Maintaining blood sugar levels is part of managing diabetes. Doctors often prescribe traditional treatments, like insulin injections to keep blood sugar levels normal. Some people with diabetes also use complementary and alternative therapies (CAM). These therapies aim to treat the body and the mind.
Alternative treatments for diabetes include:
- relaxation techniques
There is little evidence whether some CAM therapies work. Supplements may be considered “all natural.” But that doesn’t mean they won’t interfere with traditional medications. In fact, there’s no legal definition of “all natural.”
Diet and exercise
Most of us don’t think of diet and exercise as “alternative medicine.” But they do fall under this category. Diet and exercise are important in treating diabetes. What you eat and how active you are impacts your blood sugar level and health. Having a healthy diet and staying active have a positive impact on diabetes.
Having an exercise regimen is a standard recommendation for people with diabetes. The American Diabetes Association (ADA) recommends doing resistance exercises twice per week for people without activity restrictions. Examples could be lifting free weights or using resistance bands. Those with type 2 diabetes should also aim for at least 150 minutes of moderate to intense aerobic activity every week.
The World Journal of Diabetes published a review of studies about type 2 diabetes and exercise. The review found physical activity is one of the best treatments to control type 2 diabetes. Exercise can reduce blood pressure, improve glucose tolerance, and reduce too-high blood sugar levels.
The ADA makes the same recommendations for those with type 1 diabetes. But people with type 1 diabetes should be careful. They are more at risk for hypoglycemic episodes during exercise. They should watch their blood sugar levels carefully.
Herbs and supplements
Herbs and supplements are popular CAM therapies for people with diabetes. But the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) doesn’t consider these therapies “medicines.” They aren’t regulated. There are also no definitive studies that support treating diabetes with supplements.
Most support for these substances comes by word of mouth. Always speak with your doctor before you start taking any new supplements. Some supplements can interact with medications you’re taking.
Some of the most popular supplements used for diabetes include:
In two clinical trials, researchers found participants who took aloe vera for six weeks had lowered fasting blood sugar. The trials included long-term use of aloe vera. But there is concern about the impact of aloe vera taken orally, including its laxative effect.
Alpha-lipoic acid (ALA) is an antioxidant found in foods like:
ALA might reduce nerve damage related to diabetes (diabetic neuropathy). Some studies support the use of this supplement for neuropathy.
There is some evidence ALA has benefits when taken intravenously. Several studies show it’s not effective when taken by mouth.
There is little support it protects against diabetic macular edema or improves the body’s response to insulin, according to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH).
People with diabetes lose more chromium in their urine than the general population. This may affect insulin resistance. One study found people taking a type of oral diabetes medication experienced improved control of blood sugar levels when they also took chromium supplements.
Studies on cinnamon show inconsistent results. According to the Mayo Clinic, some studies show cinnamon can enhance insulin sensitivity. Other studies have found no effects. If cinnamon is helpful, its benefits are minimal.
Garlic (Allium sativum) is a popular supplement. But research on its effects in people with diabetes is minimal. Clinical trials in people with type 2 diabetes who took garlic didn’t show changes in blood sugar or insulin levels. Some clinical trials found garlic lowered total cholesterol levels and blood pressure levels.
Ginseng is a powerful herbal supplement. It interacts with several medications, particularly warfarin. This is a medication doctors prescribe as a blood thinner. According to NCCIH, no current research supports taking ginseng.
Gymnema sylvestre (gymnema)
This Ayurvedic treatment involves chewing the leaves of the gymnema plant. The Hindi name for the plant is “gurmar” or “sugar destroyer.” The plant may have blood sugar-lowering effects. But clinical studies have yet to show its effectiveness.
This mineral is present in many foods, including:
- whole grains
- green, leafy vegetables
A 2011 meta-analysis of diabetes research related to magnesium found people with low magnesium levels were more likely to develop diabetes. Eating a diet rich in magnesium provides healthy foods and is risk-free. But taking supplements is not recommended until clinical studies can prove its effectiveness.
