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Ginseng May Help Treat Diabetes

Popular Herb Normalizes Blood Sugar Levels

WebMD Health News

June 16, 2003 (New Orleans) -- The herb red ginseng may help normalize blood sugar levels in people with diabetes, two new studies suggest.

But before you rush to health-food stores to stock up on the popular herb, be aware that there is no way to know if the product you buy will be as effective as the preparation used in the studies, researchers caution.

University of Toronto investigators presented both studies here this weekend at the American Diabetes Association's 63rd Scientific Sessions.

Since normalizing blood sugar levels is a critical goal of diabetes treatment, ginseng could someday be an important strategy in managing patients, says Fran Kaufman, MD, president of the American Diabetes Association.

Better Blood Sugar

In one study, people with type 2 diabetes who consumed ginseng and a highly viscous fiber similar to pectin had a notable reduction in blood sugar levels, reports Alexandra Jenkins, a PhD candidate at the University of Surrey, U.K.

The study enrolled 30 people with diabetes in whom medication helped to control -- but did not normalize -- blood sugar levels. The participants received either capsules containing ground, North American-grown ginseng and a highly viscous fiber, or dummy capsules, three times a day for 12 weeks.

After a four-week break, the participants switched to the alternate regimen; those who had received the ginseng capsules then took placebo and vice versa.

Blood samples taken before and after each 12-week period showed that hemoglobin A1C -- a standard measure of blood sugar levels -- dropped into the normal range when participants were taking the ginseng capsules, but not when they were taking placebo, the study showed.

The herbal preparation appeared to be safe, with no adverse effects.

Moreover, ginseng appears to have an effect beyond medication, the American Diabetes Association's Kaufman says, suggesting the two approaches are complementary in treating diabetes.

The Chinese, who use ginseng root to treat a variety of ailments, have been in medicine for 5,000 years, she says. "Just as acupuncture has been proven to have a role in Western medicine, so, too, will ginseng. We need to think globally."

Improved Insulin Performance

In the second study, Korean red ginseng improved insulin sensitivity when compared with placebo, says John L. Sievenpiper, a PhD candidate at the University of Toronto.

One of the key abnormalities behind type 2 diabetes is that the body's tissues are not responsive enough to insulin so they don't process it properly. Ginseng, he says, appears to help the patients process better the insulin they have.

"There is no doubt that natural products such as ginseng have a role in controlling the body's defective response to insulin," says Kaufman, who is also head of the Center for Diabetes at Children's Hospital in Los Angeles.

According to the American Diabetes Association, poor control of blood sugar can lead to severely debilitating and even fatal complications including heart disease, stroke, blindness, and kidney disease.

Not Standard Treatment -- Yet

But exactly how best to incorporate ginseng into diabetes treatment still needs to be determined, Kaufman says, noting that both trails were small.

Sievenpiper agrees. "These are preliminary, short-term studies that indicate a need for more research. They are not a reason to take ginseng," he said.

And because of poor regulation, standardization, and labeling in the herbal industry, there is no way to know if one product will work as well as another, Sievenpiper says.

Most importantly, he says, people with diabetes should be sure to tell their doctor if they are taking ginseng because lowering blood sugar too much can be dangerous.

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If the level is below 70 or you are experiencing symptoms such as shaking, sweating or difficulty thinking, you will need to raise the number immediately. A quick solution is to eat a few pieces of hard candy or 1 tablespoon of sugar or honey. Recheck your numbers again in 15 minutes to see if the number has gone up. If not, repeat the steps above or call your doctor.

People who experience hypoglycemia several times in a week should call their health care provider. It's important to monitor your levels each day so you can make sure your numbers are within the range. If you are pregnant always consult with your health care provider.

Congratulations on taking steps to manage your health.

However, it's important to continue to track your numbers so that you can make lifestyle changes if needed. If you are pregnant always consult with your physician.

Your level is high if this reading was taken before eating. Aim for 70-130 before meals and less than 180 two hours after meals.

Even if your number is high, it's not too late for you to take control of your health and lower your blood sugar.

One of the first steps is to monitor your levels each day. If you are pregnant always consult with your physician.

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