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Berberine – Worth It or Mythical Unicorn?

berberine plant

Metformin has been the first-line treatment drug for many years for people with a Type 2 Diabetes (DM2) diagnosis; over recent years, it is becoming common to use it “off-label” for a variety of metabolic syndrome symptoms as well, including weight loss, polycystic ovary syndrome(PCOS), and insulin resistance (IR) as calculated by the Homeostatic Model Assessment of Insulin Resistance (HOMA-IR) method. However, studies continue to show that significant  numbers of people report side effects that prevent its use; various studies show that as many as 53% of people who start taking metformin report significant diarrhea and about 10% report abdominal cramping; and so these people often stop the medication.

While there are methods that can help patients overcome these side effects, there are multiple factors that contribute to continued avoidance of metformin.  I have had patients report that health care providers never taught them how to slowly and gradually increase the dose or even tell them to simply take metformin in-between bites of food at mealtime.  These simple strategies can improve compliance in some people, but convincing them to try these methods AFTER suffering embarrassing GI effects can be quite difficult.

So, is there anything else that can be recommended? As an advocate of low carb nutrition, I find that many people want to avoid medications, but will take herbs, supplements, and vitamins if provided with adequate information.  For years, I have taught my clients to use specific supplements for optimal nutrition, but to avoid any that seem to be “miracle cures” or “magic pills.”  Media hype always seeks to offer “snake oil” remedies for “anything that ails ya.” Until recently, I believed and taught my patients that berberine was one of these such remedies.  A couple of months ago, I was reading something authored by Dr.  Jeffry Gerber who mentioned berberine, so I began to study and research.  Studies I found astonished me; so I studied even more.  I sought advice from a couple of well-educated professionals who read and studied a couple of links to research articles I had found.   They came to similar conclusions as I did.  To be honest, we were all pretty amazed to find the use of berberine actually seems to be of more clinical benefit than metformin without the troublesome gastrointestinal side effects.  Here is detailed information about what we found.

Used as far back as 3000BC, berberine has been used by Ayurvedic  and Chinese  practitioners for diarrhea and dysentery with good results; obtained from the berberis vulgaris plant, berberine may have beneficial effects on a myriad of conditions in addition to diabetes.  It appears to show improvements in cholesterol levels, hepatitis infections, stomatitis, obesity, cardiovascular disease, cancer, and inflammation.

In a 2008 study published in the Journal, Metabolism, Yin et al published a pilot study with 36 participants and concluded that further testing should be done, but that berberine is a cost-effective and beneficial treatment for diabetes, and it also demonstrated a modest anti-cholesterol effect. More studies have been done, and in February 2018, Wang et al reviewed a large number of studies presenting evidence of recent progress in understanding the actions of metformin and berberine as compared to one another; this study was published in Oncotarget.

Most studies using berberine have used a daily dosing protocol of 500 mg three times daily and reduced doses when participants developed GI side effects.  While berberine and metformin do seem to act in similar pathways, berberine seems to have a much lower impact on the intestinal tract, compared to metformin.  While metformin seems to have a 50% or higher rate of GI side effects, berberine appears to have about a 10% rate of diarrhea and/or abdominal cramping.  With such a dramatic difference in GI symptoms, it may be very beneficial for many patients with diabetes and/or insulin resistance to ask health care professionals about a trial of berberine.

As you can see in the chart below, Yin et al showed that participants in the 2008 study had A1c levels drop from 9.47 to 7.48, over the 13 week study.  Fasting blood sugars dropped from 190 mg/dL (10.6 mmol/L) to 122mg/dL (6.8 mmol/L), and post-prandial glucose levels dropped by nearly half.   Other numbers, including all cholesterol numbers also dropped; HDL showed almost no change at all.  In addition, liver and kidney function tests showed no adverse effects from the berberine; in fact, liver enzymes showed a modest decrease, even in normal, healthy livers.

