Last year, my friend Will, age 49, was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes. His doctor warned that if he didn’t test his blood sugar daily and take all sorts of drugs and eventually inject insulin, he would lose his legs and die a horrible, premature death. In a panic, Will called me and asked what he should do. Several things, I said — starting with dumping that doctor.
The bad news, I told him, is that the U.S. diabetes rate has jumped more than 50 percent since 1983. Some 16 million Americans are now diabetic. If current trends continue, one-third of Americans born in the 21st century might develop the disease, according to a 2003 article published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. The good news is that type 2 diabetes — the type 95 percent of American diabetics have — can be completely eliminated. In most cases, all it takes is lifestyle adjustments complemented by herbal medicine.
Diabetes is two different diseases, both involving the hormone insulin. In type 1, which typically strikes before age 25 and only accounts for about 5 percent of the disease, the pancreas stops producing insulin, which is required to usher blood sugar (glucose) into the body’s cells. Type 1 diabetics must inject insulin.
Type 2 diabetes typically develops after age 40, either because the pancreas does not produce enough insulin, or because the cells become “resistant” and can’t use it.
In both types of diabetes, sugar builds up in the blood and causes the blood to become sticky. Eventually, this sticky blood gums up the blood vessels and causes the condition’s complications: cardiovascular disease (heart disease and stroke); poor wound healing; and problems with the eyes, kidneys, legs, nervous system and sexual organs.
Type 1 diabetes is caused by bad luck. Type 2 is strongly associated with obesity and the lifestyle that causes it: lack of exercise and a diet low in fruits and vegetables, and high in sugar, fat and animal products. As weight increases, the body’s cells become insulin resistant.
Unlike type 1 diabetes, which has a fairly sudden onset, type 2 develops slowly, over years, as weight rises. Because of its slow development, type 2 diabetes rarely produces dramatic symptoms, and many people with the disease have no idea they have it.
Natural strategies for prevention and treatment.
There are other risk factors for type 2 diabetes beyond obesity: family history, temporary diabetes while pregnant, age older than 40 and ethnicity (African Americans and Hispanics have higher rates). But these risk factors are by no means destiny. Even in people with a family history and at-risk ethnicity, lifestyle adjustments can prevent the disease or eliminate it. Researchers at the University of Texas Health Sciences Center in San Antonio followed 3,682 people with type 2 diabetes for seven years. During that time, diet modifications, weight loss and exercise allowed 12 percent of them to become nondiabetic, according to a 1998 article in Diabetes Care.
Because type 2 diabetes is most often caused by being overweight and sedentary, it should come as no surprise that regular exercise and weight loss prevent and treat it. Research backs this up:
• UCLA researchers persuaded 652 type 2 diabetics to enroll in a medically supervised diet and exercise program. The participants took daily walks and ate a diet very low in fat and cholesterol and high in fruits, vegetables and beans. After just 26 days, their average blood sugar levels dropped 15 percent. Of those taking diabetes medications, 71 percent were able to discontinue them. Of those injecting insulin, 39 percent were able to stop.
• Finnish researchers recruited 522 middle-aged overweight adults who were not diabetic but showed signs of insulin resistance. Half of the participants, the controls, received general health advice. The other half exercised for 30 minutes a day and ate a low-fat diet with lots of fruits and vegetables. Four years later, the diet-exercise group had lost an average of nine pounds versus two pounds in the control group. Diabetes developed in 23 percent of the controls but in just 11 percent of the diet-exercise group.
“The evidence is overwhelming,” says Joe Pizzorno, former president of Bastyr University near Seattle, a leading naturopathic medical school. “Our Western diet and lifestyle cause type 2 diabetes. To prevent it, get regular exercise. Eat less saturated fat and cholesterol by reducing or eliminating animal products. And eat more fruits, vegetables, beans and whole grains.”
