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Insulin and Other Diabetes Medications: The Benefits of Early Treatment

Starting on a blood glucose-lowering medicine immediately upon diagnosis of type 2 diabetes is the new standard of care. We show you why prescription drugs play an important role in managing diabetes.
  • Starting Blood Glucose-Lowering Meds Early Can Help

    It's human nature to delay unwanted tasks—especially ones that involve pricey prescription drugs and multi-day blood glucose (also known as blood sugar) checks. But when people with type 2 diabetes (PWDs type 2) delay their start on a blood glucose-lowering medication, it's not good medicine.

    "We now know that type 2 is a serious and progressive disease that requires serious attention from day one," says Virginia Valentine, R.N., CDE, PWD type 2, a clinical nurse specialist in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and coauthor of Diabetes: The New Type 2 (Tarcher, 2008).

    Mounting evidence shows that early, aggressive management of blood sugar can make controlling type 2 diabetes easier down the road. Too often, however, people with type 2 and their health care providers are too slow to act when it comes to adding and changing medications.

  • Don't Avoid or Delay Starting Blood Glucose-Lowering Medications

    The typical wait-and-see approach to treating type 2 diabetes can lead to years of living with blood sugar levels that are too high. Both the person with type 2 and their health care provider can contribute to the treatment inertia, Valentine says.

    She and other providers commonly hear justifications from people with diabetes, including:

    * "If I don’t have to take diabetes medications, then it must not be the serious kind of diabetes.

    * Metformin will damage my kidneys."

    * "Insulin will cause me to lose a foot."

    However, there are valid concerns to consider, including drug costs, weight gain, and the risk of hypoglycemia with several categories of blood glucose-lowering medications.

    When people with type 2 ask for one more chance to lose weight or promise to watch what they eat, providers often hold off prescribing blood glucose-lowering medication. If blood sugar remains out of control for a few more months, there’s more risk of damage to organs and tissues from head to toe.

    "It's not the insulin or side effects of oral glucose-lowering medicines that cause damage to the body's organs," says Claudia Shwide-Slavin, R.D., CDE, a dietitian and diabetes educator in New York City. "It's the out-of-control blood glucose levels for years at a stretch."

  • Consider Lifestyle Changes, Plus Medication

    In the past, treatment for type 2 diabetes, particularly at diagnosis, focused mainly on changing lifestyle behaviors to more healthful eating, regular exercise, and weight loss. But research has led to greater understanding of the progressive nature of type 2 diabetes. The availability of new blood glucose-lowering medications introduced since 1995 have also contributed to the change of current treatment strategies.

    Up to five to 10 years before type 2 diabetes is diagnosed, and as people gain weight, insulin resistance sets in. Initially, the body is able to produce more insulin in response to rising blood sugar levels, but eventually the pancreatic beta cells are no longer able to keep up and blood glucose becomes elevated. By the time most people are diagnosed with diabetes, they have lost 50-80 percent of their beta cell function.

    Less and less insulin and continued insulin resistance lead to ever-higher blood sugar levels if untreated. In addition, several other damaging health problems, including high blood pressure and elevated blood lipids (such as cholesterol), are associated with insulin resistance. In fact, these problems often occur prior to the rise of blood sugar levels.

    Weight loss usually improves insulin sensitivity, but weight loss is not always possible. If a person loses weight soon after being diagnosed with type 2 (or, better yet, when they have prediabetes), weight loss usually improves insulin sensitivity. "Losing even 10-20 pounds with a healthy eating and physical-activity plan can improve insulin resistance, the centerpiece of the type 2 storm. This amount of weight loss can also lower blood pressure and improve blood lipids," Shwide-Slavin says.

    However, for too many people, weight loss doesn't happen, and elevated blood sugar levels progress into the diabetes range.

    To Diagnose Prediabetes and Type 2 Diabetes:

    Fasting Glucose                 

    Healthy Non-Diabetes <100                     

    Prediabetes 100-125          

    Diabetes (type 2) >126          

    Random Glucose

    Healthy Non-Diabetes <140              

    Prediabetes 140-199                  

    Diabetes (type 2) >200      

    A1C (done in a lab, not
    a home test)

    Healthy Non-Diabetes <5.6%                  

    Prediabetes 5.7-6.4%                 

    Diabetes (type 2) >6.5%

    *Lower glucose levels are used to diagnose gestational diabetes (during pregnancy).