Comparison of Metformin and Berberine

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2410097/

So, before all of you rush out and start buying up all the berberine, there are a few facts you should know.  Because berberine and metformin seem to work in the same pathways, it is NOT advisable to take both metformin and berberine, or risks of adverse events will likely escalate.  If you are taking metformin and wish to switch to berberine, you should have this discussion with your prescriber who will likely brush off the whole idea.  But it is still ESSENTIAL to discuss this change with the health care professional responsible for your care.  It is recommended to have cholesterol, A1c, and a complete metabolic panel (CMP) tested prior to beginning berberine – similar to testing prior to beginning metformin.

One of the major side effects of metformin is lactic acidosis; theoretically, it’s possible that berberine can also cause lactic acidosis, but I haven’t found evidence of it yet.  Lactic acidosis can be a serious and even fatal form of acidosis that occurs as a result of underlying conditions most of the time; it’s mild form is most commonly associated with exercise or running for a long time.  Lactic acidosis can occur from exercise in even the healthiest of people, but typically resolves within a few minutes of hard breathing and rest. When a medication is the cause of lactic acidosis, however, it cannot resolve within a few minutes because the medication will remain in the bloodstream for hours and even days sometimes. This type of acidosis can become quite severe in a short amount of time. If you ADD berberine to metformin, it’s highly possible that the combination could result in life-threatening lactic acidosis.

As for drug-herb interactions, be aware that berberine may interact with other diabetes medications, much in the same way as metformin; alone, metformin does not directly lower glucose, but when it is ADDED to other medicines like insulin or glimepiride (or many others), the blood sugar level CAN drop significantly because of the synergistic effects of the 2 medications working together.

Additionally, berberine may interact with multiple other drugs that are metabolized through certain pathways in the liver; drugs like cyclosporine, statins, beta-blockers, sulfonylureas, nitrates, and many others are primarily metabolized in the liver and thus can be significantly INCREASED when other medications are also working through those same pathways.  Increasing the amount of available active ingredient of certain medications can be very dangerous, and so berberine should be avoided when taking these kinds of medications.

What do you think about berberine?  Do you think it may be of benefit to you? If so, and you’ve discussed it with your prescriber, treat it the same as you would any other medication; take it regularly and consistently.  Set specific times to take all medicines, including berberine.  Take berberinewith a meal, not before or more than 10 minutes afterwards; optimal dosing of mealtime medicines is between bites of food to minimize gastrointestinal upset.  Do NOT take berberine while taking metformin – not on the same day or even during the same week.  If taking any other medication for diabetes, check with your health care professional about adding berberine; you may have to provide one or both of the reference links below.  Dosing for general use is typically 500 mg 2 or 3 times a day.  Check glucose regularly, especially upon beginning dosing so you can see exactly how much the berberine impacts your glucose.  How much will berberine impact your glucose?

In the 2008 study published in Metabolism, fasting glucose dropped about 68 mg/dL in the berberine users, while fasting glucose dropped about 53 points in metformin users; berberine dropped fasting glucose 15 points more than metformin did.  Berberine lowered post-prandial (after eating) glucose levels by 153 points, compared to metformin, which dropped post-prandial glucose levels by about 140 mg/dL.  As you can see, berberineappears to be just as effective, if not more so, than metformin, at lowering blood sugar.  When combined with low carb eating, you can see that berberine may be a very effective tool in lowering blood sugar levels, but take notice that berberine was not effective at bringing glucose levels into normal range when glucose levels were dangerously elevated.

Although the levels dropped significantly, it is not clear at just how easily berberinewould be able to “normalize” glucose levels, when blood sugars are running over 250 or so.

