What We Can Learn About Diabetes From Fish

Diabetes, inflammation and Jonny’s fish tank

I’ve been making the case for a long time that inflammation is probably the most important contributing factor to degenerative disease. There’s an inflammatory component to cancer, to obesity, to diabetes, to heart disease and even to Alzheimer’s. In The Great Cholesterol Myth, cardiologist Stephen Sinatra and I put forth the theory that inflammation was one of the four major promoters of heart disease (dwarfing cholesterol’s almost non-existent role). In The Most Effective Ways to Live Longer I identified inflammation as one of the four major factors that ages our body.

Inflammation is bad news.

Problem is, most people don’t really understand how bad inflammation is and what it actually does to your body. Tell people you want to help them reduce the risk for heart disease, they’re happy to get on board. Tell them you want to help them lose weight, and you’ll be met with a chorus of “Oh Yeah!” But tell them you want to help them reduce inflammation… and it’s crickets chirping.

Which brings me to diabetes.

This month, Dr. Patrick Kinglsey from the UK put forth a really interesting theory about diabetes and inflammation. Dr. Kingsley believes that the real cause of diabetes is inflammation, but his explanation and reasoning is so excellent and clear that I thought I’d reproduce the argument here. It’s worth reading and understanding so you can really appreciate just how much inflammation influences every disease you never want to get.

And the best way I can explain it is to talk about my fish.

So I have this fish tank and every time I go to feed the fish, they all gather around near the surface waiting for the fish food. (I like to amuse myself by thinking how well I’ve trained them and how smart they are, but really, they’re fish, and they’ve just been conditioned to respond to my huge human hand hovering over their tank by rushing up to the surface, near my hand, to collect their goodies.

The same thing happens in your cells when insulin comes knocking with its sugar payload.

Remember, when sugar rises in the bloodstream, insulin gets secreted from the pancreas. The insulin “escorts” the sugar into the cells by binding with it and taking it to the surface of the cells. As soon as the sugar arrives at the cell membrane, it’s like my hand with the food arriving at the surface of the fish tank. Except instead of fish, a particular protein in the cell—it’s called Glucose Transporter Type 4 (GALT-4 for short) “swims” up to the surface. And—to keep the metaphor going—it opens its “mouth” and collects the sugar, and all is well with the world.

Except when it doesn’t.

Which is exactly what happens when you are “insulin resistant”, i.e your cells don’t respond to insulin (and its sugar payload) the way they’re supposed to.

(And when that happens, insulin takes its sugar payload to the fat cells instead of the muscles, and you can guess the rest.)

According to Dr. Kingsley, inflammatory compounds are precisely the reason why GALT-4 fails to work. One in particular—TNF-alpha—destroys GALT-4 in the muscle cells, virtually assuring the sugar is going to wind up on your hips.


Not only that, TNF-alpha plays havoc with an enzyme called LPL—lipoprotein lipase. Lipoprotein lipase helps break down fat (specifically triglycerides).

And yes, there’s more—TNF-alpha stimulates the production of fat cells.
And fat cells produce more—you guessed it—TNF alpha. This is one of the reasons why, as Dr. Kingsley puts it, “there’s a lot of TNF-alpha floating around in an inflamed, overweight person.”

It’s time to take inflammation much more seriously.

Berries, vegetables, fatty fish (like wild salmon), nuts, onions, tea, apples and olive oil are all highly anti-inflammatory foods, as are supplements like Omega-3, curcumin, quercetin (found in apples and onions), green tea extract, astaxanthin—all are excellent weapons in the anti-inflammatory arsenal.

Guess what’s pro-inflammatory? Sugar. Vegetable oil. And, for many people, wheat.

So take inflammation seriously. Controlling it may just be one of the most powerful strategies for creating health.