Alternative Medicines for Diabetes

Diabetes mellitus is a disorder that prevents the body from effectively converting carbohydrates (sugars and starches) into energy. Insulin-dependent (type I) diabetes occurs when the pancreas gland stops producing insulin (a hormone that helps in the conversion process), whereas non-insulin-dependent (type II) diabetes happens when the body doesn't properly use the insulin it has.

The following alternative therapies all recommend that diabetes treatment be accompanied by an exercise regimen (including walking, jogging, or swimming) and a weight-loss program.


Nutritional Therapy for Diabetes

A correct diet offers people with type I diabetes the chance to stay healthy with less insulin and offers people with type II the possibility to manage the disorder without any drugs. Furthermore, a proper diet may even prevent diabetes.

Many practitioners of nutritional therapy believe that a typically Western, high-fat diet limits the way that cells can use naturally occurring insulin and injected insulin. But fat isn't the only concern: High amounts of protein tax the kidneys, which may already be stressed because in diabetes, excess blood sugar is excreted through these organs. Therefore, dietary recommendations call for lowering fat significantly and reducing protein. In the place of fat and protein, unrefined carbohydrates should be significantly increased.

Carbohydrates provide fewer calories per gram than fats do. Because weight loss is often critical for people with diabetes (especially type II diabetes), eating a lower-calorie yet filling diet is important. In addition, carbohydrates supply a lot of fiber, which can positively affect the levels of blood sugar. Good carbohydrates to focus on include:

  • fresh vegetables
  • fresh fruits (in moderation because of their high sugar content)
  • whole-wheat bread, oatmeal, and other whole grains
  • legumes (dry peas and beans)

Other research seems to advocate a diet with lower levels of carbohydrates and higher levels of protein and fat, but evidence is not yet conclusive. Moderation on all levels may be the best approach.

Surveys report that vegetarians, who eat no meat, poultry, or fish, have lower rates of type II diabetes than nonvegetarians. One reason for this may be that vegetarians' bodies are typically leaner than their meat-eating counterparts. Studies of the Pritikin diet -- which is high in complex carbohydrates and fiber, is low in cholesterol and fat, and avoids meat -- have shown that people can control their type II diabetes without drugs.

Nutrients such as the mineral chromium and niacin (in small doses) may boost the power of insulin and can be taken in supplement form. Other helpful supplements include:

  • vitamin B6
  • vitamin C
  • vitamin E
  • manganese
  • magnesium
  • vanadium (in the form of vanadyl sulfate)

Bioflavonoids, such as naringen (from the inside of grapefruit skins), hesperidin, and quercetin can help alleviate some of the degenerative effects of high blood sugar. They block the buildup of sorbitol, a substance that may be responsible for the kidney, eye, and nerve damage caused by diabetes.

In addition to changes in the diet, a naturopathic physician may recommend the following supplements to someone with type II diabetes:

  • chromium picolinate
  • magnesium
  • vitamin C
  • vitamin E

Herbal Medicine for Diabetes

In the treatment of diabetes, herbs are mainly used for their ability to control elevated levels of glucose (sugar) in the blood. Several herbs can have beneficial effects:

  • Bilberry leaves can be made into a tea or, more often, taken in capsule form as a standardized extract (standardized to contain 25 percent anthocyanosides). This herb often requires several months of treatment before its effect begins.
  • Fenugreek seeds are used in powdered form or as a tea.
  • Bitter melon is available in extract form (made from the unripe fruit) or as juice (from the fresh fruit).
  • Garlic and onion can easily be added to meals. These may also ward off heart disease, a possible complication of diabetes.

Any of these herbs could decrease insulin (or hypoglycemic drug) requirements. Therefore, a person with diabetes should be under the strict supervision of a health care professional and carefully monitor blood glucose levels whenever starting a new treatment regimen.

Traditional Chinese Medicine for Diabetes

Traditional Chinese medicine often treats diabetes with a combination of herbal therapy, acupuncture, calorie-restricted diets, and exercise (including qigong). Some traditional Chinese physicians have identified close to 20 different diabetes syndromes, which vary according to the degree of imbalance in vital life energy, or qi, as well as yin and yang.

The treatment goal is to return the flow of vital life energy to its ideal state. The physicians often prescribe multi-herb diabetes treatments, which are boiled with water and then taken as tea. Several of the herbs, such as panax ginseng, are selected for their mild ability to lower blood sugar levels.

Several types of practitioners are qualified to offer acupuncture and Chinese herbal treatment, including acupuncturists and some naturopathic physicians and medical doctors.

Other Diabetes Therapies

  • Biofeedback Training for Diabetes -- Electromyographic biofeedback and relaxation techniques can teach people with diabetes to reduce stress, which is important because stress hormones can increase the levels of blood sugar.
  • Homeopathy for Diabetes -- Treatment can lower the need for insulin injections and other drug therapy.
  • Hydrotherapy for Diabetes -- Alternating hot and cold compresses and showers, as well as castor oil packs over the abdomen may be helpful.
  • Hypnotherapy for Diabetes -- Hypnotic trances can be used to lower stress and offer the subconscious mind suggestions that the body needs less insulin.
  • Yoga for Diabetes -- Studies have shown that regular sessions of poses and breathing exercises can improve blood sugar levels.

For more information on diabetes and alternative medicine, see: