In 2008, The Incurables, a U.S reality television series about people who overcome series medical conditions, aired an episode about a boy called Zachary Swerdlow who suffers from type 1 diabetes.
Zachary’s parents, who prefer homeopathic solutions to Western medication, began investigating alternative treatments shortly after his diagnosis.
They consulted a natural pharmacist, Robert Kress, who believed that Zachary’s diabetes was caused by infections and parasites in the body, placing his internal organs under strain. Despite Kress's beliefs, it is important to note that the exact cause of type 1 diabetes is not yet fully understood.
Zachary was placed on a strict diet aimed at detoxifying his liver. Kress believed that this would reduce the strain on Zachary’s “overworked” pancreas, enabling it to function better. He was also advised to apply regular mudpacks to the areas of the abdomen in which his kidneys are located. This was intended to remove harmful toxins from the kidneys.
Zachary was also taken to Alan Maynard, a chiropractor who informed the family that the vertebrae in Zachary’s spine responsible for the pancreas, were significantly out of alignment. Maynard began treating Zachary with the aim of “addressing the cause of his diabetes”.
While Zachary’s parents believed that when Zachary swam in a salt water pool, it would have the most significant effect on lowering his blood sugar.
Using the above methods, amongst others, Zachary’s parents claim that he no longer requires insulin.
Watch some of the footage from the episode here:
Did alternative therapies cure Zachary?
Whilst it cannot be denied that these different therapies may have helped to improve Zachary’s blood glucose control, they cannot be suggested as a cure for type 1 diabetes.
Currently there is no cure for type 1 diabetes (T1D). The condition can be managed through the control of blood glucose with a combination of insulin therapy, diet and exercise.
Read: Possibility of once-a-week insulin injection for type 1's
How did Zachary’s parents manage to keep his blood glucose under control then?
To better understand Zachary’s parents’ claims, Health24 spoke to Dr. Wayne May, an endocrinologist who also runs the DiabetesLife Clinic at The Kingsbury and Claremont Life hospitals in Cape Town.
Dr. May explains that after a diagnosis of type 1 diabetes is made, a patient can experience a period where their pancreas is still producing some insulin. This is known as the honeymoon phase. "[The] duration can be weeks, months or even years. In the case of years, these may be very slowly progressive type 1’s."
In such slow-progressing type 1’s, it is possible for the patient to come off insulin.
“Eventually though, the pancreas deteriorates and insulin levels fall to a point where insulin is needed again. All claims of curing diabetes are invariably made over this honeymoon period,” Dr. May states.
It is important to note the difference between simply surviving and actively ensuring that blood glucose levels are kept in the target range as far as possible to avoid life-threatening long-term complications.
"Prior to insulin discovery, there were established type 1 diabetics, who could live for years without insulin, by eating a very low carb diet, but they couldn’t maintain normal glucose levels, as glucose also comes from the liver, and insulin normally tells the liver to reduce glucose production."
It is well-documented that a healthy diet and exercise can assist in regulating blood glucose. The better levels experienced after swimming can be attributed to the fact that Zachary was exercising. That he happened to be swimming in salt water is unlikely to be a significant factor.
It is more than likely that Zachary was experiencing such a honeymoon phase and therefore was able to manage his blood glucose without insulin.
Read: One in three type 1 diabetics still produce some insulin
But is there evidence to support alternative treatments?
When we asked Dr. May for his view on alternative therapies in the treatment of type 1 diabetes, he had the following to say: “There are currently no homeopathic treatments that have any solid long term evidence in treating type 1 diabetes, or allowing them to maintain good glucose levels off insulin, besides as mentioned during the honeymoon period.”
While alternative remedies should not replace insulin therapy, they may assist as part of an integrative approach to managing type 1 diabetes.
Read: Why you should keep taking your diabetes medication
Chiropractic treatment as part of an integrative approach
Health24 spoke to Dr Shaun Harper, registered chiropractor at West End Chiropractic in Pinelands, Cape Town about his opinion on the use of chiropractic treatment in the management of the condition.
“Yes, it is plausible that chiropractic manipulation can manage type 1 diabetes, but despite active research, diabetes type 1 has no cure.”
A case study published in the November 2011 edition of the Journal of Paediatric, Maternal & Family Health, documents a case of a 4 year old child, who had very good results stabilising her blood sugar through chiropractic treatment.
In the case mentioned above, it was found that there were vertebral subluxations (restrictions) at the spinal level that supplied the pancreas. Chiropractic adjustments have been shown to reduce subluxations and boost the coordinated responses of the nervous system. So by adjusting the restricted levels and thereby freeing the joint, the nerve supply was no longer hampered, and the body was allowed to function normally and coordinate the endocrine system of the pancreas. This improvement in type I diabetes management is most likely a result of better cellular communication.
“Diabetes type 1 is a chronic lifelong condition. However, it can be managed, and in my experience, the best treatment is medication with chiropractic treatment.”
Dr Harper did however stress that more research on the topic is needed. “The literature is very limited with more high level (evidence based) studies being needed.”
It is important to remember that type 1 diabetes is a serious condition and insulin therapy should be continued according to your specific needs in consultation with your doctor. Zachary's exact blood glucose levels were not discussed in the episode, making it difficult to assess whether or not these methods really worked or whether he was actually poorly controlled and being placed at risk of long-term complications.
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Image: Insulin pen against white background from Shutterstock