Growing up in Los Angeles, I used to watch an afternoon kids’ show called “Engineer Bill.” It was obvious from watching Bill that he didn’t really like kids, but he wrapped his patter around some pretty good cartoons and, besides, they paid him well. It didn’t kill him to pretend.
Bill’s shtick was “Red Light-Green Light,” where he’d host a couple of kids at his engineer’s console and together the three of them would take turns drinking milk on his command: “Green light” meant pick up a glass of milk and drink, “Red light!” meant stop and put it down. It was the TV station’s clever way of getting young viewers to watch the ads while placating parents that Bill was teaching them healthy habits.
I mention Engineer Bill because when it comes to type 2 diabetes, each one of us has to figure out our own “Green Light/Red Light” routine in dealing with the urgings of our bodies. Diabetes does strange things to us, and not every signal we send ourselves should be taken as a “Green Light!” or a “Red Light!” Sometimes you have to know when your Engineer Bill body has it backwards.
Here’s my situation:
Green Light: I’m thirsty. Thirst is a classic diabetes symptom, often the result of stepped-up blood sugar levels. So, I drink a lot of water and then check my blood sugar. Drinking a lot of water may not necessarily make thirst completely go away, but it’s a wise and correct thing to do.
Green Light: If I wake up light-headed or woozy, I test yourself right away to see if I’m heading toward hypoglycemia. I never allow myself to put this off. If I test too low for comfort-for me, that’s a reading of 80 mg/dL or under-I consume something that will raise blood sugar decisively, such as orange juice or a bowl of sugared cereal in milk. This doesn’t happen too often, but when it does I enjoy being able to eat or drink foods I usually stay as far away from as I can.
(Hypoglycemia is an interesting topic, because people are unique in what blood sugar level triggers a hypoglycemic feeling. Nadia Al-Samarrie, publisher of Diabetes Health, tells me that one of her friends, who went for years with blood sugars at 300+ mg/dL, begins feeling woozy at 110 mg/dL. It could be that her friend’s body is so habituated to high blood sugar levels that it actually does begin dropping into hypoglycemic mode at levels the rest of us would be perfectly happy to have.
Red Light: Tiredness from doing sedentary work as an excuse to slump on the couch. For me, this is an afternoon phenomenon. I work standing at a desk, and although I try to move around a lot, it’s still an inactive routine. It’s easy for my body to tell me, “Time for a nap,” when the better thing is to go do 10 minutes worth of light yard work, or stack the dishwasher, or give my doofus boxer Baxter a quick walk. Doing so energizes me, if only for awhile, and makes me more likely to believe it the next time my body tells me it’s tired.
Red Light: The craving for carbs. This is a real burden for any of us with diabetes. Carbs are, at best, necessary evils. The science is now slowly coming around to understanding that the 50-year war on fat and protein as a means of staving off cardiovascular disease and excess weight may have been a big misfire. Fat and protein don’t elevate blood sugars, carbs do. And high blood sugars cause the inflammation that harms arteries as well as thwarts the efficient digestion of food.
But there they are: cheap, abundant, tasty carbs in quantities never before enjoyed by the human race. The Germans, French, and Italians have had centuries to perfect pastries, and modern technology places dazzling high-definition photos of those sweet treats before us on the Web and TV. Imagination easily trips cravings, and cravings often seem like life-and-death commands from our bodies.
Still, the answer has to be no.
Green Light: Beer or wine. Benjamin Franklin once said, “Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy.” Even if you’re not a believer, a good glass of beer does much to make the world a warmer and saner place. Yes, there’s a carb hit with alcohol, but taken in moderation it’s not going to have much of an effect on your lifespan. There are some beers out there that come in at pretty low carb counts, so the occasional indulgence is guiltlessly possible.
Wine, too, in moderation is one of life’s great comforts and consolations. (For those reading this who are teetotalers, more power to you! This is not a recommendation to take up something you’re not already doing.)
Red Light: The temptation to slough off on exercise and careful eating once I started basal insulin. Yes, insulin drove my numbers down, but I quickly realized it’s a great way to put on some pounds. The trick has been to continue as though I’m not on insulin, so I’m not tempted to let it do all the work that it really falls to me as a type 2 to do.
The penalty for not exercising and being vigilant is the need to take more insulin to cover increased weight and bad eating choices. That makes it easy to slip into a vicious circle and turn a wonder drug into a crutch.
Green Light: Nurturing a sense of gratitude for every good fortune, however small, that comes with this condition-the drugs to manage it, and the legions of fellow type 2s, scientists, fundraisers, friends, and relatives who give encouragement and hope. It’s much better than moping.