It is estimated that 7.2 percent of American adults (about 17 million people) have diabetes. According to the American Diabetes Association, 5.9 million of those people don’t even know they have it. The prevalence of diabetes is increasing rapidly, at a rate of 7 percent per year. At this rate, the diabetic population will just about double every decade.
Diabetes, or diabetes mellitus, is a chronic disorder of carbohydrate, fat and protein metabolism. Its chief complications include arterial plaque (atherosclerosis), heart disease and stroke, kidney disease, nerve degeneration, foot ulcers, gum disease and, occasionally, dementia. There are two major types of diabetes: type 1 and type 2.
Type 1, or insulin-dependent diabetes mellitus, usually is diagnosed in children, teens and young adults (before age 25) and accounts for 5 to 10 percent of American diabetics. This form involves complete destruction of the cells in the pancreas (called beta cells) that produce the hormone insulin.
The remaining 90 to 95 percent of diabetics in the United States have non-insulin-dependent diabetes mellitus, or type 2, which usually is diagnosed after 40 years of age. Type 2 diabetes is characterized by a 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.
While diet and exercise are essential in managing diabetes, several herbs have shown great promise in supporting the battle against this disease.
American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius) is making news in the United States as an aid to controlling blood sugar. A number of studies conducted by scientists at the University of Toronto verified ginseng’s ability to smooth out the after-meal blood sugar spikes that type 2 diabetics experience.
The first paper, published in 2000, explained that a single 3-gram capsule of a prepared ginseng extract reduced these blood sugar rises. In healthy, non-diabetic people, ginseng only suppressed post-meal blood glucose when taken 40 minutes before eating carbohydrates, while diabetics got results when they took ginseng either 40 minutes before or with the carbohydrate.
The investigators then wanted to determine which timing and dose would be most beneficial for diabetic patients. They concluded that time did not matter and that doses above 3 grams a meal were no more effective than smaller doses. Next, they compared times and doses in non-diabetics. Again, time did not matter but increasing the dose improved results a bit. Larger doses reduced blood sugar by a slightly higher percentage (3 grams, 26.6 percent; 6 grams, 29.3 percent; 9 grams, 38.5 percent).
Then, in 2001, the researchers administered the herb closer to the meal. Ginseng doses from 1 to 3 grams all worked equally. The best blood sugar lowering effect was from taking the herb 40 minutes before the meal. Based on these studies, the bottom line is that a modest dose of 1 gram taken 40 minutes before each meal would work well for pre-diabetic people (anyone who has abnormal blood sugar levels or mechanisms that eventually would lead to diabetes if left untreated).
Fenugreek (Trigonella foenum-graecum), which is used as a seasoning in foods (especially in Egypt, India and the Middle East), is a well-documented herb for blood-sugar control. Studies demonstrate benefits in both types of diabetes.
In one open study of 60 type 2 diabetics, published in Nutrition Research, 25 grams per day of fenugreek led to noteworthy improvements in overall blood sugar control, blood sugar elevations after a meal and cholesterol levels. A different open study from the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition showed results with only 15 grams of fenugreek daily.
Further, in a small single-blind controlled study, patients with type 1 diabetes were randomly prescribed with fenugreek at a dose of 50 grams twice daily as part of their lunch and dinner or the same meals without the powder, each for 10 days. Those on the fenugreek diet had significant decreases in their fasting blood sugar.
Holy basil leaf (Ocimum sanctum). This unassuming little garden plant plays a central role in the folk medicine of South Asia. Called tulsi in Sanskrit, this mild medicinal herb and vegetable is cultivated near temples and private homes, where it is believed to purify the air and to sanctify the environs.
Holy basil treats diabetes, normalizing both blood sugar and blood fats, including cholesterol and triglycerides, factors that are integral to diabetes, as well as to other cardiovascular diseases. A significant placebo-controlled, crossover study published in the Journal of Clinical Pharmacy and Therapeutics showed a 17.6 percent reduction in blood sugar and led the scientists to conclude that holy basil was of value in mild to moderate diabetes.
Traditionally, holy basil is given as a tea. Try a dose of 1 teaspoon of dry herbs, brewed into 1 cup of water, in a dose of 3 cups daily.
Bitter melon (Momordica charantia). Also known as balsam pear, this vegetable, widely cultivated for food in Asia, Africa and South America, is widely known as a folk remedy in diabetes. This fruit looks like an ugly cucumber, green and covered with gourd-like bumps. Many studies, including a 2003 study published in the American Journal of Health-System Pharmacy, have demonstrated the hypoglycemic effect of this herb.
Bitter melon, commonly available in Chinese restaurants and Asian grocery stores, can be steamed or sautéed and eaten as a food. The fresh juice, dried herb and water decoction (tea) are all effective. Studies showed good results with 2 ounces of juice each day. The juice got its common name for good reason and is difficult to make palatable. So plug your nose and take a 2-ounce shot.
Gurmar leaf (Gymnema sylvestre). This remarkable herb, well known in Ayurvedic medicine, is just beginning to get serious attention in the United States. When chewed, the plant’s leaves interfere with the ability to taste sweetness, which explains its Hindi name, gurmar, “destroyer of sugar.”
Gymnema certainly could serve as the backbone of a natural diabetes program. It has been used in India for the treatment of diabetes for more than 2,000 years. Used primarily for type 2 diabetes, its benefits extend to type 1, and it continues to be recommended today in India. The leaves raise insulin levels when administered to healthy volunteers. Gurmar tends to be a blood sugar balancer, lowering glucose significantly only in hyperglycemic people. It also significantly improves cholesterol and triglyceride levels.
Traditionally, 6 to 12 grams of the powdered leaf each day is used. Studies recently performed in India have used 400 mg daily of an extract of the leaves. In type 2 diabetics, ongoing use for periods as long as 18 to 24 months has been successful. In type 1 diabetic patients, a similar amount of 400 mg daily has been used as an adjunct to ongoing use of insulin.
In one recent study at the University of Madras, gurmar showed the potential for repairing the pancreas and raising the output of insulin to normal levels. Another Indian study reported that 25 percent of the participants were able to discontinue all diabetes medication with the use of gurmar.
Garlic and onions (Allium sativum, A. cepa). While well known as common foods, the bulbs of onion and garlic are significant hypoglycemics. The active properties are thought to be sulfur-containing compounds such as allicin. Evidence suggests these compounds lower glucose levels by competing with insulin in the liver. The well-known cardiovascular benefits of these herbs (regulating blood pressure, cholesterol and platelet aggregation) justify their use in diabetes. However, even at moderate dietary levels, garlic and onions have potent effects, so diabetics should use them liberally.
Karta Purkh Singh Khalsa is an adjunct faculty member in the botanical medicine department of Bastyr University. He currently is writing a book about Ayurvedic herbalism.
Note: If you have diabetes, it’s important to remain under a physician’s care. Always consult your health-care provider before using herbs as they may conflict with medications or other conditions.