Do produce farmers actually hold the answers to better health?

EatThis Functional Food

“The part can never be well until the whole is well” Plato

A diagnosis of diabetes is a time in your life when you may reflect on bad eating habits. Many of us do not understand the mechanisms of disease until we are directly affected but there are some things we can do to reverse the situation.

Diabetes is a worldwide socio-health emergency caused by changes to our diets and a more sedentary lifestyle. Around 350 million people across the world are estimated to be diabetic and this is expected to more than double by 2045. 

The CDC reported Type II diabetes affects 1 in 10 Americans, that’s around 34 million people. A further 1 in 3 have signs of prediabetes, but estimates suggest up to 84% of the US population are asymptomatic and completely unaware they are insulin resistant. These are poor statistics in comparison to the rest of the developed world; in Scotland the prevalence of Type II diabetes is around 5%. The US is second only to China and India in prevalence where 114 million Chinese people account for a third of diabetics worldwide.

Five million people die annually from diabetes related illnesses.

The pandemic has highlighted a need to act against this disease as diabetes is considered a chronic inflammatory condition that leads to increased comorbidities for those contracting SARS-CoV-2. Early studies confirm the SARS‐CoV‐2 virus attaches to angiotensin‐converting enzyme‐2 (ACE2) receptors in beta cells of the pancreas, which is thought to impair insulin secretion in response to blood glucose. Since people with Type II diabetes, prediabetes and insulin resistance have an increased risk of Vitamin D deficiency they also increase their risk of oxidative stress and immune imbalance. We will discuss this aspect of disease progression in future articles. 

A brief history of how Type II Diabetes is different from other forms of the disease 

Diabetes is a chronic disease of the pancreas that affects how we turn food into energy. When we consume food the sugars and carbohydrates are broken down into glucose. High levels of glucose are released into our bloodstream which triggers factors in our blood to release insulin from the pancreas. Insulin then extracts the glucose from our bloodstream to cross cell membranes where it is used as energy for cellular metabolism. As a highly accurate sensor of blood glucose levels, the pancreas constantly monitors and automatically adjusts to maintain a stable environment. To keep blood sugar controlled overnight, our bodies release low levels of insulin from the pancreas but when we eat there is a sudden release of insulin in response to the blood glucose rise and this can be more problematic if we overeat.

Normal blood glucose and insulin release  Adapted: Jacobs DM Care 20:1279, 1997

Type I diabetes is where the body’s own immune system attacks and destroys cells that produce insulin.

Type II diabetes is where the body cannot produce enough insulin or where the body’s cells do not react normally to insulin.

Prediabetes is when you have abnormal levels of sugars in your blood. You may be feeling fatigued, more thirsty than normal and needing to use the restroom more often. These are signs that things are not quite right. Check out the full CDC symptoms here.

A fitness trainer I met a few years ago explained why so many of us ‘sleep walk’ into this condition without even knowing it. He explained that every day we eat foods that contain glucose for energy. Throughout the day the level in our blood rises exponentially until we stop eating after our supper and levels start to plateau. If we eat too much throughout the day and particularly later in the day our bodies do not have enough time nor the ability to bring the sugar levels back to baseline. So everyday our baseline levels start slightly higher than the day before. This cumulative effect exacerbates the problem when we cannot produce enough insulin to remove glucose from our blood and our cells are damaged. When we present our symptoms to our doctor, they ask for pre and post fasting blood samples to gauge our insulin response to blood glucose.

The prevalence of both Type I and Type II diabetes is continuing to rise with the latter linked to urban lifestyles, unhealthy diets and poor levels of exercise. While Type I diabetes is a lifelong diagnosis and irreversible, Type II can in most cases be easily reversed through careful dieting and a healthy lifestyle. This is important as a diabetes can lead to chronic illness causing vascular, cardiac, neurological and renal damage with a reduced quality of life and a significant reduction in life expectancy.

How can plants be used to control blood sugar levels and reverse diabetes before it causes chronic effects? 

Diabetics were traditionally treated with medicinal herbs prior to the discovery of  insulin and manufacture of hypoglycemic drugs. Keeping blood sugar at even levels is key to deciding which foods to avoid and which to include. For instance caffeine can cause a spike in blood sugar if you consume too much coffee, tea and energy drinks.