For people with mildly elevated glucose levels, or A1c levels less than 8.5%, berberine may be quite beneficial as a single agent.  But for those people with A1c levels higher than 8.5%, berberine is likely NOT going to normalize glucose levels, enough to significantly reduce complications of DM2, including organ damage. However, these lower glucose levels may significantly impact those people with DM2 who are trying to avoid prescription medication, but for whom low carb eating doesn’t lower glucose adequately alone.  For those people with an A1c around 7.5% or less, it appears that berberine may have the best results, lowering glucose and A1c levels into more normal range, around or less than 5.5%, where risks of complications of DM2 are eliminated.  For people whose A1c falls between 7.5 and 8.5%, berberine may be effective, but it may require a longer period of time to see the normalization of glucose and A1c levels. There isn’t enough long-term data out that can help us understand this impact yet.

chart metabolism of metformin

As for my N=1 experiment, I began taking berberine around June 15, 2018, when my FBS had increased to 98-110, up significantly from about a year ago, without any “carb creep” or change in diet.  While I’m not a faithful glucose tester, I have tested several times during this experiment and have found that my glucose levels have dropped back into the 80s, consistently, after about 6 weeks of twice daily berberine 500 mg.  For me, that’s a WIN!

 

References

Retrieved August 1, 2018, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2410097/

Retrieved August 1, 2018, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5839379/

Retrieved August 13, 2018, from https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S037887411400871X

Retrieved August 13, 2018, from https://www.spandidos-publications.com/ol/15/5/7409?text=fulltext

Retrieved August 13, 2018, from https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0014299915300571

 

 

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Why Won’t My Glucose Fall?

I get questions all the time about elevated glucose readings even after eating low carb for several weeks. This article will discuss more details about the physiology and glucose readings.

When beginning a low carb nutrition plan, it is important to monitor glucose readings before and after eating to understand exactly what is happening to the blood levels in response to food intake. To determine how to do this, see my previous article, “Do You Check Your Glucose?”

Many people who cut carbohydrates will notice that glucose levels actually increase after awakening – this effect is called dawn phenomenon and there are loads of adequate resources available for reading if you’ll simply Google the term; there isn’t a great need to go into detail here about it. Suffice it to say that the liver is simply trying to “help” you by secreting glucose out into the bloodstream when food intake is unavailable – such as during sleep. If you awaken and still do not eat for several hours, the liver will continue “helping” you out, secreting more and more stored glycogen, thinking that you “need” the glucose for energy.  This DP effect is also another reason I discourage fasting for the first 6 months on a ketogenic eating plan.

On our low carb way of eating – especially the first several months – the body may seem a bit “confused” about fuel source. The body is accustomed to using glucose for fuel, but with low carb eating the glucose intake becomes scarce, so the liver acts as a back-up system and releases stored glycogen in the form of glucose to help raise blood levels of the fuel.   Fat-adaptation is the term we use to describe how the body becomes accustomed to used fats for fuel and typically takes 4-6 weeks for most people.  However, it can take 2-3 months for some people to become completely fat-adapted.  Fat adaptation means that the body has learned to use ketones (simple fats, broken down into smallest useable components) for fuel.

Many people also report continued high glucose readings even with very low carb eating; this phenomenon is often difficult to understand. The first thing to remember, though, is that it took MANY YEARS of poor eating habits and very HIGH carbohydrate intake to get us to where we are.  We cannot expect to see perfect glucose readings the first week of low carb eating.  Yes, MANY people DO report significant drops in glucose, but not everyone fits into this category.  Think about a “bell curve” used in data collection.  An easy to understand example is test scores in a classroom.  If there are 100 students who take a math test, by far, the majority of students will have an average score; but there will be a very few students who ace it or score very high, and there will be a very few students to score very low.  This proportionate report is referred to as a “bell curve” as pictured below.

Bell-Curve
Standard Bell Curve

So, now that we understand how averages and the majority of people respond, understand that everyone fits on the bell curve SOMEWHERE. It can take many, many weeks to locate your particular placement on that curve.

