Can Diabetic Retinopathy Be Reversed?

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Though many reported feeling better on Dr. Kempner’s rice and fruit diet, he refused to accept that as evidence of success. He wanted objective measurements, the most famous of which were his so called eyegrounds photographs, taken with a special camera that allowed you to visualize the back of the eye. And in doing so, he proved that not only could diet arrest the bleeding, oozing, and swelling you can see in the back of the eye in people with severe kidney, hypertensive, or heart disease, but actually reverse it–something never even thought possible. Here’s the before; here’s the after. Reversal to such a degree that even patients who could no longer distinguish any objects had been able to read fine print. A reversal of blindness with diet.

The results were so dramatic that the head of the department of ophthalmology at Duke, where Kempner worked, was questioned as to whether they were somehow faked. He assured them that they were not. In fact, he wrote in one person’s chart, “This patient’s eyegrounds are improved to an unbelievable degree.” Not only had he never seen anything like it, he didn’t even remember ever seeing a patient with such advanced disease even being alive 15 months later.

The magnitude of the improvements Kempner got was surprising; reversal of end stage heart and kidney failure, simply beyond belief. But as Kempner said as his closing sentence in a presentation before the American College of Physicians, “The important result is not that the change in the course of the disease has been achieved by the rice diet but that the course of the disease can be changed,” at all.

Now that we have high blood pressure drugs, we see less hypertensive retinopathy, but still a lot of diabetic retinopathy; the leading cause of blindness in American adults. Even with intensive diabetes treatment, at least three insulin injections a day with the best modern technology has to offer, like these implantable insulin pumps, and the best we can offer is usually just a slowing of the progression of the disease. So we can, in the 21st century, slow down your blindness, but a half century ago, Kempner proved you could reverse it. Kempner started out using his plant-based ultra low-sodium/fat/cholesterol/protein rice diet to reverse kidney and heart failure, but assumed it would make diabetes worse. He expected a 90% carbohydrate diet would increase insulin requirements; however, the opposite proved to be true. He just took the next 100 patients with diabetes who walked through his door and went on the rice diet for at least three months, and their fasting blood sugars dropped, despite a drop in the insulin they were taking. But this is what blew people away: 44 of the patients had diabetic retinopathy, and in 30% of the cases, their eyes improved. From like this to this. That’s not supposed to happen. Diabetic retinopathy had been considered a sign of irreversible destruction. What does this mean in real life? Unable to even read headlines, to normal vision.

The remarkable success Dr. Kempner had reversing some of the most dreaded complications of diabetes with his rice and fruit diet was not because of weight loss. The improvements occurred even in those patients who did not lose significant weight, so it must have been something specific about the diet. Maybe it was his total elimination of animal protein, total elimination of animal fat, total elimination of cholesterol, or radical reduction in sodium, fat, and protein in general. We don’t know, but how do we treat diabetic retinopathy these days? With steroids and other drugs, injected straight into your eyeballs. And if that doesn’t work, there’s pan-retinal laser photocoagulation, in which laser burns are etched over nearly the entire retina. Surgeons literally burn out the back of your eye. Why would they do that? The theory is that by killing off most of the retina, the little pieces you leave behind may get more of the blood flow.

When I see this, along with Kempner’s work, I can’t help but feel like history has been reversed. Like yeah, can you believe 50 years ago the best we had was this barbaric burn-out-your-socket surgery? But thank goodness we’ve since learned that through dietary means alone, we can reverse the blindness. But instead of learning, medicine seems to have forgotten.

To see any graphs, charts, graphics, images, and quotes to which Dr. Greger may be referring, watch the above video. This is just an approximation of the audio contributed by Katie Schloer.