The Difference Between Reversal and Remission of Type 2 Diabetes

Some speak of having “reversed” Type 2 Diabetes (T2D) as a result of dietary changes whereas others refer to having achieved “remission”. What is the difference and why is the distinction important?

What is meant by Type 2 Diabetes “reversal”

“Reversal” of a disease implies that whatever was causing it is now gone and is synonymous with using the term “cured”.  In the case of someone with Type 2 Diabetes, reversal would mean that the person can now eat a standard diet and still maintain normal blood sugar levels. But does that actually occur? Or are blood sugar levels normal only while eating a diet that is appropriate for someone who is Diabetic, such as a low carbohydrate or ketogenic diet, or while taking medications such as Metformin?

If blood sugar is only normal while eating a therapeutic diet or taking medication then this is not reversal of the disease process, but remission of symptoms.

We do see Type 2 Diabetes reversal in a majority of T2D patients who have undergone a specific kind of gastric bypass surgery called Roux-en-Y; with 85% having achieving normal blood sugar levels within weeks of having the surgery, without taking any blood sugar lowering medications or following any special diet[1]. The mechanism that is thought to make Type 2 Diabetes reversal possible with this type of surgery are (a) that the operation results in more of the incretin hormone GIP being released in the upper part of the gut (duodemum, proximal jejunum) which results in less insulin resistance [2,3] or (b) that the presence of food in lower gut (terminal ilium, colon) stimulates the lower incretin hormone GLP-1, which results in more insulin being secreted [3], which lowers blood sugar levels.

Is Type 2 Diabetes “reversal” possible with diet alone?

It is currently believed that T2D may be reversible by non-surgical intervention if diagnosed very early on in the progression of the disease.

One matter that needs to be overcome is that both the mass and function of the β-cells of the pancreas that produce insulin are thought to be reduced by 50% by the time someone is diagnosed with Type 2 Diabetes [5]. Furthermore, the β-cells are thought to continue to deteriorate the longer a person has Type 2 Diabetes.

It is unknown for how long or at what stage T2D becomes irreversible [6].

What is meant by Type 2 Diabetes “remission”

There is evidence that indicates that weight loss of ~15 kg (33 pounds) can result in remission of Type 2 Diabetes symptoms and that β-cell function can be restored  to some degree either by (a) dormant β-cells being reactivated through a variety of means or (b) by existing β-cells functioning better [6].

Type 2 Diabetes “reversal” defined

In 2009, the American Diabetes Association defined Type 2 Diabetes partial remission, complete remission and prolonged remission as follows;

Remission is defined as being able to maintain blood sugar below the Diabetic range without currently taking medications to lower blood sugar and remission can classified as either partialcomplete or prolonged.

Partial remission is having blood sugar that does not meet the classification for Type 2 Diabetes; i.e. either HbA1C < 6.5% and/or fasting blood glucose 5.5 – 6.9 mmol/l (100–125 mg/dl) for at least 1 year while not taking any medications to lower blood glucose.

Complete remission is a return to normal glucose values i.e. HbA1C <6.0%, and/or fasting blood glucose < 5.6 mmol/L (100 mg/dl) for at least 1 year while not taking any medications to lower blood glucose.

Prolonged remission is a return to normal glucose values (i.e.
HbA1C <6.0%, and/or fasting blood glucose < 5.6 mmol/L (100 mg/dl) for at least 5 years while not taking any medications to lower blood glucose.

Remission can be achieved after bariatric surgery such as the Roux-en-Y procedure outlined above or with dietary and lifestyle changes such as a low-carbohydrate or ketogenic diet, weight loss and exercise.

