Herbs, better called plant medicines, can often help manage blood sugar levels. An incredible variety of plants lower blood sugar and improve insulin function, but there’s a lot to learn to make them work.
First, speak with your doctor — you should not start relying on plants or stop your medicines on your own. You’ll need to work closely with your diabetes health-care provider, and you’ll need to do some research and monitor yourself. Still, millions of people are using plant medicines, and a number of them have written to Diabetes Self-Management to tell us that they’re working.
Herbs scientifically shown to help diabetes
Many of these studies used rodents, or even test tubes, but they certainly show that herbs could potentially work. And we have thousands of human anecdotes supporting their use. Here are some of the best documented.
• The vegetable/fruit called bitter melon, bitter gourd, or karela seems to stop insulin resistance. It gets glucose into cells. You can cook with it (many Chinese recipes incorporate this ingredient), eat it raw, or juice it. You can get it at Asian markets or farmers’ markets, or sometimes in supermarkets. It can also be taken as capsules or a tea.
• Okra, a vegetable used in stews and gumbos, reduces insulin resistance and slows glucose absorption in rodents. You can cook with okra, eat it raw, or soak it in water and drink the water. You can also buy capsules.
• Turmeric is one of the tastiest diabetes treatments. You can cook with it or take capsules, or sprinkle the powder on food. It absorbs better if you take it with black pepper. The turmeric/pepper mix is often found in curry powder.
• Ginger is another potential treatment that’s good to eat. In a recent study of 88 people with diabetes from Iran, taking ginger capsule with meals lowered fasting blood sugars.
• Cinnamon is probably the most studied herb for diabetes. Unfortunately, research has found conflicting results. I think it works in some populations more than others.
• Guava is a Central American fruit that slows glucose entry into the blood and lowers glucose levels. You can eat it raw. You can also brew a glucose-lowering tea with the leaves. Drink it with meals to help reduce after-meal glucose spikes.
• Fenugreek is another widely used spice often found in curries. According to the website diabetes.co.uk, you can buy the leaves as a vegetable or an herb, while the seeds are used in powdered form as a spice. It has been found in several studies to lower after-meal spikes, fasting glucose levels, and cholesterol.
• Gymnemna is an Asian herb, widely available as capsules in the U.S. It has lowered both blood glucose levels and A1C levels in studies. A Diabetes Self-Management reader recently wrote to tell us his glucose numbers had returned to normal after he started taking gymnemna capsules.
• Mulberry leaves appear to be another good option for people with diabetes. They probably work the same as guava, by keeping glucose in the intestines instead of absorbing it.
And there are many more. For example, apple cider vinegar is known to reduce after-meal and fasting blood sugars in many people.
I wonder how much of the upsurge in diabetes in the last 50 years is because we’re no longer eating enough plants. Nature seems to have provided many ways to get through life without Type 2 diabetes, but if you only eat starches and meats, you won’t get these foods.
Problems with herbs
Plant medicines have several disadvantages compared to prescription medicines. You can never be sure of the dose you’re getting, because herbs vary in strength depending on the season and where they grew. You can’t fine-tune your glucose with bitter melon like you can with rapid-acting insulin.
Herbal products are not well controlled by government. They may not be what the bottle says they are. According to Rodale Press, research by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the Canadian government both found that many combination herbal capsules contained NONE of the herbs listed on the label. That’s why I mainly recommend plants you can buy and use in their whole form, such as ginger, cinnamon, bitter melon, and okra.
However, some herb sellers have better reputations. You can find these by searching customer reviews on the Web. You can also compare prices, but often, cheaper is not better.
Rodale Press gives advice on taking herbs safely:
• Research before using. You can find web pages that explain what a particular plant does, how to use it, and the side effects. Using plant medicine isn’t like going to the doctor, getting a prescription, taking it, and saying you’re done. In coordination with your health-care provider, you have to do some work.
• Whenever using commercial preparations — teas, tincture, pills, or capsules — follow the label directions carefully. Don’t overdose.
• Like any medicine, plants have the possibility of allergies or side effects. Stay alert for adverse reactions such as abdominal upset, diarrhea, headache, itching, or rash.
• Beware of herb–drug interactions. Check with your pharmacist (although he may not know about any potential interactions, he should be able to find out). Speak with your physician prior to taking any plant medicines, and keep her informed.
• Check your blood sugar levels more often when starting a new herb.
Plant medicines can greatly help diabetes control, potentially with fewer side effects and less expense than chemical medicines, but please don’t drop the rest of your self-management program just because your numbers come down with herbs. Healthy eating, physical movement, and stress reduction still matter as much as anything you can take.
Looking to learn about more foods that may help with diabetes? Read “Apple Cider Vinegar and Diabetes,” “Bitter Melon, Diabetes,” “Leaves and Fruits for Diabetes,” “Turmeric and Diabetes: 10 Ways Turmeric Can Help” and “Cinnamon and Diabetes: An Update.”