When Lauren Bongiorno was seven, her mom began noticing that something seemed off. Lauren was constantly thirsty, going to the bathroom upwards of 10 times a night; she was cranky, a departure from her normal happy self; and she was inexplicably losing weight. A visit to the hospital left her with the diagnosis of type 1 diabetes, setting off a years-long journey of learning to manage the disease she calls a “24/7 job,” and finding an unexpected career path in the process.
After subsisting on sugar-free Jell-O in the hospital for a week, seven-year-old Lauren was discharged. The new diagnosis was a lot to handle for her and her family, but what was even more unnerving was the lack of guidance the doctors gave them. Her doctor offered insulin as the only tool to help her manage the disease, telling her, “you can eat whatever you want, just give yourself a shot for your carbs.”
The nutritionist she was referred to didn’t help much either. Says Lauren, “They taught me how to read a label, and that was about it.”
Though she had check-ups every three months to monitor her blood sugar levels — “your blood sugar report card,” as she calls it — there was never much thought given to why her level might be higher one day than another, or what lifestyle choices might be impacting it all. She wasn’t told about the myriad daily choices that can affect diabetes symptoms, how workouts can influence blood sugar, or the effect that gluten can have. All of this she would learn on her own, much later.
A new interest in yoga during her college years helped her realize that, in fact, there were things she could do to manage her symptoms. She noticed that as the yoga reduced her stress, leading her body to produce less cortisol, it also decreased her need for insulin. From there, she learned more about healthy eating, and to observe the ways that her diet and exercise patterns influenced her levels.
Immediately after being diagnosed, she was given a one-month journal in which to track everything she ate alongside the dosage of insulin she’d given herself. After that month was over, she was never asked to do anything similar again — but she remembered the process from all those years ago and began doing it on her own, just to feel more in control of her blood sugar levels. “Just the simple act of writing them down improved my type 1 diabetes management and my blood sugars,” she says.
By tracking these factors, she was able to notice how her diet and exercise patterns related to her symptoms and blood sugar levels, and learn how to adjust her lifestyle to better manage her symptoms. She learned how to properly pair foods, what to eat around her workouts, and how to manage the disease during her period or times of stress. She finally understood what made her blood sugar spike, and could make adjustments accordingly.
Reflecting back on her experience with the healthcare system, she refers to it as “basic” and “archaic.” “They hand you a bunch of sheets that are so outdated and just say, ‘Okay, here you go. Read them. Blue is for carbs. Don’t worry about what you eat. It’s fine as long as you cover for it,” she remembers. This experience made her realize that, while endocrinologists and nutritionists in the traditional healthcare system play an important role, “it’s really important that we take it into our own hands because we’re with ourselves 24/7…I really believe that we have to be our own advocates.”
By the time she graduated college, Lauren had gotten her blood sugars completely under control. Inspired to help others with type 1 diabetes feel the same sense of accomplishment, she went on to a health coaching school and became a diabetic health coach. Though she never would have predicted it in her younger years, she now wants to spend her life helping others lead healthy lives and manage the disease she’s been living with for decades.
“There’s a whole entire community of us,” she says, “and we can help each other and we can lift each other up.”