential co-enzyme) and by the amino acid taurine and the mineral zinc.
- L-glutamine is available as a supplement in powder form. Take 5-10 grams per day, mixed into a cold drink (not hot, since this de-activates it), first thing in the morning and/or at bedtime.
- Vitamin B6 is best utilised by the body in the natural pyridoxal-5-phosphate form. Take 50 mg a day, as part of a B-complex supplement.
- Taurine can be purchased as capsules or powder. Take 500-1000 mg a day.
- Zinc works best in the form of zinc citrate or zinc orotate. Take a supplement of 30 mg a day.
Extracts of some herbs have also been found to stimulate the regeneration of pancreatic beta-cells and improve insulin production in animal studies. Three of the most promising are:
- Gymnema sylvestre
- The Indian kino tree (Pterocarpus marsupium)
These are all available as herbal supplements in the UK. You can find further information about them here.
If you have diabetes, you will be well aware that one of its complications can be nerve damage or neuropathy. In my next blog post, I’ll be telling you about a new device that could detect this condition at an early stage, as well as giving some tips on nutrients that could help to prevent it.
Wishing you the best of health,
PhD DHD Nutritionist
for Real Diabetes Truth
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Bear in mind we are not addressing anyone’s personal situation and you should rely on this for informational purposes only. Please consult with your own physician before acting on any recommendations contained herein.
1. Chera S, Baronnier D, Ghila L, Cigliola V, Jensen JN, Gu G, Furuyama K, Thorel F, Gribble FM, Reimann F, Herrera PL. Diabetes recovery by age-dependent conversion of pancreatic δ-cells into insulin producers. Nature. Aug 20 2014 (Online ahead of print).
2. Purwana I, Zheng J, Li X et al. GABA promotes human β-cell proliferation and modulates glucose homeostasis. Diabetes. Jul 9 2014 (Online ahead of print).
3. Soltani N, Qiu H, Aleksic M et al. GABA exerts protective and regenerative effects on islet beta cells and reverses diabetes. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA. 2011; 108(28):11692-11697.
Category: Vitamins and Nutrients