  • Start Blood Glucose-Lowering Medication Earlier

    Today, the push is to treat type 2 diabetes aggressively from day one.

    The American Diabetes Association and the European Association for the Study of Diabetes recommend: Most adults diagnosed with type 2 diabetes should immediately start on a medication to lower their glucose level. The medication most often prescribed is metformin, which combats insulin resistance and improves insulin sensitivity. However, these organizations suggest that people whose A1C is 7.5% or below and are highly motivated to make lifestyle changes could be given the opportunity to do so for three to six months prior to starting medication.

    The goal: To improve insulin sensitivity and in turn lower blood glucose levels. Metformin does not cause weight gain and in some people may help them lose a few pounds.

    Why it's important: Mounting evidence shows that aggressively lowering blood sugar levels in people newly diagnosed with type 2 diabetes can slow the dwindling of beta cell function and the disease progression.

    Another reason to get an early start: Research shows that people with early-onset diabetes who target tight control early in the diagnosis can more easily control their blood sugar with less medication for a longer time. People who have years of inadequately controlled blood sugar have more difficulty gaining control and might need more blood glucose-lowering medicines over the years.

  • Additional Medications Might Be Needed

    After years with type 2 diabetes, the ability to make sufficient insulin to control blood sugar is likely to decrease. To keep blood sugar in control often requires the addition of another blood glucose-lowering medication. The best mix of blood glucose-lowering medications for you depends on several factors:

    For starters: Your blood sugar numbers and A1C results can determine how much an additional medicine is likely to lower blood glucose.

    Next: Your tolerance for the medicine, other health problems, and medical concerns impacting whether you can take certain medicines should be taken into account.

    Make sure: Your provider considers whether your schedule fits with the desired regimen and that you can handle the cost of medicines.

    There's no one right answer to which medications you should take and when. The same applies to when to raise the dose or add a new drug to the mix as blood glucose creeps up and insulin production declines. The American Diabetes Association and European Association for the Study of Diabetes suggest that you keep your eye on the A1C bull's-eye of 7 percent or less. If you're not hitting your target, work with your provider to increase or add medicines as quickly as possible to reach your goal. For example, the process of starting metformin to reaching the maximum dose should occur over just one to two months.

    "Way too often people and their providers wait too long to start, increase, or add medicines to the mix," says diabetes educator Virginia Valentine. Contact your provider to get the necessary changes made between office visits, if necessary.

  • Beginning Insulin

    Many people who have had type 2 diabetes for 10 or more years no longer make enough of their own insulin to meet their body's needs.

    What is insulin? Insulin is the oldest and most widely used blood glucose-lowering medicine to manage diabetes. It's very effective at lowering blood glucose, and there's no maximum dose. If you live long enough with type 2 diabetes, you will likely need to take insulin because your beta cell function simply wears out over time. A C-peptide lab test can reveal how much of your beta-cell function remains. "If it's time for you to start taking insulin, don't delay," Valentine says. "Keep in mind, your beta cells have failed; you haven't."

    Unfortunately, insulin has been mistakenly considered the treatment of last resort. That's in part because it must be injected, it can cause hypoglycemia, and if people are not careful about their calorie intake, it might cause weight gain.

    "Insulin carries an outdated stigma that you must have a 'bad case' of diabetes if you need it," says Richard Ruth, who has had type 2 diabetes for more than 10 years. Richard began taking insulin three years ago. He started with long-acting insulin before bed, and over several months he and his provider realized Richard also needed to take insulin before each meal.

  • Other Helpful Diabetes Medications

    Insulin isn't the only blood glucose-lowering medication. Since 1995, with the approval of metformin in the United States, several new blood glucose-lowering medications have been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. And there are more on the way.

    Another group of hormones that doesn’t get as much attention as insulin but also diminishes in supply is incretins.