Many plants display specific anti-glycemic activity and have the potential to be grown in a controlled environment. We now want to show how incorporating some of these plant based foods in your diet can provide cellular support to reverse inflammation and disease.

Ginger is popular in our western fusion diets and contains very low carbohydrate levels. Researchers reported that people who ate small quantities of ginger daily for 12 weeks experienced lower fasting blood sugar and reduced precursors that would otherwise lead to insulin resistance and diabetes. Probably one of the easiest to add to our diet, just a little at each meal will give huge benefits. Read our blog on tips to grow in CEA. 
Image left: New Ginger roots formed in CEA

Garlic contains more than 400 phytonutrients and many of these help prevent a wide range of health problems. Compounds including allicin, allyl propyl disulfide and S-allyl cysteine sulfoxide prevent the liver’s inactivation of insulin, so more insulin is available in the body. Like ginger, smaller daily amounts of fresh garlic can be highly effective.

Fenugreek seeds are high in soluble fibre, slowing down digestion which helps lower blood sugar levels. A teaspoon of powdered fenugreek seed helped people in India with Type II diabetes by reducing post-meal blood glucose. Separate studies found that people with mild symptoms who ate fenugreek in bread (masking the bitter taste) also lowered their blood sugar levels.

Okra is commonly used in  Ayurvedic medicine to lower blood sugar levels and some reports suggest drinking okra water in the morning on an empty stomach can improve blood sugar control.
Image right: Okra grown in the field

Berries have extensive anti-diabetic properties but a few have proven scientific evidence to back up these claims. These include caperberries, acerola, cranberries, black currants, goji berries and bilberries. Read about their health benefits and how to grow them in our previous EAT THIS blogs. 

Sweet Potato and Yacon both display anti-diabetic properties. Yacon roots contain inulin, oligosaccharides and fructooligosaccharides that pass through the human digestive tract without being absorbed. This helps to aid digestion without a corresponding spike in blood sugar. Yacon has been used to make syrups suitable for diabetic patients, and is highly valued in Japan for its anti-hyperglycemic effects. Sweet Potato also contains resistant starch that has high prebiotic functionality, associated with reduced glycemic response, lowered blood cholesterol and production of fatty acids that support diverse gut flora (also disrupted by Coronavirus). 
Image left: Yacon can be started clean in Tissue Culture

Gymnema sylvestre also called Gurmar (Hindi for ‘destroyer of sugar’) is a woody climbing shrub that comes from the forests of India and Africa. It’s been used medicinally in Ayurvedic medicine for over 2000 years. Chewing on the leaves of this plant can temporarily interfere with the ability to taste sweetness. Studies found people with high blood sugar who took gymnema leaf extract for 90 days all lowered their blood glucose levels. Gymnema also appeared to increase glycemic control in more advanced type II diabetes. The study concluded that gymnema could help prevent diabetic complications in the long term.
Image right: Gurmar grown in Tissue Culture

Panax Ginseng – Ginsenosides in Ginseng, also known as saponins or triterpenoids are thought to be responsible for Ginseng’s extensive health effects. Ginseng has been used as far back as the Song Dynasty (1078 A.D.) to cure Xiaoke (pronounced sho-ow-kay) disease which today is known as diabetes. Currently, dry ginseng root is used worldwide to treat diabetes. Although more than 150 ginsenosides have been identified, triterpene β-glycosides extracts from the roots of ginseng have been found to be the most  potent, capable of stabilizing glucose homeostasis in patients with Type II diabetes. The berries and leaves of ginseng can also lower blood glucose and decrease body weight.
Image left: Ginseng grown in Tissue Culture and Aeroponics

Artemisia Annua or Sweet Wormwood is a common herb in Africa used as a herbal tea against malaria and schistosomiasis. Artemisia herbal tea has been reported to completely reverse type II diabetes in a small number of people after only 14 days. FDA-approved artemisinins have been used for decades to treat malaria but are also known to transform glucagon-producing alpha cells in the pancreas into insulin producing cells.
Image left: Wormwood grown in CEA

Ivy Gourd is a small, green climber producing a fruit with seeds similar to cucumber and is  widely consumed in parts of India. Blood sugar levels of people who had ivy gourd for a single meal were significantly lower than those who had a placebo.

