Recent research suggests that a certain kind of surgery may “cure” Type 2 diabetes. We find out more, and give you the facts.
One of the experts in the field of gastric bypass surgery is Professor Tess van der Merwe, the president of the South African Society for Obesity and Metabolism, who have been sharing information about the surgery. We found out what it could mean for Type 2 diabetes, then asked our experts to weigh in on the topic.
Is this surgery a cure for Type 2 diabetes?
Gastric bypass surgery has been used to help obese people lose weight since it was first performed 20 years ago. But now there is new research that this same surgery (specifically a type called “laparoscopic Roux–en–Y gastric bypass”) could cause Type 2 diabetes to go into long-term remission. What does this mean? Type 2 diabetes could be “paused” for a number of years. An international study shows that about 90% of obese patients with Type 2 diabetes who go for this surgery have normal blood sugar and no evidence of diabetes for three to fifteen years.
Is it a cure? No. But it is possibly a very long break from a chronic condition.
Some might say that any surgery that causes very overweight people to lose weight will have a good effect on blood sugar, but experts say the difference can be seen before the weight is lost. Professor Francesco Rubino (a leader in surgery for Type 2 diabetes) was in Johannesburg for the 3rd Centres for Metabolic Medicine and Surgery Workshop. He said that a few days after a gastric bypass, patients with Type 2 diabetes show normal blood sugar levels, even before any weight has been lost.
Ask the expert: Dr. Joel Dave, endocrinologist
“Bariatric surgery is becoming an important part of the treatment of diabetic patients with a BMI over 35. But although the results with this surgery are very good, it is still an invasive procedure with potential complications. It should not be considered a shortcut to weight loss and diabetes improvement, but a last resort after a low calorie diet and structured exercise programme has failed.”
What if the Type 2 diabetic ate badly and didn’t exercise, and returns to this same lifestyle – will the surgery still work?
The surgery doesn’t just help the patient by making their stomach smaller. It also triggers changes to the hormones, the appetite and the metabolism, so that long-term change is possible. But it is not a magical cure – the patient has to be ready to make changes to their diet and exercise. As Prof. van der Merwe points out, “There is not a single treatment in medicine that will be immune to an uncooperative patient.” In other words, if the patient goes back to a diet of fast food and no exercise, the same problems will return. One of the ways they guard against this in the Centres of Excellence (where they do the surgery) is by coaching the patient to start new, positive habits. They have a team of experts to help with this.
Ask the expert: Genevieve Jardine, dietician
“It is my opinion that gastric bypass surgery may be a good option for those who have a high BMI (above 35) and have tried for many years to lose weight. If they are managed well after surgery and take this opportunity to start over, it could mean a second chance at health. It is important to remember, though, that it still comes down to diet and exercise. Lifelong lifestyle changes are still the foundation of good diabetes management.”
How extreme is the surgery?
The surgery is minimally invasive. It is also known as laparoscopic surgery, keyhole surgery or bandaid surgery because the cuts made are so small – on average 0.5 to 1.5 cm. The doctor uses images on TV screens to magnify the surgery so they can see what they need to do.
Ask the expert: Dr. Joel Dave, endocrinologist
“Although the procedure is minimally invasive there are still some potentially serious complications. The patient’s decision to have this surgery must not be taken lightly.”
Is the surgery covered by medical aids?
That depends on how urgently you need it. In order to work that out, doctors look at your BMI (Body Mass Index), which outlines whether you are underweight, at a healthy weight, or overweight (see the box on this page). Diabetic patients with a BMI over 35 may be able to get the surgery covered if they have a motivation letter from a Metabolic Centre for Excellence, and if they are on the right medical aid option. There is usually a 20 to 30% co-payment that the patient would have to pay.
Have there been any local studies?
A South African study based at Netcare Waterfall City Hospital tracked 820 patients who had not been able to lose weight for up to 18 years before they had surgery. Three years later, 88.5% of the patients who had diabetes at the time of the surgery still had normal blood sugar levels.
Is there anyone it won’t work on?
This surgery is only an option for Type 2 diabetics who are very overweight – with a BMI greater than 35. They are doing research on lower BMI’s as well.
Want to find out more?
How to work out your BMI
There are many websites (http://www.smartbmicalculator.com/) that calculate BMI for you, but if you want to do it yourself, here’s what you need:
- Your weight.
- Your height in metres.
- A piece of paper and a calculator!
First, find out the square of your height in metres (your height times your height, i.e. 1,5m x 1,5m).
Then do this sum: (Weight in kg) divided by (square of height in metres)
You should get a number between 18.5 and 40.
- Less than 18.5 means you are underweight.
- 18.5 to 25 means you are at a healthy weight.
- 25 to 30 means you are slightly overweight.
- More than 30 means you are very overweight (obese).