    Incretins are hormones made in and secreted from the small intestine. They enhance the release of insulin made in the pancreatic beta cells after eating and help keep blood sugar in control.

    Two newer classes of blood glucose-lowering medications can help control blood glucose by treating the lost supply of incretins:

    • Oral DPP-4 inhibitors (such as the brand names Januvia, Onglyza, and Tradjenta, which can be combined with other glucose-lowering medications, such as metformin)

    • Potent injectable incretin mimetics or GLP-1 analogs (such as the brand names Byetta, Victoza, and the once-weekly Bydureon)

    These medicines lower the rise of blood sugar after eating by slowing stomach-emptying and decreasing hunger between meals, Kruger says. The incretin mimetics, also called GLP-1 analogs, can promote weight loss and may replenish some beta cells.

  • The ABCs of Diabetes

    Once you start on a blood glucose-lowering medication, your healthful eating and physical activity plan remains critically important.

    Diabetes control is more than just blood sugar numbers—it's also about managing blood pressure and cholesterol to prevent or delay damage to your heart, eyes, nerves, and kidneys. Control of your blood pressure and cholesterol may require one or more medications to achieve your target goals.

    ABCs of diabetes, according to the American Diabetes Association:

    A is for ... A1C or Blood Glucose

    • A1C goal: <7 percent

    • Fasting and before-meals blood glucose: 70-130 mg/dl

    • 1-2 hours after the start of a meal: <180 mg/dl

    B is for ... Blood Pressure

    • Goal: <140/80 mmHg

    C is for ... Cholesterol

    • Total cholesterol: <200 mg/dl

    • Triglycerides: <150 mg/dl

    • LDL cholesterol: <100 mg/dl

    • LDL cholesterol with heart disease: <70 mg/dl

    • HDL cholesterol for men: >40 mg/dl

    • HDL cholesterol for women: >50 mg/dl

    "Eating healthy and being physically active always help make the job of getting and keeping your ABCs in control easier, perhaps with fewer medicines to take," says diabetes educator Claudia Shwide-Slavin.

    Did you know? A 2013 analysis of nearly 5,000 people with diabetes from the U.S. National Health and Nutrition Examination Study showed that while there have been improvements in people with diabetes reaching their glucose, blood pressure, and cholesterol targets, people with diabetes and their health care providers still have work to do.

    Consider these statistics from the analysis:

    A1C: The percentage of people who met their A1C goal increased from 43% to 53%.

    Blood pressure: The percentage of people whose blood pressure was below 130/80 increased from 33% to 51%.

    Cholesterol: The percentage of people whose LDL (bad) cholesterol was below 100 increased from 10% to 56%.   

  • Get Your A1C on Target

    In 2008, three studies looked at intensive glucose control (A1Cs between 6 and 7 percent) in certain diabetes populations and raised cautions about heart attacks and strokes. The National Institutes of Health ACCORD (Action to Control Cardiovascular Risk in Diabetes) trial, the ADVANCE trial, and the Veterans Affairs Diabetes Trial investigated tight blood glucose control in people with advanced type 2 already at high risk for heart attack and stroke.

    "The results of these studies have caused me to less-aggressively manage people with type 2 diabetes with advanced disease," says one of the principal ACCORD investigators, Faramarz Ismail-Beigi, M.D., Ph.D., professor of medicine at Case Medical Center in Cleveland. "I may strive for an A1C of 7.5 percent in these people, whereas in people with recently recognized type 2 diabetes without heart and blood vessel disease, I'll shoot for an A1C of 6.5 percent (or lower), if it can be done safely."

    The 2013 American Diabetes Association Standards of Medical Care in Diabetes continues to promote the general A1C goal of 7 percent or less for most people. A less-stringent A1C goal, however, may be used for people with a history of severe hypoglycemia, limited life expectancy, advanced small or large vessel diseases, or people who have had diabetes for many years and can't attain an A1C of 7 percent or less.

    What You Can Do:

    * Discuss with your health care provider what your A1C goal should be. Think about whether this A1C goal is right for you.

    * If your A1C is above the 7 percent mark or doesn’t meet the goal that you have set for yourself, talk to your provider about progressing your therapy to gain control.

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