Medical Advice

Diabetes Treatments: Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow

For most people living today the causes of and treatments for diabetes are pretty straightforward:

Either the pancreas does not make enough insulin (type 1); or the pancreas makes insulin, but the body is unable to use it properly and, eventually, the pancreas stops making insulin altogether (type 2). The standard treatments for diabetes are insulin for type 1 and the later stages of type 2; and medications like metformin, which help the body to use insulin, for type 2.


However, the treatment for diabetes wasn’t always so easy. In fact, it wasn’t until the latter part of the 1800s that doctors even realized that the disease was caused by a malfunction of certain cells within the pancreas. Even with that discovery, it wasn’t until 1921 that scientists were able to isolate the hormone insulin and test it on diabetic dogs, and human trials would not begin until 1922.

Diabetes Treatments Yesterday

Prior to the introduction of insulin the lives of diabetics were nasty and brutish and short. Children often died within a year of diagnosis, and adult survival rates were not much better. Because their bodies were not able to synthesize sugar into usable energy, the sugar would build up in the blood stream leading to a condition known as ketoacidosis, which eventually resulted in a diabetic coma and death.

Early treatments for diabetes were largely ineffective at controlling blood sugar levels and some, like opium, were prescribed mainly to make patients comfortable in the final stages of the disease. One treatment that was moderately successful at managing blood sugar levels was the diabetic starvation diet, where patients would sometimes consume as little as 450 calories per day of proteins and fats with very few carbohydrates. The treatment is considered moderately successful because, while it did lower blood sugar and prolong the patient’s life, the diet was also very difficult to maintain outside of the strictly regimented hospital atmosphere. Upon returning home, many patients relapsed and died, and those that managed to maintain the diet were often barely functional and at risk of dying from starvation.

Diabetes Treatments Today

When insulin was introduced to the general population, diabetic patients no longer needed to starve themselves and had the chance to live normal lives. However, the early days of insulin weren’t all roses and fairy tales. Disposable needles and syringes didn’t exist back then, so patients had to reuse glass syringes and steel needles that they sterilized in boiling water. They also had to sharpen their own needles, which would get blunt and “frayed” from repeated use. The invention of disposable, single-use syringes and needles made taking insulin much easier and much less painful.

However, with the introduction of insulin also came the diabetic complications. Before insulin, most diabetic patients never lived long enough to suffer the long-term effects of diabetes, poor circulation in the extremities, kidney disease, and damage to the peripheral nerves. After insulin, patients were living longer, which made them more prone to complications.

Today, the treatment of diabetes extends beyond insulin. Patients wear compression garments, from manufacturers like, to encourage circulation to the extremities, they have periodic kidney screening, and they take medications to help them cope with nerve pain and numbness.

Diabetes Treatments Tomorrow

Currently, there is still no cure for diabetes, but there are more treatment options on the horizon that are designed to make it easier to treat, and reduce the risks of complications.

·  Scientists are working on an artificial pancreas that will take continuous blood sugar readings, and be able to dispense the exact amount of insulin you need based on those levels. The artificial pancreas would be different from the insulin pumps that exist today is that, with the insulin pump, the patient still has to take his own blood sugar readings and set the insulin dosage. With the artificial pancreas, everything would be automated.

·  Scientists are also studying the role of gut bacteria in patients with diabetes. They believe some bacteria can increase or decrease insulin resistance and that, by introducing the right type of bacteria, they could treat and even cure diabetes.

·  Stem cells have long been looked into as a possible means of curing diabetes by stimulating the pancreas to make new islet cells – the cells that make insulin.

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