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Chapter 3: Lost in a Sea of Medical Journals

Looking for an alternative to the prognosis and treatment you’ve been given is much easier said than done. The first hurdle? You must overcome your own negative emotions. When bad news strikes, it’s hard to think straight because you can’t see past your immediate bleak situation. Whatever the setback you find yourself up against, the most important thing is to be able to keep a healthy attitude. Only then can you begin the search for a better way.

When I was first diagnosed, the familiar feelings of anxiety, dismay, and despair rushed back to me just like they did when I became unemployed two years ago. My next reaction was anger,

“What have I done wrong to deserve such a horrible circumstance?”

However, in the days that followed, when I had taken some time to catch my breath and think on my new situation, a little perspective returned. I began to reason with myself. Yes, I had been dealt a blow, but the last two years of entrepreneurship had given me many unexpected gifts. I had much to be thankful for.

In 2012 I had been at the very bottom of a dark hole, and now I could be proud of how in 2 years I had pulled myself out and created a good life. I had the financial means to deal with a medical condition, unlike many thousands of diabetics around the globe, and I wasn’t worrying about meeting my own basic needs.

I should be counting my blessings, rather than wallowing in a pit of despair and anger. No-one, rich or poor, can avoid illness, so why should I be any different? The important thing was to stay calm. I hadn’t been defeated by my setback in 2012, and there was no reason why I couldn’t cheat fate again. I just needed to stay calm and rational.

While giving yourself a pep talk might seem a simple thing, to my surprise I felt much better.

After returning from the hospital, ‌I‌ ‌started‌ ‌faithfully‌ ‌taking‌ ‌metformin‌ ‌according‌ ‌to‌ ‌the‌ ‌

prescription‌ ‌–‌ ‌one‌ ‌tablet‌ ‌before‌ ‌meals,‌ ‌three‌ ‌times‌ ‌a ‌day.‌ ‌When‌ ‌I‌ ‌went‌ ‌out‌ ‌to‌ ‌eat‌ ‌with‌ ‌friends,‌ ‌I‌ ‌even‌ ‌joked‌ ‌with‌ ‌them,‌ ‌saying,‌ ‌“These‌ ‌little‌ ‌beige‌ ‌tablets‌ ‌are‌ ‌like‌ ‌hard‌ ‌drugs‌ ‌–‌ ‌you‌ ‌have‌ ‌to‌ ‌take‌ ‌them,‌ ‌not‌ ‌because‌ ‌you‌ ‌like‌ ‌them,‌ ‌but‌ ‌because‌ ‌you’ve‌ ‌become‌ ‌dependent‌ ‌on‌ ‌them.‌ ‌And‌ ‌just‌ ‌like‌ ‌hard‌ ‌drugs,‌ ‌when‌ ‌they’re‌ ‌no‌ ‌longer‌ ‌effective‌ ‌for‌ ‌you,‌ ‌you’re‌ ‌pretty‌ ‌much‌ ‌done‌ ‌for.‌ ‌It’s‌ ‌just‌ ‌a‌ ‌matter‌ ‌of‌ ‌time.”‌ Then I would‌ ‌swallow‌ ‌the‌ ‌pill‌ ‌matter-of-factly.‌ But my off-hand attitude masked the crippling side effects, including painful stomach aches.

I wasn’t content to sit swallowing 3 pills a day until the next diabetes-related blow hit. I was hungry for information. Once a distinguished student, I was ready to put my open mind and relentless pursuit of the truth to good use.

I started to search for all the information I could find on treating diabetes, and to analyse it carefully. If I’m honest, I never expected it to amount to very much. At the time, it was almost a subconscious gesture, a way of fighting off the feeling of helplessness I had been handed in that doctors’ office.

‌ ‌

Diabetes is a chronic disease that has been recognized for over 100 years and thoroughly studied by experts and scholars from various medical fields. However, all the present treatments are merely various forms of metformin and insulin intake. That’s it.

Canada holds a globally recognized position in the history of diabetes. This year is the 100th anniversary of the discovery of insulin, by the Canadians Frederick Banting and Charles Best. In 1922, insulin started to be used clinically, saving the lives of diabetics who had been without hope. In 1923, Banting received the Nobel Prize in Medicine and Physiology.

As for the oral treatment, metformin, it was also discovered in 1922. However, it wasn’t until the 1950s that its clinical research began, headed by Jean Sterne in France. It wasn’t used in the US until 1995! Compared to insulin, metformin’s clinical applications lagged by several decades.

As a result, treatment for diabetes largely depends on these two medications and their variants, and in the medical field, the assumption is that these medications must be taken for life.

And so, it was this century’s worth of evidence and medical consensus that I, a humble engineering graduate, attempted to challenge.