A plant-based diet helps prevent diabetes in three ways: First, compared with the typical American diet, it’s much lower in fat, so it helps control weight. Second, it’s high in fiber, which helps control blood sugar. And third, plant foods are rich in antioxidant nutrients, which improve the body’s ability to use insulin. As blood levels of antioxidants rise, diabetes risk drops.
Supplements also help with type 2 diabetes. Research support is strongest for the following four nutrients:
• Vitamin E. At Louisiana State Medical Center in Shreveport, researchers gave 35 diabetics vitamin E (100 IU daily) for three months. The vitamin significantly reduced their blood sugar. It also trimmed their blood levels of highly unstable oxygen ions (free radicals), which reduced their risk of heart disease and other diabetes complications. New York City clinical nutritionist Shari Lieberman, Ph.D., recommends 600 to 800 IU a day.
• Magnesium. Low blood levels of magnesium are associated with insulin resistance, poor control of diabetes and heart disease. In a study published in 1998 in Diabetes Care, Brazilian researchers gave magnesium supplements to 127 type 2 diabetics. Supplementation improved their ability to maintain near-normal blood-sugar levels. Lieberman suggests supplementing with 20 to 30 mg a day.
• Chromium. Chromium plays a key role in insulin synthesis, and maintenance of blood sugar in the normal range. U.S. Department of Agriculture researchers told 180 type 2 diabetics to continue taking their medication and, in addition, to take one of three supplement regimens: a placebo, a low dose of chromium picolinate (200 micrograms a day) or a high dose (1,000 mcg a day). Both chromium groups experienced significant decreases in blood sugar. The high-dose group enjoyed the greatest benefit. Lieberman advises 400 to 600 mcg a day.
• Zinc. Animals deprived of this mineral develop insulin resistance and high blood sugar. Lieberman suggests supplementing with 30 to 50 mg a day.
Daily exercise is equally important. In a 1995 study, Japanese researchers prescribed just dietary changes for some type 2 diabetics and the same dietary changes plus walking (10,000 steps a day, about four miles) for others. Compared with the controls, who made no diet or exercise changes, both the diet and diet-exercise groups lost weight and became less insulin resistant. But the exercise group lost significantly more weight and saw their insulin resistance and blood sugar levels plummet.
In most of the studies, walking has been the activity of choice. Most experts recommend brisk walking for at least 30 minutes a day. But the type of exercise is much less important than commitment to doing it regularly, ideally daily. Harvard researchers followed the health of more than 14,000 alumni for several decades. The more they exercised, the less likely they were to develop diabetes — even if they were overweight and had close relatives with the disease.
Many herbs help prevent and treat diabetes. Here is a sampling of the most popular and powerful. Culinary herbs can be used to taste. If you buy commercial herb preparations, follow package directions, or use the doses in the cited studies:
• Cinnamon (Cinnamomum cassia, C. zeylanicum). Beyond something to bake into cookies or sprinkle on toast, cinnamon has emerged in recent years as a major herbal treatment for diabetes. In a 2005 study published in Phytotherapy Research, German researchers gave 60 type 2 diabetics either a placebo or cinnamon capsules (1, 3 or 6 grams daily). Six weeks later, all three cinnamon doses reduced blood sugar (18 to 29 percent).
• Garlic (Allium sativum) and onion (Allium cepa). These closely related herbs are best known for reducing cholesterol — and with it the risk of cardiovascular disease, by far the leading killer of diabetics. But garlic and onions also reduce blood sugar, according to two Indian studies. Use more of them in cooking, or try garlic capsules. Note: Garlic is anticoagulant. It should not be used by those with bleeding disorders, people taking other anticoagulants or for two weeks prior to scheduled surgery.
• Ginseng root (Panax ginseng, P. quinquefolius). Several studies show that ginseng reduces blood sugar. In one, Finnish researchers gave 36 type 2 diabetics a placebo or ginseng (100 or 200 mg daily). After eight weeks, both doses significantly reduced their blood sugar levels — and elevated their mood, as well. Ginseng is anticoagulant — the same warnings associated with garlic apply.
