Alternative or complementary treatments spark the interest of
many people with diabetes. The prospect of having better control over blood
sugar levels or being less dependent on insulin injections by taking herbal
supplements or vitamins is certainly attractive.
But do any of the things often touted as alternative diabetes
treatments really work?
If you have diabetes, chances are good that you already have some form of nerve pain or nerve damage, called diabetic neuropathy. "People with diabetes have about a 60% chance of getting neuropathy of any kind," says Dace L. Trence, MD, an endocrinologist and director of the Diabetes Care Center at the University of Washington Medical Center in Seattle. "It's probably an equal risk of getting neuropathy with type 1 and type 2 diabetes."
You may have tingling, pain, or numbness in your feet and hands...
First, anyone interested in going down this road should
consider the difference between the terms "alternative" and
"complementary." When it comes to managing diabetes, the latter is the
term experts prefer. "Alternative" implies that you ditch one treatment
in favor of another. Rather, if you want to look into taking supplements, you
should do so as a possible complement to the treatment program your doctor has
Many herbs and vitamins have shown some promise for diabetes,
but the scientific evidence for their safety and efficacy is too uncertain for
experts to make recommendations about most of them.
That doesn't mean that doctors are closed-minded about the
possibilities. "It's not as if we know everything we need to know,"
says Nathaniel Clark, MD, spokesman for the American Diabetes Association.
"There's always a need for new therapies and new approaches."
Testimonials to the medicinal powers of various herbs -- not
only in advertising, but also in millennia-old traditions of Eastern medicine
-- are as abundant as the flora themselves. But modern medicine demands proof,
and as herbal medicine gains popularity, scientists are busy testing the
possible benefits of herbs for treating many diseases. Diabetes is no
A recent study found that cinnamon can increase metabolism of
blood glucose by triggering insulin release. In that study, as little as
one-quarter teaspoon a day produced significant reductions in all patients'
blood sugar levels. The cinnamon also improved the blood levels of fats called
Some of the herbs that have been studied include:
Coccinia indica (ivy gourd)
Ocimum sanctum (holy basil)
Prickly pear cactus
According to a review of past studies on these herbs published
in the April issue of the journal Diabetes Care, all of them have shown
promise for helping to regulate blood sugar levels. Nevertheless, none of the
evidence counts as solid proof. The studies reviewed had shortcomings that
leave the results open to question. In short, more research is needed.
In the meantime, remember: If you do try any of these, it's
important that you share this information with your health-care provider.
"I always partner up with my patients
and let them tell me what they're interested in, and then we have an open
discussion," says Patricia Geil, a dietitian in Lexington, Ky., and
spokeswoman for the American Association of Diabetes Educators.
Clark's view is essentially the same.
"My approach with patients is they're free to give it a try," he says
-- provided that it's safe to take.
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