What happens when glucose levels are falling but people report symptoms of low glucose? This phenomenon occurs because your body has become accustomed to elevated glucose levels and now perceives the high glucose as “normal” even though it truly is NOT.  People often report tremors, nervousness, shakiness, headaches, and even nausea when glucose is running 100-120. Consider, though, that the body had been experiencing glucose levels sometimes as high as 200 – 400 on a regular basis before LCHF eating.  To the liver and the brain, even a 150 can seem very low, when the body was used to a 400 most of the time.   When dropping glucose levels this drastically, many people will experience uncomfortable symptoms and think that the “correction” for this event is to consume some carbohydrates, sugars, or other unhealthy foods/drinks.  Keep in mind, that it is NEVER a good idea to treat a NORMAL glucose level – NEVER.  Treating a normal glucose level with sugar/carbs will only raise glucose even more, resulting in more effort to get it lower.

a1c-chart-dcct

Health care providers around the world recognize that the biggest threat to people with diabetes is hypoglycemia – low blood sugars.  We never medicate a LOW and we never medicate NORMAL glucose whether with food or medication.  THE ONLY EXCEPTION is if you take SPECIFIC glucose-lowering drugs (NOT metformin) and have symptoms of a low glucose, you might need to consume a GLUCOSE TABLET, specifically for treating a low.  We never recommend chasing lows with sugary food items.  Always use a specified amount of glucose so that you will KNOW exactly how glucose will respond.  You MUST work with a KNOWLEDGEABLE provider to help you lower medications appropriately when first beginning a low carb nutrition plan.  If you cannot locate one, you should contact a health coach with medication knowledge, like KetoNurses, to provide you with adequate information to make YOUR OWN CHOICES, to provide for your own safety.

caution sign
GET MEDICAL ADVICE for YOUR specific situation

Be consistent and persistent with your low carb intake. Keep carb intake to 6-7 grams PER MEAL; do not “save up” carbs for a “splurge” because this technique can contribute to even more erratic glucose levels.  The real goal is to have almost no rise or fall in glucose levels.  Glucose readings should be maintained at a fairly stable level all the time, even after eating.  I teach my clients that if glucose level increases more than 10 points with eating, there were probably too many carbs in that meal. How do you figure that out?  By measuring foods.  Most of us measure foods BEFORE cooking, and most nutritional data is listed before cooking, but ALWAYS read nutritional info carefully. Vegetables are measured by volume – in a measuring cup, not by weight on a scale.  Imagine weighing 4 ounces of spinach! LOL It would be a HUGE amount of spinach, likely more than a person could consume in a whole day.  However, meat is measured by weight; a kitchen scale can be a very important tool in your low carb journey.  Most of us have a terrible, preconceived notion of what a 4-ounce piece of steak looks like.  We are accustomed to restaurant portions, which are often massively oversized.  Also, keep in mind that during the first 4-6 weeks of low carb eating, we do NOT encourage portion control.  Our major focus during this initial phase of lifestyle change is learning WHAT to eat and how to cook with real fat. We really want people to learn this new way of cooking and eating without undue stress; eat when physically hungry and learn to determine first signs of fullness.  Learning how the body works is also a really important task in improving your health.

After you have mastered what to eat and how to cook with healthy fats, it is then time to cut portions back. Start by calculating your personalized macro goals; we base protein needs on AVERAGE IDEAL BODY weight – NOT current weight, and NOT on some randomly chosen arbitrary goal weight.  Used by experts and medical providers for over 100 years, basal protein needs are calculated this way; this method is still taught in nursing, medical, and nutrition programs today.  Again, this AVERAGE ideal body weight is based on a “bell curve” and many people will NOT fit the average. There will be some people with weights all along the spectrum that we call “normal.”  However, we base protein needs on this AVERAGE, since MOST of us will fit in with the majority; after some time on LCHF eating, the body will “find” its own healthy weight – so using this IBW chart to determine goal weight is UNNECESSARY.  See my previous blog article, “Do the Math” for more details on macro calculations.healthy fats graphic new logo

