Susan Haynes-Elcock is friend, who is a writer, housewife, avid gardener and volunteer with the National Trust in Britain. Diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes in October 2008, she has carried out much research to understand the long-term condition for which there is no cure. Shocking facts revealed that the Black African-Caribbean communities are one of the highest risk groups in the world for contracting diabetes – mainly, type 2.
Diabetes is a killer if not caught and managed carefully. Susan should know, hers went undiagnosed and she went into a coma as a result. Once she got over the experience of nearly dying, through her writing and other projects, she is now hoping to help educate those with and without the condition about the myths and reality of diabetes.
DIABETES: THE SUGAR MYTH, CULTURAL AND TRADITIONAL BELIEFS AND THE TRUTH
By Susan K Haynes-Elcock
Diabetes: This silent stalker, common chronic lifestyle condition, is cloaked in myths. The most common of these - ‘the sugar myth’, unlike most myths, at least has a modicum of truth attached to it. Research shows that it is a universally accepted ‘truth’ that ‘if you eat too much sugar you get diabetes’ and ‘if you have diabetes you can’t eat sweets or chocolates.’
I laugh when I think of this particular myth, as I was once a member of the ‘sugar myth club’. When diagnosed with diabetes back in 2008, my first and only thought was ‘OMG, no more sugar.’ The simple truth is that the ‘sugar myth’ is just that – a myth. My diabetes was triggered by medication.
To make sense of how this myth has been accepted as fact at a global level, we need to go right back to the beginning to what is known about diabetes. Historical evidence shows that in approximately 1550 BC, an Egyptian papyrus mentions a rare disease ‘that causes the patient to lose weight rapidly and urinate frequently’. This is thought to be the first reference to the disease.
However, it wasn’t until around the 1st Century AD that it was named by the Greek Physician Aretaeus. He described a condition with symptoms of ‘constant thirst, loss of weight and excessive urination’. He called it diabetes meaning ‘siphon’ or ‘flowing through’ in Greek.
Around the 19th century, methods of testing to identify the disease included official ‘water tasters’ and some physicians actually tasting the patient’s urine. As it had a sweetish taste the name ‘mellitus’, which means ‘honey or sweet’ in Latin was added. Hence the name Diabetes Mellitus. Even more interesting though, is the actual makeup of the condition which gives a clear link to sugar and the disease.
Diabetes, a serious life-long condition is caused by a build up of glucose (sugar) in the bloodstream. The body breaks down food into glucose which moves through the bloodstream to provide cells with the fuel needed by the body to produce energy – similar to petrol in a car. To do its job, glucose needs the help of the hormone insulin which is produced by the pancreas. Diabetes occurs when the pancreas can no longer produce insulin, the insulin produced is not enough, or the body cannot use the insulin produced (insulin resistance), thereby causing a build up of glucose (sugar) in the bloodstream.
Diabetes is classified mainly as type 1 or type 2. Type 1 diabetes is caused by genetics, viruses, medication, stress and unknown factors. Type 2 diabetes is linked to genetics, lifestyle, obesity and age. Eating excessive amounts of foods high in sugar like sweets, pastries or drinks, can certainly lead to weight gain and an increase in the risk of developing diabetes, especially if there is a history of diabetes in the family.
The charity Diabetes UK describes myths as ‘old-fashioned untruths’ and state, “From misinformation around what food to eat, to incorrect causes of developing the condition, these old fashioned untruths cause various problems around living with, treating or even talking about diabetes.”
Diabetes is serious. If left untreated it can lead to heart attacks, blindness, nerve damage, kidney disease, and other life-threatening complications. So much damage can be done by these myths that during Diabetes Week 2010, Diabetes UK have launched a campaign aiming to dispel the myths about diabetes.
The sugar myth and other myths might be dispelled over time, but the real worry globally are the cultural and traditional beliefs of a community. Unfortunately, it would seem that the people most at risk include the ethnic minority communities of the North American Indian, Asian, African and Caribbean peoples. In the Afro-Caribbean community the belief was that for a female to be attractive, she had to have ‘some meat on her bones’. Other deep-seated beliefs are that diabetes is caused because of sin or evil spirits which only a spiritual healing or ‘bush bath’ will cure. Added to these are the beliefs that herbal healing and traditional medicines will ‘cure’ diabetes. Presently, there is no cure for diabetes.
The problem is that cultural and traditional beliefs are an integral part of a people’s heritage. Often no one knows where they originated but eventually they become ‘truth’ and accepted. Additional problems occur due to the inability or refusal of some professional care providers to acknowledge, respect or give credence to these cultural and traditional beliefs. As a result, ‘underground pockets of self-healers’ develop.
Researchers in the USA believe that unless care providers change their attitudes, they will continue to have little chance of being successful with the treatment and lifestyle changes they recommend. In spite of whatever education they provide or the arsenal of drugs, the communities that need it most will not fully benefit.
The belief amongst communities that herbal remedies such as garlic, ‘ganja’ tea, cerasee, lignum vitae leaf, and cinnamon lower blood glucose or even ‘cure’ diabetes is real. Forward-thinking Diabetes UK says, “Using herbal remedies and plant derivatives to help in the treatment of diabetes should certainly not be discounted’, with a caution that thorough research and consultation with experts is necessary (www.diabetes.org.uk) I personally have found using ordinary herbal remedies along with my insulin very beneficial in maintaining my blood glucose ‘sugar’ levels.
2010 Diabetes UK figures show globally 285 million people have been diagnosed with diabetes of which 2.6 million are in the UK. The question is, what more can be done to dispel diabetic myths? How helpful would it be at global and national level to include a formal structure that accepts and encourages the use of cultural and traditional beliefs in conjunction with modern diabetes treatments.
The truth is even though diabetes is a ‘killer’ disease, it has been proven that with careful management, dispelling the myths and avoiding ‘chocolate meltdown’, people with diabetes can have long and successful lives.
©2010 Susan K Haynes-Elcock
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