Type 2 Diabetes has been in the news again, but this week I had a personal reason to pursue one story in particular which offered hope to sufferers. The story of Fixing Dad is one very close to my heart as the 'dad' in this documentary is my much loved father-in-law Geoff Whitington. It is fair to say that this man is the rock on which our family is built, but, after nearly ten years of living with type 2 diabetes, this rock was crumbling away in front of us.
At 20 stone, with high blood pressure, atrial fibrillation, Charcot's Foot, neuropathy and diabetic ulcers he faced a real and daily threat of heart attack and stroke. It wasn't until the conversation with his GP about foot amputation that the reality hit home.
I say 'hit home' but the impact hit his two sons, Anthony and Ian, much harder. Geoff, on the other hand, became more withdrawn and depressed and began to get his affairs in order. His film-maker sons decided on a plan to 'fix' him and the documentary was born.
This was a tough journey for all of us but alarming too. Alarming from the wider perspective because it was so hard to get the right advice (particularly dietary advice) that made the difference and finally brought his blood glucose to normal levels and safely allowed him to come off his diabetic medicine. But it was alarming from a very personal perspective too. Over the process of filming we discovered that Anthony (Geoff's son and my husband) was pre-diabetic. His BMI was well within normal range at 23 and he ran half marathons, competed in Kung Fu tournaments nationally and - as far as we were concerned - ate healthily.
But why should pre-diabetes be a worry and what is the problem with living with raised blood glucose? It's a worry because more than a third of the people in the UK alone are pre-diabetic and most of us are unaware that we may be one of them. Perhaps because, like Anthony, we assume we are a healthy weight and it therefore doesn't apply to us. Or maybe we simply never give it a thought.
Living with raised blood glucose affects every cell and blood vessel in the body. Over the course of filming, many people we talked to said they routinely test their blood glucose on their parent's/ friends testing kits and it was fine. Should that really reassure them though? The answer is no. Spot checks on blood glucose levels don't give a true idea of what is going on in your body. To do that you need to test your long-term blood sugars through an HbA1c test with your GP.
The Fixing Dad team is campaigning to make this part of routine annual screening as early warning can prevent a huge amount of systemic damage. When I asked my biochemist mum to explain this problem in terms that a child could understand she explained it like this:
'Haemoglobin (Hb) is what makes red blood cells red. It's a bit like an envelope that carries oxygen to all the tissues in the body. If blood glucose becomes too high, say because of insulin resistance (type 2 diabetes), the glucose molecules attach to the haemoglobin instead of the oxygen that they should be carrying. This means that the tissues get starved of oxygen and this is why you start to see damage to circulation in the extremities and in delicate structures like the eye in diabetics.'
Well, at least Anthony wasn't actually diabetic yet, but alarmingly his raised blood glucose was certainly damaging him without him knowing it. The only outward feeling he was aware of was tiredness, but with two jobs and four children and an active lifestyle that was easily explained away.
So, as a family, what did we do about it? The problem, we discovered is almost less to do with blood sugar and more to do with insulin release. Insulin is a hormone that, among other things, will encourage the body to store fat. It is driven by the consumption of carbohydrates and, when we looked at Anthony's diet we realised that he was clearly eating more carbohydrates than were beneficial for his body.
That made the solution easy. We cut out refined carbohydrates, particularly grains, potatoes and sugar (think GPS) and concentrated on green and surface growing veg, protein and fat. It meant cooking everything from scratch but within a few weeks his HbA1c levels were normal again.
In the process of helping his dad, he inadvertently helped himself and probably our whole, immediate family to secure a healthier future.
The documentary Fixing Dad will premiere on BBC2 this Sunday 24th July at 10pm.