Another major concept to utilize when beginning a low carb nutrition plan also includes relearning how to respond to “head” hunger, or “habit” hunger. Many of us eat to a schedule on a high carb intake; this habit occurs because of the natural and rapid rise and fall of glucose levels on standard high carb intake.  If you have not watched my video, “What Happens to All That Glucose?” now might be a good time to locate it on the KetoNurses Facebook page. When we were consuming many carbs – every 2 hours, typically – our bodies became used to the frequent intake.  It is sometimes quite difficult to overcome this bad habit.  Our bodies were designed to go many hours without food intake, but current dietary advice runs amuck with recommendations to “graze” or eat every 2-3 hours.  The frequent intake has trained our brains to prepare for food; our mouths water with anticipation of food, and often we even experience tummy growls.   However, true physiological hunger occurs when glucose levels are approximately 70 – again, remember the “bell curve” because many people will experience true hunger well away from 70ish.  Another phenomenon that occurs in many people with out-of-control diabetes and severe insulin resistance is “near constant hunger.”  Near-constant-hunger will often occur when glucose levels are 200+ simply because the glucose cannot move into cells, so the brain mistakenly believes the person is hungry and needs fuel.

glucose fluctuations
Avoid these glucose fluctuations

In addition, medications can significantly affect your glucose levels, including those NOT prescribed for diabetes. Blood pressure drugs, cholesterol medicines, steroids, and many others will contribute to elevated glucose levels.  Insulin users often find that they have very erratic glucose levels when beginning a low carb eating plan. It is very important to research your specific medications and learn exactly how they work and what side effects you can expect.  Knowing this information will help you feel much more confident in eating low carb and learning how your body responds.

A major factor to also keep in mind is that it takes TIME for the body to heal. It takes TIME for glucose levels to normalize.  It takes TIME for the liver to release all the excess stored glycogen.  It takes TIME for the body to become less dependent on medications.  It takes TIME for our brains to learn to respond appropriately to TRUE hunger.  There is no “magic cure” for the inadequate, high carb, nutrient-poor intake we have endured for many years.

calendar-660670_960_720

The real “magic cure” is in consistent and persistent low carb intake, with adequate fat and protein intake. Provide highly nutritious “close to the farm” intake for the body.  The quality nutrition found in real food will provide your body with many nutrients you have been missing, but time for healing will still be required.  Anytime you accidentally consume too many carbs during the first 4-6 weeks will impact your body’s healing process, raising glucose and slowing healing and fat-adaptation.

It is not vital to consume “organic” or grass-fed. While some of these foods do provide slightly higher nutritional value, some people just cannot afford them. 

organicquestion

Choose the best products you can afford and do NOT feel guilty or shamed by anyone for your choices; these feelings can quickly contribute to stress, which in-turn will raise glucose.

There are so many other factors that raise glucose: pain, emotional stress, physical illness, worry, changing a schedule, parenthood struggles, financial stress, and nearly any other life event. Be aware of these impacts on life, mentality, and physical health.   Solve the ones you can, and give NO time or effort to those you cannot change because the additional stress will only compound the stress and impact to glucose levels.  Be aware of your body’s signals.  Learn to recognize symptoms that require management.  Learn to listen to your body; recognize your body’s needs and respond. Finally, if you need help, ASK for it!

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Do you check your glucose?

For any of you who have never checked your glucose, maybe it’s worth a try. It is truly the only way to know how food directly impacts glucose.

Use a glucometer to check and monitor your glucose level. They can be purchased over the counter. For inexpensive ones, ask your local pharmacy about the least expensive to use over time. I believe Walmart has one that is fairly inexpensive; it’s the Relion meter.

I recommend testing first thing in the morning, and then after meals to determine how food impacted your glucose. Standard post-meal testing is at 2 hours. Some people, however are not textbook. I usually recommend testing after several different meals over a few different days every 30 minutes after eating to determine your personal peak… once you determine this time frame, you’ll only need to test before and after once. No need to test every single meal at first if you’re worried about costs of testing OR running out of fingers. 😉

But pick a few meals at different times of day. If costs are a factor in buying strips, it’s really important to test before and after different meals — example: test before and after breakfast on Mon, Wed, & Saturday for 2 weeks, before & after lunch on Tue, Thurs, & Fri for 1 week, and supper on Sunday, Tues, Thurs, Sun, for the 2nd week.

Once you’ve determined your personal glucose peak, you can then limit testing to before meals and around your peak.

To determine the impact of certain food on glucose level, test before and after at your personalized peak. Ideally, the readings should not be very different, but readings are allowed to be about 10 numbers diff.

