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LResearch Newsletter-Spring/Summer 2007


Antioxidants, inflammation, and diabetes

Tammy Bray, Ph.D.
Principal Investigator, Linus Pauling Institute;
Dean, College of Health and Human Sciences, Oregon State University

In people with diabetes, the body either does not make enough insulin or does not respond to insulin. Insulin's job is to transport sugar from the bloodstream into cells so the cells can make energy. To deal with these abnormally high blood sugar levels, the body gets rid of the sugar via urine. A classic indication of uncontrolled diabetes is frequent urination and uncontrollable thirst as the body rids itself of sugar. There are two major types of diabetes:

Type 1 (T-1) diabetes, formerly known as juvenile-onset diabetes, mainly strikes children and young adults and accounts for 5-10% of all diagnosed cases. T-1 diabetes is caused by the destruction of pancreas cells that make insulin, called beta-cells. T-1 diabetes can develop within weeks or days. The cause of T-1 diabetes is unknown, but it may be related to free radical attack from an acute immune response.

More common is Type 2 (T-2) diabetes, formerly known as adult-onset diabetes, which accounts for 90-95% of all diagnosed cases. Unlike the quick onset as seen in T-1 diabetes, T-2 diabetes is associated with a prolonged (months to years) pre-diabetic period typically associated with obesity and/or lack of exercise. T-2 diabetes is due to the body's development of insulin resistance. This means that the pancreas makes more and more insulin, but the body's insulin receptors no longer react adequately to it.

Our research is currently investigating the ability of antioxidants in delaying the development of T-1 diabetes. We found that several antioxidant compounds (N-acetylcysteine, alphaphenyl- tert-butylnitrone, and zinc) helped reduce hyperglycemia (elevated blood sugar levels). We then did further research to understand how these antioxidants protect against diabetes development. We found that inflammation is triggered in the pancreas, leading to cell death and decreased insulin production. These findings may help in developing effective preventive or therapeutic strategies for T-1 diabetes.

Diabetes is also associated with delayed wound healing, sometimes leading to amputation. It is believed that wound-healing delays are due to impaired blood flow and low blood oxygen levels caused by high blood sugar levels and inadequate protein and antioxidant intake. Our research shows that prolonged activation of inflammation pathways also contribute to delayed wound healing. Delaying the onset of these complications can help to increase quality of life for people with diabetes.

T-2 diabetes, associated with a prolonged pre-diabetic period, can be addressed with proper diet, weight control, and physical activity. Insulin resistance is significantly reduced through moderate exercise and can help delay or even prevent development of diabetes in obese or inactive people. Proper diet, weight control, and physical activity are also very effective to maintain blood sugar levels even after diabetes has developed.

Last updated May 2007