As you would expect, on the Internet, there is an overwhelming amount of information on diabetes. Google “diabetes” and you’ll be faced with several billion search results! I suspect the actual amount is higher, but it is simply capped off. Even with all that knowledge combined, it always circles back to the two categories of pathology and the commonly used treatment methods. Alongside those two subject areas lay the snake-oil salesmen offering magical treatments, health supplements, and the like, geared toward making as much money as possible from vulnerable and desperate consumers.

Simply put, diabetes is the phenomenon that occurs when the blood sugar regulation in our bodies is out of control. The blood sugar level within a human body is mainly regulated by hormones, and the pancreas is one of the most important endocrine (or hormone secretion) organs, with the pancreatic islets being the cell groups that are unevenly distributed within. The islets can produce two types of hormones that are vital to controlling blood sugar – glucagon and insulin, which raise and lower blood sugar respectively to maintain an equilibrium within our bodies.

Diabetes occurs when there is a breakdown in the production, transportation, and application process of insulin, resulting in the inability to regulate blood sugar and creating an accumulation of sugars. Organs such as the kidneys, feet, and eyeballs become saturated in an opaque bath of syrup, breeding decomposition and decay, and causing lesions which are ultimately incurable.

In the medical field, diabetes is categorized into types I and II. The full name of Type I Diabetes is “insulin-dependent diabetes”, and its main cause is genetic inheritance. The patients have a congenital immune disorder that makes the pancreatic islets prone to infection, which in turn causes the body’s own immune system to attack and damage them. The causes for Type II Diabetes are more mysterious. Epidemiological research shows that, aside from genetic factors, obesity, a high-caloric diet, a lack of exercise, and other similar environmental or lifestyle factors also increase the risk for developing diabetes.

As for treatments, as I mentioned earlier, it’s nothing but prescriptions doled out by the mainstream physicians, whether it’s sulfonylurea-type or biguanide-type medications that lower blood sugar as early intervention methods or direct insulin injections in the later stages.

I found this same information over and over countless times, feeling like I was trapped inside a cage of knowledge, each article singing the same, monotonous tune as the others. The occasional alluring melodies of magic elixirs and secret techniques with their lack of scientific evidence never tempted me for long.

While drifting on this smoky and foggy ocean of information, like many other fellow Chinese descendants, when faced with an illness with no way out, I naturally thought of Traditional Chinese Medicine, or TCM. There is a common Chinese legend of an individual with an incurable disease, near death, who miraculously finds a remedy and is restored to perfect health. Could I be just as fortunate and find a similar panacea?

Unfortunately, I knew next to nothing about TCM. Perhaps there was a masterful Chinese physician who could prescribe a miraculous remedy to cure me, but to a layman, TCM reads like ancient Greek text. For example, you might read: “Right the just and dispel the evil and fortify the foundation and cultivate the elements.” These terms are even harder to understand than learning a foreign language. I hold TCM in high regard, however, realistically speaking, with the limited medical knowledge of a layman, one cannot possibly grasp all the limitless concepts and recipes of TCM in a short period of time, just to look for a shortcut in treating diabetes. Through my shallow reading I did discover that certain alternative and substitute treatments may be helpful, and that herbal medicine might be a starting point. The first possibility to catch my eye was Brazilian green propolis.

From the online researching skills I honed in my work as a translator I found a paper on the National Institute of Health website, which contained findings that support the propolis being able to lower blood sugar levels. Brazil is situated in the basin of the Amazon River and home to the oldest, unique ecosystem, where the local wildlife produces a natural antibiotic – flavonoids – far more than any plants in more temperate or cold climates. This is where Brazilian green propolis comes from. I decided to give it a try.

I remember buying enough to last three months in one go at the time. For the next three months, I took 20 drops dissolved in warm water three times per day before each meal.

This type of natural product is considered nutritional supplement in Canada and must be paid for completely out-of-pocket. Even though Canada is proud of its free health care for all citizens, it does not mean all expenses are included. Going to see a physician, examinations, hospital admissions, and the medications – even the food – during hospital stays are free. However, non-prescription medications, and even part of prescription medications, must be paid for.

Brazilian green propolis is not exactly a bargain in Canada. The price per unit online is about $60 CAD), and a three-month treatment requires about 10 vials. But I had made a decision. When compared to my health, cost was nothing. If I were to ignore my healthcare and medical needs for the sake of saving time or money, I’d be putting the cart before the horse. Nothing is more important than life, not even time or money. Recovering your health is worth more than anything in the world.

Naturally, wishing and relying on Brazilian green propolis to solve all my problems once and for all turned out too good to be true.

Thankfully, I didn’t limit my research to herbal medicine. After discovering the Brazilian green propolis, I found an expert who managed his diabetes and high blood pressure solely through his diet! Moreover, he also lived in Vancouver and worked at another university that I had attended – University of British Columbia (UBC)!