Example: pre-meal is 97; post-meal highest should be about 107 for optimal glucose control.

Even non-diabetics can use meters and learn for themselves how food impacts glucose.

This is where we get the phrase, “eat to your meter.”

Testing glucose is the absolute best method for determining how foods impact your glucose. Knowing how food will affect glucose levels is very important for people on a low carb diet, especially those who take medicines to lower glucose directly. If glucose goes up more than 10 points, it’s probably not a good idea to continue eating that food.

If you’d like help learning to eat to your meter or learning how to eat low carb high fat to reduce the impact of disease on the body, please email me at ketonurses@gmail.com for more information.

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Keto Cauli-Taters

1 head of cauliflower, cut into florets

1/2 stick of butter, softened

3-4 ounces of cream cheese

1 cup grated white cheddar

1 tsp garlic powder

1/4 cup (or less) heavy cream ( optional)

Salt & pepper to taste

Preheat oven to 350 degrees, and grease or butter casserole dish.

Place chopped cauliflower into microwaveable bowl, cover & microwave on high for 6-9 minutes or until all florets are cooked though and softening. (You could steam if you prefer, but drain all water used.)

Add cauliflower, butter, & cream cheese to mixing bowl and mix well. (Sometimes, I throw some of the florets into the blender to get pieces even smaller. I do this before adding the butter and cream cheese.)

I only use the heavy cream when above mixture seems just a bit thick. Sometimes, I use it. Sometimes I skip the heavy cream. I think it depends on how much water is in each head of cauliflower. I don’t like runny taters, but I also don’t want them thick and pasty either. 😂

Add salt, garlic & pepper to taste. Stir in cheddar. Pour into the casserole dish and bake at 350 for about 20-25 minutes. During last 2-3 minutes, you can add a bit more grated cheddar or Parmesan cheese and finish baking.

<<
her options for finishing your taters include topping with chopped onions, bacon crumbs or even grilled chicken bits. You can also serve with a piece of avocado or dollop of sour cream.

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Keto Pepper Poppers

Just in time for the big game, we have a delicious low carb finger food to add to the table!

12 jalapeños, seeded and halved

8 ounces of softened cream cheese

3 tbsp. sour cream

1/2 cup grated cheese (any type or combo)

2 tsp minced garlic (More can be used)

1/2 tsp onion powder

Preheat oven to 375. Mix all in mixer until well blended. Spoon into pepper halves. Place in baking dish or on cookie sheet.

Bake for 9 minutes and then turn to broil for 3-5 minutes, just until tops begin to brown.

Serve.

Depending on the types of cheeses you choose, carb count is approx 1 gram per jalapeño half, or 1.5 -2 grams for every whole pepper.

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Do the Math – Calculate Your Macro Goals

I use the simplest keto calculator available, using IDEAL body weight NOT current body weight – as many calculators do.

First, determine your ideal weight. There are many ranges and charts available, but I use the simplest version from nursing school many years ago. We use ideal weight because we want to lose weight or maintain a healthy weight. If we use current weight for our calculations, then our macro goals will be set to sustain our current weight.

Start with your current height — females are allowed 100 pounds for first 5 feet and 5 pounds per inch over that. Males are allowed the same 100 pounds for the first 5 feet and 6 pounds per inch over.

Example: a 5’5” female would have an AVERAGE ideal weight of 125 lbs, while a male of same height would have average ideal weight of 130lbs. (Let me offer this one tidbit: I understand that many people freak out with these weights, but they really are ideal for the heights. Google images of people from 1950 – BEFORE the low fat craze. People were much thinner and were perfectly healthy. We’ve become desensitized to body weights for lots of reasons, but it has skewed our perspective of what a body should look like.)

Now that you’ve calculated your ideal weight, we will use that number to identify our protein needs per day. At 5’5”, a female’s average ideal weight would be around 125 lbs. Convert that to kilograms using the standard conversion factor, 2.2.

Math would look like: 125/2.2 = 56.8. So your weight in kg is 56.8. For people of average daily activity, the recommendation is 1 gram of protein per 1 kg if body weight.

