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Herbs, Vitamins, and More for Diabetes

Looking for more than traditional western medicine to treat your diabetes? Here are some suggestions, but remember to consult your doctor first.
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Alternative or complementary treatments spark the interest of many people with diabetes. The prospect of having better control over blood sugar levels or being less dependent on insulin injections by taking herbal supplements or vitamins is certainly attractive.

But do any of the things often touted as alternative diabetes treatments really work?

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First, anyone interested in going down this road should consider the difference between the terms "alternative" and "complementary." When it comes to managing diabetes, the latter is the term experts prefer. "Alternative" implies that you ditch one treatment in favor of another. Rather, if you want to look into taking supplements, you should do so as a possible complement to the treatment program your doctor has prescribed.

Many herbs and vitamins have shown some promise for diabetes, but the scientific evidence for their safety and efficacy is too uncertain for experts to make recommendations about most of them.

That doesn't mean that doctors are closed-minded about the possibilities. "It's not as if we know everything we need to know," says Nathaniel Clark, MD, spokesman for the American Diabetes Association. "There's always a need for new therapies and new approaches."

Herbal Potential

Testimonials to the medicinal powers of various herbs -- not only in advertising, but also in millennia-old traditions of Eastern medicine -- are as abundant as the flora themselves. But modern medicine demands proof, and as herbal medicine gains popularity, scientists are busy testing the possible benefits of herbs for treating many diseases. Diabetes is no exception.

A recent study found that cinnamon can increase metabolism of blood glucose by triggering insulin release. In that study, as little as one-quarter teaspoon a day produced significant reductions in all patients' blood sugar levels. The cinnamon also improved the blood levels of fats called triglycerides.

Some of the herbs that have been studied include:

  • Aloe vera
  • Coccinia indica (ivy gourd)
  • Garlic
  • Ginseng
  • Gymnema sylvestre
  • Ocimum sanctum (holy basil)
  • Fenugreek
  • Fig leaf
  • Milk thistle
  • Momordica charantia
  • Prickly pear cactus

According to a review of past studies on these herbs published in the April issue of the journal Diabetes Care, all of them have shown promise for helping to regulate blood sugar levels. Nevertheless, none of the evidence counts as solid proof. The studies reviewed had shortcomings that leave the results open to question. In short, more research is needed.

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