• Evening primrose oil (Oenothera spp.). This herb oil contains gamma-linolenic acid, which improves circulation through the small blood vessels — the ones most often clogged by chronically high blood sugar. British researchers gave either a placebo or evening primrose oil (12 capsules, 480 mg a day) to 111 diabetics with mild symptoms of diabetic nerve damage. After a year, the placebo group reported no improvement, but the evening primrose oil group reported significant relief. Lieberman suggests daily supplementation with 2 to 6 standard capsules a day.
• Psyllium (Plantago psyllium). Plant foods help control diabetes in part because they are high in fiber. So are some herbs, among them psyllium seed. Mexican researchers tested the blood sugar and cholesterol levels of 125 type 2 diabetics and then supplemented their diets with either a placebo or psyllium (about 2 teaspoons in water three times daily). After six weeks, the psyllium group showed significantly lower blood sugar and cholesterol. The easiest way to take psyllium is to use the bulk-forming laxative Metamucil. Take psyllium with plenty of water or fruit juice.
• Fenugreek (Trigonella foenum-graecum). With a flavor that recalls maple syrup, fenugreek seeds are a popular condiment in India. They also are high in soluble fiber. In a 1996 study, Indian researchers measured the blood sugar and cholesterol levels of 60 type 2 diabetics and then instructed them to live their lives as usual — with one change: a bowl of soup before each meal containing almost an ounce (25 grams) of powdered fenugreek seed. After 24 weeks, their cholesterol and blood sugar levels fell significantly.
• Bilberry (Vaccinium myrtillus). Sometimes called European blueberry, this herb contains potent antioxidants (anthocyanosides) that have an unusual affinity for the eye. Bilberries help treat diabetic retinopathy, a common complication of the disease and a leading cause of blindness. In one study, European researchers gave 37 retinopathy sufferers either a placebo or bilberry extract (160 mg twice a day). Retinopathy remained unchanged in the placebo group. But in 79 percent of those who took bilberry, vision improved. Another way to get anthocyanosides is to eat blueberries, cranberries or huckleberries. Similar compounds can be found in blackberries, raspberries, grapes, plums, raisins and prunes.
• Coffee (Coffea, various species). Dutch researchers reviewed nine studies involving almost 200,000 participants that correlated coffee consumption with risk of diabetes. Up to 2 cups a day had no effect on risk, but higher consumption resulted in reduced risk, presumably because caffeine increases metabolic rate and, as a result, helps control weight. Of course, drinking more than 2 cups a day might cause jitters and insomnia. But for those at risk for diabetes who can tolerate the caffeine, coffee is worth considering.
• Tea (Camellia sinensis). In 2003, researchers in Taiwan asked 20 type 2 diabetics to drink either water or oolong tea (6 cups a day). After a month, the tea group showed significantly lower blood sugar, presumably because of the caffeine and potent antioxidants in tea. Again, the caffeine in tea may be a disadvantage for some, but for others the benefits may be worth the stimulation.
• Soy (Glycine max). Among plant foods, tofu and other soy items can be especially beneficial for diabetics. They lower cholesterol, reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease. Soy foods also are high in fiber, which helps prevent and treat diabetes. In addition, soy foods are high in two amino acids (glycine and arginine) that help reduce the body’s synthesis of cholesterol, thus helping prevent the leading cause of diabetic death, cardiovascular disease.
My friend Will left the doctor who wanted him to take drugs and hooked up with another physician who supported dietary changes and exercise. Will began taking brisk, daily, hour-long walks after dinner. He cut back on meats, cheese and sugar, and ate more fruits and vegetables, drank tea, and took cinnamon and ginseng. Over four months, he lost 20 pounds. His blood sugar plummeted. Six months after his diagnosis, his new doctor declared him free of diabetes.
San Francisco-based writer Michael Castleman is the author of 12 consumer health books, including The New Healing Herbs (Rodale, 2001). Visit him at www.HerbsForHealth.com/contributors.
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