So, protein needs would be approx 56.8 grams per day — divided into 2 or 3 meals per day, based on lifestyle and personal choices.

For our way of eating, we calculate our protein needs and then use that to determine our fat needs – approx double the protein goal. So you would need about 114 grams for fat per day.

Carb grams are counted as total carbs bc fiber carbohydrates DO impact some people’s glucose levels. Max carb goal should be 20 grams per day or 6-7 per meal.

I hope I’ve kept this as easy and simple as possible. Yes. There are many keto calculators but most do NOT account for metabolic disorders or they are athlete-based, resulting in very high protein intake and excess proteins will be converted into glucose in the absence of carbs — not good for anyone with insulin resistance or diabetes.

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What is Vitamin D & Why Do I Need It?

vit d pathwayVitamin D is called a vitamin; it’s often called a hormone. It’s often called a vitamin that acts like a hormone.  So, which is it?  It’s actually all of the above.  Vitamin D is a fat-soluble agent with a chemical structure similar to a steroid.  Which makes sense, as Vitamin D is one of the major ingredients of all steroid-based hormones produced in our bodies. Our bodies were created and designed to absorb sunshine via skin and then a variety of chemical reactions would occur so our bodies actually made its own vitamin D.  However, since the skin cancer scare of the 1970s, the general population applies thick layers of sunscreen and we rarely remove enough clothing to bare our skin for this natural process to occur.  This long-term lack of sunshine on our skin is producing entire generations of significantly deficient people in our society.

What happens when we are low in vitamin D? How does a vitamin D deficiency affect people’s health? Because vitamin D is vital to numerous human processes, it can be quite complex to discuss its actions, roles, and benefits to our bodies.  We will attempt to explain vitamin D as simply as possible, describing the intricacies and complex utilization of vitamin D.

 vit d image

The oldest known function of vitamin D is the role in bone growth and development; we’ve all seen photos of young children with rickets (legs bowing outward) because of a severe deficiency of vitamin D. Without adequate D in the bloodstream, bones cannot grow or develop properly.  For years, calcium was reported to be the “hero” of the skeleton.  People with weakening bones were urged to take high doses of calcium daily “to protect your bones” and prevent osteoporosis.  However, in recent years, that advice has been scaled back a bit; no longer is it general health advice to recommend calcium supplementation unless there is known osteoporosis or osteopenia.  Even where there is evidence, many providers won’t recommend it lightly; they take great care in explaining the risks/benefits and often encourage vitamin D in place of or at least along with the calcium.  So, just what does the vitamin D do for bones?  It’s most recognized benefit is that it aids absorption of calcium from the intestines; it’s the reason vitamin d is added to milk and other dairy products.  Milk/dairy products do NOT naturally contain vitamin D; it is added to promote calcium absorption into the bones for effective use in growth & development. Vitamin D helps keep bones strong and also helps prevent weak, brittle bones in the elderly.

In addition to bone health, vitamin D is recognized for its effects in the brain; it has been called “the depression vitamin” among health care professionals for many years because it is a vital component of neurotransmitters in the brain. Three major neurotransmitters in the brain requiring adequate amounts of vitamin D include serotonin, oxytocin, and vasopressin; serotonin is a neurotransmitter vital for transmitting nerve impulses. Serotonin is also important for mood regulation; pain perception; gastrointestinal function, including perception of hunger and satiety; and other physical functions. Oxytocin is released from the brain when it is needed for a variety of body needs, including labor & delivery at the end of pregnancy, during sexual arousal, and it is often referred to as “the love hormone” because of its impact on emotional relationships. Vasopressin is an anti-diuretic hormone that regulates fluid balance within the body and bloodstream. It works to prevent excess fluid loss and helps maintain homeostasis (normal internal chemistry) by maintaining the concentration of dissolved particles, such as salts and glucose, in the blood. Reviewing all 3 of these neurotransmitters and their major functions is vital to understand brain chemistry; can you see how a shortage of vitamin D would impact nearly all normal body functions and even our relationships, moods, and emotions?