According the American Diabetes Association, people who are able to achieve normal blood sugar through diet, weight loss and exercise but also take blood sugar lowering medication such as Metformin do not meet the criteria for either partial remission or complete remission.*

Those who have achieved normal blood sugar levels as a result of following a low-carbohydrate or ketogenic diet and are also taking the medication Metformin are sometimes referred to in published studies as having “reversed” their Type 2 Diabetes.  I think this is problematic because clearly if these people go back to eating a standard diet again, their blood sugar would not remain normal. As well, in some well-designed ketogenic diet studies subjects are allowed to use Metformin but no other blood sugar-reducing medication, but based on the American Diabetes Association definition the use of Metformin which helps regulate blood sugar (largely via reducing gluconeogenesis of the liver and making the muscles less insulin resistant) precludes these cases from being referred to as either partial remission or complete remission*.

Don’t get me wrong; having normal blood sugar (and insulin) levels as the result of a well-designed low carbohydrate or ketogenic diet with or without the use of Metformin enables people to reap significant health benefits and lower their risk of the chronic diseases related to hyperglycemia (high blood sugar) and hyperinsulinemia (high circulating levels of insulin) but it’s not reversal unless the people can then eat a standard diet without an abnormal glucose response.  It is normal glycemic control achieved through diet with or without the use of Metformin. Perhaps a term such as “partial remission with Metformin support” would be a more accurate descriptor.

Some final thoughts…

I think it’s important what terms we use.

There are genuine cases of Type 2 Diabetes “reversal” and we should use that term for those who can now eat a standard diet and maintain normal blood sugar levels, without the use of any medication or diet.

There are also genuine cases of “partial remission” or “complete remission” according to the American Diabetes Association definition that are a result of dietary and lifestyle changes and these terms should be reserved for cases where the defined criteria is met.

There are also genuine cases of “partial remission with Metformin support” that have been achieved as the result of people implementing dietary and lifestyle changes plus the use of Metformin that should be acknowledged and celebrated, but calling these either “Type 2 Diabetes reversal” or “Type 2 Diabetes remission” is confusing, at best.

Yes, Type 2 Diabetes a) reversal, b) partial remission and complete remission as well as c) partial remission with Metformin support are all possible. It may well be that people such as myself who had been Type 2 Diabetic for many, many years can eventually transition to genuine partial remission with eventual discontinuation of Metformin. That is my hope, at any rate!  The bottom line is that maintaining normal blood glucose levels and normal circulating levels of insulin is necessary in order to put the symptoms of Type 2 Diabetes into remission, as well as to reduce the risks to the chronic diseases associated with high blood sugar and insulin levels — and for that there are well-designed dietary and lifestyle changes. This is where I can help.

If you have Type 2 Diabetes or have been diagnosed as being pre-diabetic (which is the final stage before a diagnosis, not a “warning sign” — more about that here) and would like to work toward putting your symptoms into remission, then please send me a note using the Contact Me form above to find out more about how I can help.

I offer both in-person and Distance Consultation services (via Skype or long distance phone) and would be glad to help you get started as well as support you as you achieve your health and weight loss goals.

To yours and my good health!

Joy

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References

  1. Xiong, S. W., Cao, J., Liu, X. M., Deng, X. M., Liu, Z., & Zhang, F. T. (2015). Effect of Modified Roux-en-Y Gastric Bypass Surgery on GLP-1, GIP in Patients with Type 2 Diabetes Mellitus. Gastroenterology research and practice2015, 625196.
  2. Schauer P. R., Kashyap S. R., Wolski K., et al. Bariatric surgery versus intensive medical therapy in obese patients with diabetes. The New England Journal of Medicine2012;366(17):1567–1576
  3. Lee W. J., Chong K., Ser K. H., et al. Gastric bypass vs sleeve gastrectomy for type 2 diabetes mellitus: a randomized controlled trial. Archives of Surgery2011;146(2):143–148.
  4. Laferrère B., Heshka S., Wang K., et al. Incretin levels and effect are markedly enhanced 1 month after Roux-en-Y gastric bypass surgery in obese patients with type 2 diabetes. Diabetes Care2007;30(7):1709–1716
  5. Taylor R. Banting Memorial lecture 2012: reversing the twin cycles of type 2 diabetes. Diabet Med. 2013;30:267-275
  6. Watson J., Can Diet Reverse Type 2 Diabetes? December 12, 2018 https://www.medscape.com/viewarticles/905409_print