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 treatments, whereas alternative medicine is used instead of conventional medicine.
Although some may be effective, others aren't or can even be harmful. If you want to try complementary or alternative medicine, talk to your doctor about the pros and cons and what may be a good idea for you.
Alternative or Complementary Treatments
Acupunctureis a procedure where a practitioner inserts very thin needles into specific points on your skin. Some scientists say that acupuncture triggers the release of the body's natural painkillers. Acupuncture has been shown to offer relief from chronic pain and is sometimes used by people with neuropathy, the painful nerve damage that can happen with diabetes.
Biofeedback is a technique that helps you become more aware of -- and learn to deal with -- your body's response to pain. This therapy emphasizes relaxation and stress-reduction techniques.
Guided imagery is a relaxation technique that some professionals who use biofeedback also practice. With guided imagery, you'll think of peaceful mental images, such as ocean waves, or perhaps images of controlling or curing your disease. People using this technique say these positive images can ease their condition.
Natural Dietary Supplements
The benefit of taking chromiumhas been studied and debated for several years. You need the mineral to make glucose tolerance factor, which helps insulin work better. Several studies suggest that chromium supplements may improve diabetes control, but we don't have enough information to recommend it to treat diabetes yet.
Several types of plants are referred to as ginseng, but most studies have used American ginseng. They've shown some sugar-lowering effects in fasting and after-meal blood sugar levels, as well as in A1c results (average blood sugar levels over a 3-month period). But we need larger and more long-term studies. Researchers also found that the amount of sugar-lowering compound in ginseng plants varies widely.
Although the relationship between magnesiumand diabetes has been studied for decades, we still don't fully understand it. Low magnesium may worsen blood sugar control in type 2 diabetes. Scientists say that it interrupts insulin secretion in the pancreas and builds insulin resistance in the body's tissues. And evidence suggests that a magnesium deficiency may contribute to some diabetes complications. People who get more magnesium in their diet (by eating whole grains, nuts, and green leafy vegetables) have a lower risk of type 2 diabetes.
Vanadium is a compound found in tiny amounts in plants and animals. Early studies showed that vanadium normalized blood sugar levels in animals with type 1 and type 2 diabetes. When people with diabetes were given vanadium, they had a modest increase in insulin sensitivity and were able to lower their need for insulin. Researchers want to understand how vanadium works in the body, find potential side effects, and set safe dosages.
Coenzyme Q10, often referred to as CoQ10 (other names include ubiquinone and ubiquinol), is a vitamin-like substance that's in meats and seafood. CoQ10 helps cells make energy and acts as an antioxidant. But it hasn't been shown to affect blood sugar control.
Most plant foods are rich in fiber, vitamins, and minerals. People with type 2 diabetes may focus on:
- Brewer's yeast
- Broccoli and other related greens
- Leafy greens
- Fenugreek seeds
Some studies show that certain plant foods may help your body fight inflammation and use insulin, a hormone that controls blood sugar. Clove oil extracts (eugenol) have been found to help insulin work and to lower glucose, total cholesterol, LDL, and triglycerides. An unidentified compound in coffee (not caffeine) may enhance insulin sensitivity and lower the chances of developing type 2 diabetes.
The scientific evidence thus far doesn't support the role of garlic, ginger, ginseng, hawthorn, or nettle for blood sugar control in people with diabetes.
If you're considering eating or using any plant-based remedies, talk to your doctor first.
Weight Control: Are Herbs Safe?
Since being overweight and having diabetes are linked, many people with diabetes turn to natural alternative therapies that claim to help with weight loss, including:
There are also skin patch (transdermal) systems as well as oral sprays that supposedly curb your appetite and make it easier to lose weight.
What's the bottom line? Check with your doctor, because many of these so-called "obesity remedies" haven't been studied, aren't effective, or just aren't safe.
In 2003, ephedrine -- also known as ma huang -- became the first herbal stimulant ever banned by the FDA. It was a popular component of over-the-counter weight loss drugs. Ephedrine had some benefits, but it could cause far more harm, especially in high doses: insomnia (difficulty falling and staying asleep), high blood pressure, glaucoma, and urinary retention. This herbal supplement has also been associated with numerous cases of stroke.
Chitosan comes from seashells and can bind to fat to prevent absorption. Studies thus far haven't been encouraging for weight loss though.
A survey of herbal preparations for obesity found that many had lead or arsenic and other toxic metals. Some also had other ingredients that weren't included on the label. And sometimes, the wrong plant was listed.
What to Consider
You should talk to your doctor about any drugs, herbal products, or alternative and complementary treatments to make sure they're not going to interfere with your treatment or cause other problems.
Beware of claims that seem too good to be true. Look for scientific-based sources of information. The National Diabetes Information Clearinghouse collects resource information for the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK) Reference Collection, a service of the National Institutes of Health. To learn more about alternative therapies for diabetes treatment, contact the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health.
Select brands of natural products carefully -- "natural" doesn't automatically mean it's good for you. Avoid products made with more than one herb. Read labels: Look for the herb's common and scientific name, the name and address of the manufacturer, a batch and lot number, expiration date, dosage guidelines, and potential side effects.
Stop taking the product and call your doctor right away if you:
- Feel queasy or throw up
- Have a fast heartbeat
- Feel more anxious, worried, or unsettled than usual
- Can't sleep
- Get diarrhea
- Get skin rashes