How well does alternative medicine help control diabetes? You may be tempted to try herbal remedies that promise to “cure” diabetes without prescription medicine. Or turn to acupuncture to help control blood sugar levels. Some of these ideas for complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) may have a place in a healthy lifestyle. But it’s important to understand their limits, especially for managing diabetes.
Many people assume that because herbs and other plants are natural, they’re safe. But that’s not necessarily true. Be cautious before taking any herb, plant, or supplement suggested for diabetes, even if someone you know has taken it. It may contain substances that could interfere with medicine you do take. And some can lower blood sugar to dangerous levels.
Neither the American Diabetes Association nor the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) endorses using CAM treatments in place of traditional treatment. The NCCAM notes that there is not yet enough scientific evidence to suggest complementary medicine will help people with diabetes. Some of these herbal products are being studied for their ability to prevent diabetes from developing. Others are being studied for use in treatment. Here are some therapies that are being studied. They show promise. But they are a long way from being cleared for use. Those with promise include:
Alpha-lipoic acid. This is an antioxidant made by the body. It’s also found in organ meats such as liver and in dark vegetables such as spinach and broccoli. In some people, it can lower blood sugar and help reduce or prevent the nerve damage that is a complication of diabetes.
Chromium. Chromium is a trace mineral. This means it is needed in small amounts in your daily diet. It’s found in whole-grain bread and some vegetables. It is sold as chromium picolinate, chromium chloride, or chromium nicotinate. It seems to be safe when taken in low doses and for short periods. Some studies show chromium may be safe in doses of 1,000 micrograms a day for up to 6 years. But doses over that amount could harm the kidneys. Because chromium seems to help glucose metabolism, research is looking at the right amount to help manage diabetes.
Cinnamon. Cinnamon has been shown to decrease glucose uptake from the GI (gastrointestinal) tract. It works a lot like a certain class of antidiabetic medicines (the alpha-glucosidase inhibitors).
Polyphenols. These are antioxidants found in green tea, olive oil, and dark chocolate, among many other foods. Scientists are trying to see if polyphenols can lower blood sugar and cholesterol. Some lab studies had good results. But other studies done on people had mixed results.
Ginseng. Practitioners have used this herb for centuries for different illnesses. These include headaches, severe tiredness (fatigue), diabetes, and fever. Some studies have shown that it can reduce blood sugar. But it can also have the same negative effects as drinking too much coffee. It can cause anxiety, diarrhea, high blood pressure, and sleeplessness. Also, the concentration of the active ingredients changes according to the time of year when the root is harvested.
Some cultures have been using a variety of plants to lower blood sugar for hundreds of years because the plants contain chemicals that can reduce blood sugar. For this reason, diabetes researchers are currently studying botanicals such as fenugreek and milk thistle, a flowering herb from the Mediterranean. Some researchers are also looking at bitter melon, a vine grown in many Asian gardens. At least one class of powerful antidiabetic medicines, the SGLT-2 inhibitors, was originally identified in the bark of apple trees.
Be careful when using any herb or supplement. It can affect the way diabetes medicines and other medicines work. Talk with your healthcare provider before taking any herbal supplements and don’t stop taking your prescribed medicines. Tell all your healthcare providers about any herbal supplements you are already taking.
Also, don’t give children any of these herbs, plants, or supplements, even if they are part of a meal that you cook at home. Some, such as bitter melon and fenugreek, are not advised for kids.
Over time, high blood sugar levels can cause nerve damage that can affect your eyes, leading to blindness. Nerve damage can also cause pain in your feet, hands, and other parts of your body. Some people turn to acupuncture for the pain that comes with diabetes.
Acupuncture is a traditional medicine practiced for thousands of years in China. It involves inserting needles in different areas of the body. This releases chemicals in your brain that can lessen sensitivity to pain. One small research trial and pilot study suggests that the therapy is promising for treating certain kinds of diabetes-related nerve pain (peripheral neuropathy). Experts agree that more research is needed.
Exercise is one natural treatment that does work for diabetes. It can control your weight and lower blood sugar—and it’s free. Just about any exercise is helpful, but particularly aerobic exercises. These include walking, bicycling, and dancing.
Here are a few tips before starting a new exercise routine:
Watch your blood sugar level. Your blood sugar may fall too low when you exercise.
Get the right gear and shoes for the exercise you choose. You may want to buy running shoes if you run and cross-trainers for other sports. Remember to layer your clothes so that you can remove outer layers if you get too hot.
Bring water with you. Sip water so you don't get dehydrated.
Take along something to eat. If your blood sugar falls a lot, you may need a quick snack.
Watch for injuries, and stop if you feel pain. If you get an injury, it may take longer for you to recover than it would someone without diabetes.
Check your shoes and feet every day. You need to be sure that you don’t get any blisters or small cuts that could get infected.
Check with your healthcare provider before starting a fitness routine, especially if you’re new to exercise. Discuss any injuries you have and what type of exercise is best for you. If you have foot pain, your healthcare provider may suggest activities that don’t stress your legs and feet, such as swimming. Remember: An exercise program that’s effective for you should also be one that’s safe.
It’s important for adults to spend less time sitting and being inactive. This is especially true if you have type 2 diabetes. When sitting for long periods of time, get up for short sessions of light activity every 30 minutes.
You should aim for at least 150 minutes a week of exercise. Don’t let more than 2 days go by without being active.