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Herbs for Diabetes

Are supplements safe?

Fenugreek Findings continued...

Little is known about how other herbs might help control diabetes. Stevia and bilberry have been studied in animal experiments, but have yet to undergo large, controlled human studies. The reputation of two other herbs, gymnome and jambul, rests on anecdotal evidence alone.

The ADA steers people away from herbal remedies altogether. "The regulation of herbs isn't very good," says Anne Daly, MS, RD, a diabetes educator with the organization. "And we can't be sure that all supplements are equivalent."

Some herbal diabetes products have turned out to be downright dangerous. In February 2000, the FDA recalled five Chinese herbal products after discovering that they contained various amounts of two prescription diabetes drugs, phenformin and glyburide. (The products are listed at www.fda.gov/oc/po/firmrecalls/Herbal.html.) Phenformin was withdrawn from the U.S. market 20 years ago after it caused serious side effects, including several deaths.

Given these uncertainties, some people are turning to mineral supplements instead of herbs. One that shows great promise, chromium, is a trace element that seems to help insulin work properly.

Chromium Contribution

U.S. Department of Agriculture scientist Richard Anderson, PhD, reviewed the research on the mineral for a 1998 article in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition and found at least 25 studies suggesting that it can benefit diabetes patients.

"It's not a panacea," he says, but because chromium supplements seem safe at the doses most commonly recommended, he believes there's no harm in trying them. He recommends starting with 200 micrograms of chromium three times per day, and then reducing the dose to twice per day if blood sugar levels improve.

Other researchers have focused on magnesium, noting that people with diabetes have lower than normal levels of this mineral. But there's little evidence that consuming more magnesium helps treat the disease.

And the ADA advises against taking any mineral supplements for diabetes. "If you eat the kind of balanced diet you're supposed to, then supplements aren't necessary," says Daly.

If you do decide to try herbs or minerals, the best strategy is to get your doctor's help in balancing them with your medications. Most important, be honest with your doctor about the supplements you're taking. If you can, bring the supplement containers with you on your next visit.

Cottingham did just that. He enlisted his doctor's help in deciding how to cut back on his medications as the supplements apparently brought his blood sugar levels under control. "The doctor said, 'I can't recommend this stuff, but if I were you I wouldn't stop,' " says Cottingham.

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