Vitamin D’s impact on glucose has only recently been identified; multiple studies show conflicting data as this area is new to research. However, knowing that vitamin D is an essential ingredient of vasopressin, and that vasopressin helps maintain healthy glucose concentrations, does it not then make perfectly logical sense that a shortage of vitamin D will result indirectly or directly in elevated glucose levels?

In addition, a recent study shows that fasting glucose levels, insulin levels and insulin resistance all improved with vitamin D supplementation. Additionally, this study suggests that pro-inflammatory cytokines that are thought to contribute to insulin resistance were down-regulated with this vitamin D supplementation. Translation: with high carb/high sugar intakes, we are finding significantly elevated levels of inflammatory markers, like cytokines, that are more linked to heart disease, heart attacks and strokes than we ever imagined. Vitamin D supplementation appears to reduce that inflammation as part of the body’s normal healing/tissue repair processes.

However, let’s review again: former advice to take calcium for bone health came with advice to also take vitamin D to aid absorption of the calcium. Just as calcium needs vitamin D for absorption & effective utilization, so vitamin D needs some help. Magnesium and vitamin K2 are necessary for the absorption and use of vitamin D. Recent studies have shown even the very high doses of vitamin D prescribed by health care providers (50,000 IUs) as a weekly regimen barely raised vitamin D levels at all after 4-6 weeks, the usual recommended time frame for dosing. Once study participants added a magnesium and/or vitamin K supplement to their regular dosing regimen, vitamin D levels immediately began to rise. These studies are why we typically recommend vitamin D, magnesium, and vitamin K2 to most people with insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes.

Recently some reports are suggesting that vitamin D is integral to our immune system; some experts and studies are recommending to add or increase vitamin D supplementation during a variety of illnesses, including colds, flu, respiratory illness, asthma, and more.

What about doses of these supplements? There are limited studies and recommendations because this field is so new and mainstream medical providers are hesitant to make recommendations to patients without a large body of support. The Endocrine Society has stated that a deficiency of vitamin D exists when lab levels fall below 20 ng/mL; however, many reputable experts and organizations say that level should be 40 or even 50 ng/mL. Because of limited evidence, it’s difficult to specify a particular dose. Even more recently, various mainstream medical organizations like the Endocrine Society have stated that health care providers should not draw a vitamin D level on patients anymore, because we’re all deficient anyway, & the test is very expensive; most insurances won’t cover the costs either. So how are we supposed to know what dose to take? Well, the current recommendations for dosing are not clear and without a known vitamin D level, finding your perfect dose may be tricky, but many people find that 1,000 – 2,000 IUs daily is a good maintenance dose; some people just beginning to supplement find that taking 5,000 IUs daily for a few weeks is very helpful at reducing many vague symptoms that they often never connected to poor nutritional status. You can ask for the blood test to be done; you should also ask for the pricing of the test prior to having it drawn so you’re aware of the likely expense. Manufacturers of supplements are meeting the market demand by producing combinations of D, magnesium, vitamin K, and/or iodine for patient convenience.

One warning of NOTE: vitamin K1 is vitally important in blood clotting; if you are taking a blood thinner or have been told you SHOULD take a blood thinner, including aspirin, you should discuss adding this supplement with your provider BEFORE taking it. While vital for normal body processes, vitamin K can contribute to increased clotting within blood vessels; clots are known contributors to heart attacks and strokes.  

In conclusion, the general consensus on Vitamin D includes:

  1. Each increase of 4 ng/mL of vitamin D in the blood is associated with a 4% lower risk of type 2 diabetes.
  2. There is a significant and inverse relationship between blood levels of vitamin D and the risk of type 2 diabetes among a wide range of vitamin D levels and among a wide variety of populations, so that it is difficult to specify “normal” lab reference values and recommended daily dosing. Translation: The lower your vitamin D level is, the higher the risk of development of type 2 diabetes.

For further information about Vitamin D, it is recommended to ask your regular health care provider.

Here’s a link to a great study to reinforce our viewpoint: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5541280/