Dr. Jay Wortman is the person who has brought me the greatest hope and help, without my ever meeting him. The first thing I found was his personal blog called My Big Fat Diet, which was written for those suffering with contemporary illnesses such as obesity and diabetes, to share how the low-carb, high-fat diet could restore them to health. He conducted a year-long experiment where 60 participants ate only meat, seafood, and non-starchy vegetables (such as cauliflower). The results showed that this low-carb diet brought a remission of the illnesses in the participants, and some no longer needed injections and medications. The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) also made a follow-up report on this, but strangely, the video can no longer be found online.

Dr. Jay Wortman teaches a clinical medicine course at UBC and he’s currently also a practicing clinical physician. Outside of these two careers, he is a professional authorized by Health Canada to be responsible for providing medical and health care to indigenous people.

I was astounded to discover that he also developed Type II Diabetes unknowingly. In 2002, he was overweight and diagnosed with diabetes and hypertension at the age of 52. But when I found his information on the Internet in the summer of 2014, he was the picture of health. On his blog, you can even see photos of him alpine skiing!

Apart from Dr. Jay Wortman, I also came to learn about a clinic in Ontario, Canada owned by a man named Jason Fung. He started out using the so-called mainstream medical treatments such as metformin and insulin on his patients, but his results were less than ideal. With successive treatments, his patients became more and more obese, their illness more and more severe, and their medication dosage increased more and more.

He realized that the drugs could only control the symptoms without treating the disease. He became convinced that conventional treatment methods for diabetes were flawed. He saw doctors receiving incorrect education on diets and giving incorrect dietary suggestions to patients at the same time. When I found out about him, he had already successfully helped tens of thousands of Type II Diabetics turn their life around.

The common point suggested by both these individuals was a diet high in fat and low in carbs. They argued that diabetics should reduce or avoid carbohydrates and increase the intake ratio of fat as the main source of calories. This is the principle behind the low-carb, high-fat diet, usually referred to as simply the low-carb diet, or the keto diet for the variant with an extremely low carb ratio.

For humans, there are three main types of caloric sources in their food – carbohydrates (mainly grain products and sugars), proteins, and fat. Carbohydrates are turned into glucose after digestion and are the biggest contributing factor for raising blood sugar levels. Proteins can be converted into glucose as well, but it requires more time and has a lesser impact on blood sugar content. The low-carb diet keeps blood sugar low by reducing the intake amount of carbohydrates. Simply put, foods made with grain products or sugars and vegetables with a high starch content, such as potatoes, yams, and lotus roots should be avoided, and you should opt for meats, eggs, greens and low-sugar fruits instead.

While reducing carbohydrates, the intake of high-fat foods should be increased, otherwise, the body won’t obtain enough calories.

The results of low-carb diets have had verification from clinical experiments conducted by Virta Health in the U.S. for two years and have been published in the official industry journal namely Diabetes Therapy. The company’s founder and CEO, Sami Inkinen, is also a diabetic who benefits from the low-carb diet and a successful entrepreneur in Silicon Valley. His previous Internet enterprise was sold for $3.5 billion USD, and he used the funds to invest in promoting the low-carb diet as an application for diabetes, founding Virta Health in 2015.

In the summer of 2014, everything I knew was from the articles and reports shared online by Dr. Jay Wortman. I believed the scientific findings he made as a clinical physician, and decided to start my own low-carb, high-fat journey. In my meals, I cut out grains and sugars, and all carb-based staples. Truth be told, at the time, my understanding of how much the carbohydrate ratio should be, what the different food groups are, and what the long-term effects would be wasn’t completely clear. I was simply following the recipes set out by Dr. Wortman and avoiding carbohydrates, but I’d still eat ears of corn heated up in the microwave, and I still took Brazilian green propolis before each meal.

Unexpectedly, my blood sugar reading (glycated haemoglobin) plummeted drastically and decreased significantly with each subsequent test!

June 2, 2014: 10.4

July 11: 8.6!

Oct. 7: 5.8!!

Jan. 17, 2015 Check-up: 5.7!!!

Here is the graph of my blood sugar levels from that time:

[image text]: My glycated haemoglobin (HbA1c) trend

I was ecstatic, and my family doctor was excited as well, even calling me a comeback hero, although at the time, I did not fully grasp the significance of the situation. It seemed that my tenacity and research had paid off, I had found a different way to treat my condition.

My journey into the low-carb diet was like being lost at sea, in a vast ocean of information, with the recipes I found online small pieces of driftwood I could grab on to. At first, all I could manage was to float for a while and raise my head every so often to look at the horizon, glad that I could breathe. But had I truly turned my diabetic condition around? What were the long-term effects of the low-carb diet? Would I ever be able to go back to a normal diet? Could I stop taking medication? There was so much that I still didn’t understand.

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