Diabetes Self-Management Blog

Can herbs and spices replace some or all diabetes medicines? For some people they can, but you have to be really careful with these and any other alternative treatments. Here are some herbal approaches to managing diabetes and some things to consider if you want to try them.

Last fall, Amy Campbell wrote eight blog entries about different herbs and spices and their health benefits. Definitely check these pieces out. But there are many other herbs used around the world to treat and prevent diabetes. Almost all categories of diabetes drug have herbal analogs.

Any discussion of herbs for diabetes has to start with cinnamon. Cinnamon is thought to possibly act as an insulin sensitizer, like metformin (brand name Glucophage and others) and the thiazolidinedione drugs (such as Actos). A Pakistani study of 60 adults with Type 2 in Diabetes Care showed an average glucose level drop of 18% to 29% in those who took cinnamon, and better cholesterol levels compared to placebo (inactive treatment). Even though there is generally no money to study herbs, people started to get excited and some small follow-up studies were done.

One, also published in Diabetes Care, was done in Oklahoma City. Forty-three adults with Type 2 were split into two groups, and no significant differences were found between cinnamon and placebo groups.

That’s why studies can be so confusing. A lot depends on who is being studied. Quite probably, the Pakistani subjects may have been more sensitive to cinnamon, or had different diets, or some other difference from the Americans.

Over the next few years, other cinnamon studies were reported; some indicating significant benefits, some not. But if you look at the comments section of this Diabetes Self-Management blog entry, you can see that many readers have found cinnamon extremely valuable in lowering their blood glucose.

An Herbal Carbohydrate Blocker
A variety of other herbs and foods are used around the world to lower blood glucose. Diabetes in Control reported that “extract of Salacia oblonga lowers acute glycemia and insulinemia in persons with type 2 diabetes after a high-carbohydrate meal,” according to a study The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

The plant Salacia oblonga appears to work like the alpha-glucosidase inhibitors such as Precose (acarbose). It keeps carbohydrate from breaking down in the intestines so that they absorb into the system more slowly. So postmeal glucose spikes can be prevented or lowered.

Other plants lower blood glucose in other ways. Holy Basil (Ocimum sanctum) is a kind of herb that grows in India. It is also called “Tulsi” or “The Incomparable One.” It seems to work by reducing levels of stress hormones such as cortisol. In one study of 40 people with Type 2, fasting blood glucose was lowered from an average of 134.5 to 99.7 after four weeks of taking Holy Basil, according to pharmacist and certified diabetes educator (CDE) Laura Shane-McWhorter.

Some plants have insulin-like properties. Banaba (Lagerstroemia speciosa), a plant native to Southeast Asia, may be an insulin sensitizer. And a factor called “polypeptide-P,” which seems to mimic the action of insulin, is found in bitter melon (Momordica charantia).

Bitter melon is a tropical vegetable grown in different varieties in Africa, Asia, the Caribbean, and South America. Bitter melon also seems to prevent weight gain by blocking fat cell growth. It’s definitely bitter, though. You might want to take it as a capsule instead of trying to eat or drink it. It’s very interesting how bitter and sour-tasting things (for example, vinegar) can often help glucose and fat metabolism.

Plusses and Minuses of Herbs
A big problem with herbs is knowing what dose you are getting. The same herb can be stronger or weaker depending on where and at what time of year it grew. It may also be hard to know if you are getting the real thing. If you’re buying herbal medicine, do some research and find reputable dealers. Here’s a possibly useful shopping guide.

Just like drugs, herbs can have side effects. Drugs and herbs may also have harmful interactions, just as drugs do with each other.

So you have to be careful. If you’re planning to try an herbal approach to managing your diabetes, you’ll have to monitor your blood glucose more closely, at least at first, and watch for side effects. You should definitely discuss your plans with your doctor and your pharmacist; the herbs you are considering taking may not be safe for you, or your drug doses may have to be lowered.

But in general, herbs are cheaper and often (not always) safer than prescription drugs. Whether they are effective for you, you’ll have to find out for yourself.

Please let our readers know. Have you had experience with herbal approaches to diabetes? How have they worked for you? What do you recommend, and what should we avoid?

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