Diabetes is one of the fastest-growing diseases in the United States, currently affecting more than 6 million people. Diabetics cannot properly process glucose, a sugar the body uses for energy. Diabetes often involves the pancreas, which produces the hormone insulin. Insulin facilitates the entry of glucose into tissues where it is either stored or converted into energy. Without enough working insulin to help the sugar enter tissues, blood sugar, or blood glucose, rises. Causative factors of diabetes include stress, heredity, nonspecific viral infections, obesity, and excessive, chronic intake of refined sugar.
There are two types of diabetes. Type 1, or insulin-dependent diabetes, is an autoimmune disease in which the body produces no insulin. Type 1 accounts for between 5 and 10 percent of diabetic sufferers in this country and occurs most often in children and young adults. Type 1 diabetics must take insulin injections daily. Type 2, or non-insulin-dependent diabetes, is far more common. It is a metabolic disorder in which the body does not produce enough—or cannot properly use—insulin. Type 2 usually develops in adults older than forty-five, about 80 percent of whom are overweight. Sadly, with obesity among children on the rise, Type 2 diabetes is becoming more common in young people. Type 2 diabetics can often control their blood sugar through weight loss, diet, and exercise, sometimes combined with medication that enhances the effect of their own insulin.
Because the common symptoms of diabetes, which include frequent urination and excessive thirst and appetite, may not seem particularly serious, many diabetics do not consult a doctor about their condition. It is estimated that there are millions of Americans who have the disease and do not know it.
Among the chief complications of diabetes are heart disease and stroke, poor wound healing, nerve damage, higher risk of infections, and eye and kidney disease. Although diabetes is a serious medical condition and diabetics should be under the care of a practitioner, there are some natural options for managing the condition. Effective natural treatment for the diabetic entails the thoughtful incorporation of dietary and lifestyle changes, nutritional supplements, and herbs.
Diet—lowfat, low-sugar, high-fiber
As with other serious diseases, the increase in the numbers of diabetics corresponds with the common low-fiber, high-carbohydrate diet of our modern society. Many diabetics have experienced improvement in their condition when following a diet low in saturated fat and refined sugar and high in plant fiber, including whole grains, legumes, nuts, seeds, pears, apples, and most vegetables. A high-fiber diet reduces glucose levels after meals. Eating regular small, frequent meals helps the pancreas perform on a regular schedule. Eat slowly and chew food carefully.
Herbal author and educator Brigitte Mars says, “While the drawbacks of eating refined sugar are well known, perhaps less obvious is the common practice of refining grains. This turns grains into more simple carbohydrates, quickly elevating blood-sugar levels and causing them to fluctuate.” Mars says that this problem has been underscored by the prevalence of diabetes among Native Americans, many of whom are eating government-issued, bleached, processed grains. “So eating grains and other foods in their whole, unprocessed form may be a good preventive step to blood-sugar difficulties,” she says.
Vitamin E. People with low blood levels of vitamin E are more prone to developing Type 2 diabetes, and some studies have shown that taking vitamin E improves glucose tolerance in this group. Patients experienced improvement after three months of taking the vitamin at a dose of 900 IU daily.
Vitamin C. Some doctors recommend a supplementation of 1 to 3 g of vitamin C daily for their diabetes patients. Vitamin C reduces how much sugar attaches abnormally to proteins, and it lowers sorbitol, which can accumulate and damage the eyes, nerves, and kidneys. People with Type 1 appear to have low vitamin C levels.
Chromium. Double-blind studies have shown that chromium supplements improve glucose tolerance in people with both types of diabetes, apparently by increasing sensitivity to insulin. The dosage used in clinical trials is 200 mcg per day. Chromium-rich brewer’s yeast has a long history of use in treating diabetes.
Coenzyme Q10. CoQ10 has proven beneficial for Type 2 but not Type 1 diabetes. This supplement helps normalize carbohydrate metabolism. In one trial, blood-sugar levels fell substantially in 31 percent of people with diabetes after they supplemented with 120 mg of CoQ10 per day.
A well-designed, consistent exercise program can provide many benefits to diabetics, including improved chromium metabolism, lower total serum cholesterol and triglycerides, and weight loss. James Duke, Ph.D., author of The Green Pharmacy (Rodale, 1997), recommends regular moderate exercise, working up to a brisk one-hour walk each day. Other stress reduction techniques including yoga, visualization, and guided imagery may also be helpful.
Five helpful herbs
Gymnema (Gymnema sylvestre). Native to the tropical forests of India, gymnema has a long history of use for treating diabetes. The tea is thought to boost insulin production. Extracts of the herb have been shown to improve blood-sugar control in both Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes. The recommended dosage is 400 mg daily.
Asian ginseng (Panax ginseng). Ginseng, which is well known to treat a variety of ills, has also shown positive results in controlled studies with Type 2 diabetic patients when given in extract form at a dose of 100 or 200 mg. Subjects experienced mood elevation, lower blood-sugar levels and body weight, and improved physical activity.
Bitter melon (Momordica charantia). Bitter melon is a tropical fruit that has been widely used as a folk remedy for diabetes. Research on the blood-sugar-regulating potential of this herb was first published in India more than forty years ago, and since that time, several studies have shown that it can help control diabetes. In one clinical trial, glucose tolerance improved in 73 percent of Type 2 diabetics. The unripe bitter melon is available in some Asian grocery stores, and the extract can be found in natural food stores.
Fenugreek (Trigonella foenum-graecum). Fenugreek is a small seed commonly used in Indian cuisine. It has been shown to prevent cardiovascular disease, which can be a particular problem for diabetics. When insulin-dependent diabetics took 100 g of fenugreek seed powder daily, they experienced a significant reduction in fasting blood sugar and improved glucose tolerance. You can also take this herb as a tea, 1 cup two or three times daily.
Stevia (Stevia rebaudiana). Commonly used in Japan and South America, the leaf of this native South American plant is used as a replacement for sugar and artificial sweeteners. Because long-term use of chemical sweeteners can have adverse effects on the liver, people with blood-sugar problems may want to consider using stevia as a natural, non-caloric sweetener. Diabetics should be able to safely use stevia because it does not raise blood-sugar levels.
Beth Baugh has been the managing editor for ten books on botanical medicine and has been involved in the herb industry for almost thirty years. She is the coordinator for Christopher Hobbs’ correspondence course Foundations of Herbalism; visit www.christopherhobbs.com or call (541) 846-0702 for more information.