I Struggled With the Side Effects of Non-Insulin Drugs

Leila Finn, 46, an artist in Atlanta, was diagnosed with prediabetes six years ago. Though she made a point to lose weight, she still developed type 2 diabetes. She struggled with the side effects of medication after medication, until starting insulin. Along the way she developed a love of exercise and is now a certified personal trainer who helps other people with type 2 diabetes.

Leila says she had nightmares when taking metformin, and Byetta made her feel nauseated.(LEILA FINN)

About six years ago, when I was 40, I had sinus surgery. Around the same time, I started having some problems. I was really thirsty and I was peeing a lot, so I mentioned it to my doctor. She tested me and I was just shy of being diabetic, a condition known as prediabetes.

I was shocked. I'd never really thought about having diabetes. I didn't know anything about it and I didn't know what it meant. I just knew it meant you could get really sick. Then my doctor told me I could do a lot with diet and exercise. I thought, Whew! I'd started running in my 30s and I was a regular runner at that point. I'd just done my first 10K the summer before, and I'd done a little bit of biking.

For the first year or so, diet and exercise did help control my blood sugar. My doctor had put me on the Atkins diet for the first couple of weeks, then had me go to a nutritionist, and told me to lose five pounds in that first month.

I wasn't grossly overweight—I weighed 187 pounds and was 5 feet 5 inches tall. However, I'd gained a few pounds every year when I was in my 30s, and I was having a really hard time losing it. After I was diagnosed with prediabetes, I started watching my carbs and the weight just came off. I lost about 45 pounds over the course of a year, at a rate of about a pound a week.

The nutritionist helped me to understand the difference between simple and complex carbs, so that was my first major dietary change.
Next Page: Medication complications

[ pagebreak ]Metformin gave me frightening nightmares
Diet and exercise worked well for a while, but then I started feeling my energy drop a lot, especially when I was exercising. So I started testing my blood sugar and my numbers were really high. That's when I began taking oral medications for type 2 diabetes.

It was a relief to figure out what was wrong, but it was also really frustrating because what's become abundantly clear is that I'm not insulin resistant, which is the main culprit of type 2 diabetes. We wondered whether it might be latent autoimmune diabetes in adults (LADA), which is really late onset of type 1. We did test for some of the main antibodies that occur with type 1. We didn't find them, but they're beginning to think that about 20% of type 2s actually have LADA.

My meds would work for a couple of months, and then I'd need to change medication. Some of these things make you feel really ill. Byetta was really hard on my stomach, it made me nauseated. Januvia was better, but it didn't help my numbers at all. Avandia ended up raising my cholesterol, and I gained five to 10 pounds when I was on it. Metformin gave me really frightening, violent nightmares for about the first six weeks. It was horrible.

Two years ago I had to have gallbladder surgery, and after that I stopped tolerating the metformin. That was probably my lowest point so far, because I had to start over again with medication. Every time you try a medication, you've got to be on it for a couple of months to figure out if it works, and it usually made me sick. Once you get a formula and you can just go with it, you can sort of put it in the back of your mind. Instead I was having to think about it all the time.

Eventually I figured out that insulin works the best for me. Now I use a combination of Lantus and Humalog. Being on insulin was kind of a relief because I was so frustrated by how hard I was working and trying all these different pills, and nothing was working. Insulin really worked. I think it's a real shame that people don't try Lantus earlier, because I think it makes life so much easier.

When I started taking insulin I decided I wasn't going to hide it. I think a lot of times people are scared or not sure if they should inject themselves in public or how to do that. Now with the pens it's a lot easier. You don't have to draw insulin into a syringe. I'll show my friends and I'll say, "This is my insulin pen, isn't it cool?" I inject anywhere from two to five times a day, depending on what my blood sugars are and what I'm eating.
Next Page: Staying positive

[ pagebreak ]The silver lining
It has been positive in a lot of ways. Diabetes really got me into fitness. I'm more mindful now of how often I exercise, and I try not to let two days go by without doing something, because I know that affects my blood sugar. I did a walking marathon in Virginia Beach in March, and I'm going to walk across Scotland in May. Exercise makes me feel powerful.

I was so disgusted by how little information there was for type 2s and for diabetics in general about exercise. There's not a whole lot that's readily available. So I'd been thinking about doing something with exercise and type 2 diabetics because of my own experience.

I was so disgusted by how little information there was for type 2s and for diabetics in general about exercise.

—Leila Finn, Type 2 Diabetes Patient

In November 2006 I got my personal trainer certification through the American Council on Exercise because I really feel passionately about trying to get diabetics exercising. I went to the YMCA and asked if I could volunteer. They let me volunteer as a wellness coach, and then they hired me, so now I work there part-time and I really enjoy that. I help people design weight loss and exercise plans.

The job has actually helped me structure my artwork better also because my time has become more defined. I'm pretty self-motivated, but when you work at home it's easy to get distracted. Now I have to use my time at home to focus more on my artwork, because I have less time there.

I just got another certification as a lifestyle and weight management consultant, and I'm hoping to be able to work more specifically with type 2s on weight loss and exercise. I've learned a lot of really interesting stuff. It's been a nice change.

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