Complementary and Alternative Medicine for Diabetes
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. Although some of these ideas
for complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) may have a place in a healthy lifestyle,
it’s important to understand their limits, especially for managing diabetes.
Nutritional supplements, plants, and herbs
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
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. 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 like liver
and in dark vegetables like 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 appears 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.
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. Although some lab studies had good results, those from studies done on
people are mixed.
Ginseng. Practitioners have used this herb for centuries for different illnesses. These include
headaches, 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.
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.
Be careful when using any herb or supplement. It can affect the way diabetes medicines
and other medicines work. Talk with your doctor before taking any herbal supplements
and don’t stop taking your prescribed medicines.
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 recommended 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, such as walking, bicycling, and dancing.
Here are a few tips before starting a new exercise routine:
Monitor 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
Bring water with you. Sip water to avoid dehydration.
Take along something to eat. If your blood sugar falls dramatically, 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
Check your 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 doctor 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 doctor 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.