The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, part of the National Institutes of Health, defines complementary and alternative medicine as a "group of diverse medical and health care systems, practices, and products that are not presently considered to be part of conventional medicine." Complementary medicine is used with conventional therapy, whereas alternative medicine is used instead of conventional medicine.
Some people with diabetes use complementary or alternative therapies to treat diabetes. Although some of these therapies may be effective, others can be ineffective or even harmful. Patients who use complementary and alternative medicine need to let their health care providers know what they are doing.
Sometimes, living with diabetes can seem like a full-time job -- trying to keep up with everything you need to do for proper diabetes care.
"Diabetes is a very time-consuming disease to manage well," says Karmeen Kulkarni, MS, RD, CDE, and former president of health care and education for the American Diabetes Association. "The medication, the food, the physical activity -- you add life in general to that whole picture and it ends up being quite challenging."
Some complementary and alternative medicine therapies are discussed below. For more information, talk with your health care provider.
Acupuncture is a procedure in which a practitioner inserts needles into designated points on the skin. Some scientists believe that acupuncture triggers the release of the body's natural painkillers. Acupuncture has been shown to offer relief from chronic pain. Acupuncture is sometimes used by people with neuropathy, the painful nerve damage of diabetes.
Biofeedback is a technique that helps a person become more aware of and learn to deal with the body's response to pain. This alternative therapy emphasizes relaxation and stress-reduction techniques. Guided imagery is a relaxation technique that some professionals who use biofeedback do. With guided imagery, a person thinks of peaceful mental images, such as ocean waves. A person may also include the images of controlling or curing a chronic disease, such as diabetes. People using this technique believe their condition can be eased with these positive images.
The benefit of added chromium for diabetes has been studied and debated for several years. Several studies report that chromium supplementation may improve diabetes control. Chromium is needed to make glucose tolerance factor, which helps insulin improve its action. Because of insufficient information on the use of chromium to treat diabetes, no recommendations for supplementation yet exist.
Several types of plants are referred to as ginseng but most studies of ginseng and diabetes have used American ginseng. Those studies have shown some glucose-lowering effects in fasting and post-prandial (after meal) bloodglucose levels as well as in A1C levels (average bloodglucose levels over a 3-month period). However, larger and more long-term studies are needed before general recommendations for use of ginseng can be made. Researchers also have determined that the amount of glucose-lowering compound in ginseng plants varies widely.