Diabetes Alternative Treatments
In addition to medications, such as insulin injections, patients may choose to use complementary and alternative therapies to better manage the...
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What Are Alternative
Treatments for Diabetes?
When a person has
diabetes, maintaining excellent blood sugar control is one aspect of disease
management, but does not paint the entire picture. In addition to medications,
such as insulin injections, patients may choose to use complementary and
alternative therapies to better manage their diabetes. These therapies may aim
to treat the mind as well as the body.
About one-third of
Americans with diabetes use some form of complementary and alternative medicine
(CAM) therapies, according to an article published in the journal Clinical Diabetes. “Integrative
medicine” is a term for the combination of traditional medicine and CAM
Before you begin such
treatments, it is important to recognize that there is limited evidence on how
well they do or do not work. Also, just because supplements are “all-natural”
does not mean they will not interfere with diabetes medications or other
medications. People with diabetes should always tell their physician about any alternative
therapies they are taking to ensure safety.
What Herbs and Supplements
Are Used As Alternative Therapies?
Herbs and supplements are some of the most popular
CAM therapies for people with diabetes. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA)
does not consider these therapies “medicines.” Therefore, they are not regulated.
In its 2014 “Standards of Medical Care in
Diabetes” statement, the American Diabetes Association took the following
positions on supplements for diabetes:
is no evidence that taking supplements or vitamins are beneficial for those
with diabetes who do not have vitamin deficiencies.
long-term antioxidant supplements, such as vitamin C, vitamin E and carotene
have been associated with safety concerns.
is no evidence that people with diabetes and vascular disease benefit from
taking EPA and DHA supplements.
is not enough evidence to suggest taking nutrients, such as vitamin D,
chromium, magnesium, or cinnamon aid in diabetes treatment.
Below are some of the most popular
supplements used with diabetes.
- Aloe Vera:
You can apply gel from this common household plant topically or take it as an
oral supplement. Gel is commonly used to relieve burns. Two clinical trials found that aloe vera
taken orally helped to lower the fasting blood sugar during a six-week trial
period. However, the studies did not cover long-term use.
- Alpha-Lipoic Acid:
Alpha-lipoic acid is an antioxidant found naturally in foods like spinach,
broccoli, and potatoes. The supplement is thought to reduce nerve damage
related to diabetes (diabetic neuropathy) and improve the body’s ability to use
insulin. Some studies support the use of this supplement for neuropathy. While
there is some evidence for the benefits of this treatment when taken
intravenously, several studies show zero effectiveness in protecting against
diabetic macular edema or improve the body’s response to insulin, according to
Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM).
Patients with diabetes have been shown to lose more chromium in their urine.
This is thought to affect insulin resistance. A U.S. study that
measured the effectiveness of chromium supplements across 180 patients found
patients who took 500 μg of the
supplement twice a day saw improved HbA1C (A1C) levels than those in the
placebo group. However, other studies do not support these findings.
Studies on this popular diabetes supplement have provided very inconsistent
results. According to the Mayo
Clinic, some studies show that cinnamon can enhance insulin sensitivity
while others have found no effects. If cinnamon is helpful, its benefits are
Garlic, or allium sativum, is a popular supplement, but research on its effects
in people with diabetes is minimal. Clinical trials in patients with type 2
diabetes who took garlic did not show changes in blood sugar or insulin levels.
Some clinical trials found garlic lowered total cholesterol levels and blood
Ginseng is a powerful herbal supplement known to interact with several
medications, particularly warfarin, which doctors prescribe as a blood thinner.
According to NCCAM,
no current research supports ginseng supplementation.
- Gymnema Sylvestre (Gymemna):
This Ayurvedic treatment involves chewing the leaves of the gymnema plant. The
Hindi name for the plant is “gurmar” or “sugar destroyer.” The plant is rumored
to have blood sugar-lowering effects. However, valid clinical studies have yet
to demonstrate its effectiveness.
This mineral is present in many foods, including whole grains, nuts and green,
leafy vegetables. A 2011
meta-analysis of diabetes research related to magnesium found that patients
with low magnesium levels were more likely to develop diabetes. However,
supplementation is not recommended until clinical studies can better assess its
- Omega-3 Fatty Acids:
Considered “good” fats, omega-3 fatty acids are those found in salmon, walnuts,
soybeans, and other foods. While supplements may help reduce heart disease risk
in as well as reduce triglyceride levels, there is no evidence that they reduce
diabetes risk or help patients better manage diabetes. Also, the supplements
can interact with medications used to thin the blood.
Polyphenols are antioxidants found in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. Current
evidence on the effectiveness of a high-polyphenol diet is only preliminary and
has not produced conclusive findings.
- Prickly Pear Cactus:
Also known as nopal, this plant is used in cooking and for its reported
medicinal effects. However, no direct link has been made with taking nopal and treatment
A few studies show that in very high doses, vanadium may increase a person’s
sensitivity to insulin. However, the evidence is not yet conclusive. Vanadium
can cause side effects in high doses and can be toxic at very high doses, so
excessive supplementation should be avoided.
What Mind and Body
Approaches Are Used As Alternative Therapies?
Diabetes and other chronic conditions are
associated with an increased risk depression and anxiety. According to the Mayo
Clinic, increased stress can also affect the ability of people with diabetes
to properly manage medications. Mind-body approaches are used as alternative
therapies for diabetes to help patients deal with these concerns.
The American Diabetes Association (ADA) recommends
that most patients with diabetes engage in at least 150 minutes of moderate to
intense aerobic physical activity on a weekly basis, with strength training at
least two days a week. In addition to this, other activities that can help
reduce stress,, such as tai chi and yoga, may be beneficial. But according to
research published in Clinical Diabetes,
while these may help a person relax and
promote flexibility and strength, they are not associated with improvements in
diabetes measurements, such as glycemic control or improvements in A1C tests.
While meditation may not burn calories, it
can help to relieve stress. Meditation techniques can vary from mantra-based,
such as repeating an uplifting thought or statement, to breathing techniques
and methods. Examples of meditation techniques include Vipassana,
Transcendental, and Zen meditation.
Complementary Medicine Techniques Are Used as Alternative Therapies?
Acupuncture is a traditional
Chinese medicine practice that involves inserting small needles into strategic
points in the skin. This can help to re-direct energy flow and restore harmony
to the body. In so doing, patients may feel more relaxed.
Acupressure is another
technique that involves placing pressure on strategic points in the body to
produce similar effects to acupuncture.
These techniques do
not aim to cure diabetes, but instead aim to help a person’s body function more
Rachel Nall, RN, BSN
Medically Reviewed by:
Peggy Pletcher, MS, RD, LD, CDE
Jul 8, 2014
Published By: Healthline Networks, Inc.