Mother Earth Living

Q and A: Herbs To Treat Diabetes

I believe my husband has the classic symptoms of type II diabetes. In addition to dietary and exercise changes that we need to work on, I am looking for any information regarding herbal treatment of this disease.
–M. T. via e-mail

Keville responds: Keep in mind that the various symptoms of diabetes are similar to other disorders. However, if your husband does have type II diabetes, the good news is that it can probably be monitored without taking insulin. He’s off to a good start with the dietary and exercise changes. Even relaxation techniques improve the body’s ability to regulate glucose up to 20 percent, according to studies from Duke University. The supplement chromium (100 mg per day) makes insulin more efficient and enhances its production.

As far as herbs go, there are quite a few from which to choose. Experiment with them to find the combinations that are most effective for him. One group of researchers looked at about 400 herbs traditionally used to treat diabetes from 120 studies. Here are the ones that scored the best. One of the most impressive is gymnema (Gymnema sylvestre). The leaves of this tropical vine have long been used in Indian folk medicine to treat diabetes. Mostly sold as a “sugar blocker” and dieting aid, it temporarily stops the mouth from perceiving sweet tastes. More important for your husband, it has also shown positive clinical results in type II diabetes. Gymnema improves sugar control and reduces fasting blood sugar levels and the body’s requirement for insulin. Other herbs known to lower blood sugar and insulin levels in type II diabetics include prickly pear (Opuntia ficus-indica) and three herbs that also enhance the immune system: eleuthero (Eleutherococcus senticosus), Asian ginseng (Panax ginseng), and reishi mushroom (Ganoderma lucidum). In one study, bitter melon (Momordica charantia) juice improved sugar tolerance 73 percent and reduced glucose concentrations in type II diabetics approximately 20 percent within an hour. Volunteers in a study who drank just 1 tablespoon of aloe (Aloe vera) juice twice a day had their blood sugar (as well as their cholesterol levels) begin to drop by the second week of treatment. Bilberry leaves (Vaccinum myrtillus) were a popular diabetic treatment before the availability of insulin injections. They reduce blood sugar and the amount of insulin the body needs, possibly by facilitating insulin’s action.

Khalsa responds: Diabetes, or diabetes mellitus, is the seventh leading cause of death in the United States. One of the latest published studies established that the frequency of diabetes in the United States grew by 33 percent during the 1990s, while the rate among people in their thirties grew by 70 percent. Diabetes has been associated with a Western lifestyle and is rarely seen in cultures relying on a more traditional diet. Diabetes is a chronic disorder of carbohydrate, fat, and protein metabolism. Its main symptoms include high blood sugar (hyperglycemia), sugar in the urine (glycosuria), arterial plaque (atherosclerosis), heart disease, kidney disease, nerve degeneration (neuropathy), and foot ulcers. Non-Insulin-Dependent Diabetes Mellitus (NIDDM), or type II, usually is diagnosed after forty years of age. Ninety percent of diabetics in our culture are type II. NIDDM is a disease of loss of sensitivity to insulin. Typically, insulin levels in the blood are actually increased, but the tissues have lost their ability to respond to the hormone.

Our ancestors, until very recently, ate a diet that included ten times as much fiber as the standard American diet (ironically abbreviated SAD). The most significant dietary fiber for diabetes comes from legumes, such as kidney beans. Legumes are beneficial because they contain a water-soluble, gel-forming fiber, which has been shown to enhance diabetic control. Fiber may be added to the diet in supplemental form. Guar gum, at a dose of 14 to 26 g per day, has been quite beneficial. One recent study demonstrated that over one year, with 15 g of guar gum daily, type II diabetics achieved a 10 percent reduction in blood cholesterol, along with better glycemic control. Likewise, pectin, a fiber from apples and citrus fruits, taken at 10 g per meal, is equally effective.

While well known as common foods, the bulbs of onion and garlic are noteworthy as hypoglycemics. The active properties are thought to be sulfur-containing compounds (disulphides), such as allicin. Evidence suggests that these compounds lower glucose levels by competing with insulin (also a disulphide) in the liver. Diabetics should use these herbs liberally. A decoction (tea) of blueberry (or huckleberry) leaf is considered a valuable diabetes remedy in folk medicine. The active ingredient, myrtillin, acts like insulin in the body but is much less toxic, even at fifty times the therapeutic dose! Furthermore, its action in the body is quite prolonged, with a dose acting over several weeks.

American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius) is making news as an aid to normalizing blood sugar. Several recent studies by scientists at the University of Toronto highlighted its ability to smooth out blood sugar rises after meals in nondiabetics and type II diabetics. A study published in 2000 found that a single 3-g capsule of a prepared extract reduced the elevation of blood sugar following eating. Diabetics benefited from taking the ginseng either forty minutes before or with the carbohydrate.

Kathi Keville is director of the American Herb Association and the author of eleven herb and aromatherapy books including, Herbs for Health and Healing (Rodale, 1996). She teaches seminars throughout the United States.

Karta Purkh Singh Khalsa has more than twenty-five years of experience with medicinal herbs and specializes in Ayurvedic, Chinese and North American healing traditions. He is a licensed dietitian/nutritionist, a massage therapist and a board member of the American Herbalists Guild.

The information offered in “Q and A” is not intended to be a substitute for advice from your health-care provider.

  • Published on Jan 1, 2003
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