Silybum Marianum or Milk Thistle is a common weed seen as an emblem of Scotland with an interesting past association with ‘The Battle of Largs’. It is a powerful antioxidant and liver detox supplement in both animals and humans with active flavonolignans including silibin A. These phytonutrients have beneficial effects on several diabetic complications, including diabetic neuropathy, diabetic nephropathy, and non-alcoholic steatohepatitis, mainly by means of antioxidant properties.
Image right: Thistle growing wild in Scottish moorland

Stevia Rebaudiana  is a member of the Asteraceae family and native to Paraguay and Brazil but also grown in Japan and China for exports. It is used as a non-nutritive sweetener and herbal supplement, available in supermarkets as ‘Steviol’. Stevioside extracts can reduce plasma glucose levels and increase insulin production which stabilizes blood sugar levels.  Stevia leaf in powder form is a supplementary food product for diabetic patients as it increases natural sweetness and helps to rejuvenate the pancreatic glands.
Image left: Stevia flowering in Tissue Culture

Cayenne chilli Pepper consumption reduces the amount of insulin required to control blood sugar and lowers blood glucose levels. According to researchers the benefits may be even more pronounced for those with lifestyle-related diabetes. Some studies have shown capsaicin in cayenne pepper reduces the production of the hunger hormone ghrelin. This is useful knowledge for overweight people looking for a controlled diet.

Nigella sativa has been shown to significantly improve hyperglycemia and diabetes control after treatment. Consumption of Nigella seeds is consistent with a fall in fasting blood glucose, blood glucose level, glycated hemoglobin and insulin resistance and a rise in serum insulin.

Shiso Perilla Some researchers have found habitual drinking of shiso tea  can be effective in preventing the onset of diabetes and others show controlled hyperglycemia in diabetes with shiso extracts containing high rosmarinic acid levels. 

How easy are these plants to grow in hydroponics? 

Common sense tells you that most plants will grow in a controlled environment particularly if they don’t mind a water based environment. This is not in question, but growing these plants consistently in a controlled environment must make economic sense. If it does then these plants can provide a unique niche market for growers. Most including ginseng, fenugreek, ivy gourd, blueberries and peppers will require specific substrates and trials with flood and drain methods in the proposed geographical climate. Some like wormwood, perilla, stevia, ginger and turmeric have potential to thrive in aeroponics. Others like garlic, okra, sweet potato and Yacon are best in the field with automated irrigation or grown wild (Gymnema, milk thistle and nigella). Perilla, Stevia and Fenugreek have potential as microgreens. Most if not all can be initiated from tissue culture to ensure clean stock provision. 

Why use a controlled environment for some of these? 

More control over metabolites can be easily achieved. The plants are grown free from pesticides and true product provenance for farmers can be used as a unique selling point. Worldwide shortages of some of these plants give opportunities to CEA farmers who can grow under controlled conditions. If you want to know more, we have trialled some of these alternative crops in controlled environments including scale up cloning in tissue culture. Many of these new crops translate well to CEA but if you are new to Agtech the resources are all in hand for you to start with Hort America’s Mastery Series

Disclaimer: We are not advocating this information in preference to medical advice, remember if you have serious illness please seek advice from your general practitioner. Our blogs are designed for people looking for advice on plants that have additional phytonutrients that can help repair and replenish your body and boost the immune system. A plant based diet is safe for most people in moderation however if you have a serious illness speak to your doctor before taking any of these plants. We advise you to stay within peer reviewed research and CDC guidance. Unless otherwise stated all images are courtesy of The Functional Plant Company and property of Urban Ag News. Follow The Functional Plant Company on Instagram.

Janet Colston PhD is a pharmacologist with an interest in growing ‘functional’ foods that have additional phytonutrients and display medicinal qualities that are beneficial to human health. She grows these using a range of techniques including plant tissue micropropagation and controlled environmental agriculture to ensure the highest quality control.

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