Herb drug Mix: Diabetes

Herbs, drugs, and blood sugar

| January/February 2001

  • Fenugreek is one of several herbs that may effectively regulate blood sugar.
    Steven Foster
  • Fenugreek is one of several herbs that may effectively regulate blood sugar.

Long before the discovery of insulin, European herbalists knew the benefits of an herb called goat’s rue (Galega officinalis). Although it’s unlikely that they understood its mechanism of action, these herbalists did know that goat’s rue could often treat the symptoms of a disease called diabetes mellitus. Not much was known about diabetes in those days except that it was a deadly disease that made the urine smell and taste sweet.

We now know that diabetes mellitus comes in two forms: type I, which results from a deficiency of insulin, and type II, which results from a defect in the receptors for insulin. In both cases, glucose can’t be adequately transferred into the cells of the liver, muscles, and fat tissues. As a consequence, it builds up in the bloodstream, where it inflicts progressive damage on nerves, blood vessels, and organs such as the eyes and kidneys.

Occurring primarily in people over forty, type II diabetes is by far the most common of the two forms. In fact, the United States has seen a virtual epidemic of cases over the past few decades—an epidemic that most experts attribute to a diet high in refined carbohydrates and low in fiber and phytochemicals such as bioflavonoids.

Chemical and herbal treatments

Pharmacologic analysis eventually showed that goat’s rue contained a substance called guanidine, which has a potent ability to lower blood sugar in type II diabetics. Unfortunately, guanidine turned out to be too toxic for long-term use and had to be abandoned. However, further research led to the creation of a chemical derivative of guanidine (called metformin), which proved to be much safer and reasonably effective. Metformin is now one of an entire class of drugs called hypoglycemic agents—examples of these drugs include chlorpropamide, glyburide, glypizide, and pioglitazone hydrochloride. Used in conjunction with dietary modification, these drugs are considered to be the standard of care for type II diabetes.

In a scenario that’s fairly typical of Western medicine, the more the experts focus on drug therapy for a particular disease, the less interested they become in natural alternatives. This is certainly the case with diabetes mellitus. There is evidence that numerous herbs can effectively but gently regulate blood sugar, or, in medical parlance, “improve glucose tolerance.” Examples of these herbs include American and Asian ginseng (Panax quinquefolius and Panax ginseng), fenugreek (Trigonella foenum-graecum), gymnema (Gymnema sylvestre), bitter melon (Momordica charantia), and aloe (Aloe vera).

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