Omega-3 fatty acids
Omega-3 fatty acids are considered “good fats.” They’re found in foods like:
Supplements may help reduce heart disease and triglyceride levels. But there’s no evidence they reduce diabetes risk or help people manage diabetes. Also, the supplements can interact with medications used to thin the blood.
Polyphenols are antioxidants found in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. Evidence on the effectiveness of a high-polyphenol diet has not produced conclusive findings.
Prickly pear cactus
Also known as nopal, prickly pear cactus is a plant used in cooking. It may also have medicinal effects. But there’s no known link between taking nopal and treatment for diabetes.
A few studies show that in very high doses, vanadium may increase a person’s sensitivity to insulin. Evidence is not yet conclusive. Vanadium can cause side effects in high doses. It can also be toxic at very high doses.
Cautions about supplements
Researchers rarely study supplements and aren’t required to prove any claims. The safety and efficacy of supplements are generally unknown. Supplements may not contain what the label says, and they may have unknown side effects.
Supplements can negatively affect a person’s medications. They can also make a person feel nauseous and ill. A person should always use caution and talk to a doctor before starting to take any supplements.
The American Diabetes Association (ADA), in its 2017 Standards of Medical Care in Diabetes statement, took the following positions:
- There’s no evidence that taking supplements or vitamins benefits those with diabetes who do not have vitamin deficiencies.
- Taking vitamin C, vitamin E, and carotene supplements long-term is associated with safety concerns.
- There’s no evidence people with diabetes and vascular disease benefit by taking EPA and DHA supplements. Instead, eating foods rich in these fatty acids can be beneficial in treating cardiovascular disease, a common co-morbidity with diabetes.
- There’s not enough evidence supplements like vitamin D, chromium, magnesium, or cinnamon aid in diabetes treatment.
An alternative approach to dietary supplements can be to adopt a plant-based diet. According to an article in the journal Diabetes Care, twice as many nonvegetarians are diagnosed with diabetes compared with vegetarians and vegans.
While those with diabetes don’t have to avoid meat, they could make their diet more focused on foods like:
- whole grains
This can help to lower cholesterol, maintain blood sugar levels, and promote a healthy weight. All these factors can help a person with type 2 diabetes.
Mind and body
There’s an increased risk of depression and anxiety in people with diabetes or other chronic conditions. According to the Mayo Clinic, increased stress can affect the ability of people with diabetes to manage blood sugar levels and medications. Mind-body approaches can help people with diabetes deal with these concerns.
Aromatherapy is another alternative therapy used to reduce stress. It involves smelling essential oils to promote relaxation. Researchers haven’t conducted a lot of studies on aromatherapy and diabetes. But an older study published in the 2005 edition of the Diabetes, Obesity, and Metabolism Journal found smelling essential oils like fenugreek, cinnamon, cumin, and oregano helped lower systolic blood pressure (the top number of the blood pressure reading). The oils also lowered blood glucose levels when used in combination.
Other relaxation techniques
While meditation may not burn calories, it can help relieve stress. Meditation can be mantra-based, like repeating an uplifting thought or statement. Meditation can also involve breathing techniques. Examples of meditation techniques include Vipassana, Transcendental, and Zen meditation.
Other complementary medicine
Acupuncture is a traditional Chinese medicine practice that involves inserting small needles into strategic points in the skin. It’s thought to redirect energy flow and restore harmony to the body. Acupuncture may help to reduce pain. This may benefit those with diabetic neuropathies.
The practice is generally considered safe. But it’s possible a person could experience injury like infection or nerve damage. These risks are greatly reduced if you find a licensed acupuncturist.
Acupressure involves placing pressure on strategic points in the body. It’s meant to produce similar effects to acupuncture. Massage therapy also involves applying pressure to relieve muscle tension. Massage may help to improve circulation, relieve stress, and improve joint mobility. These effects can all help a person with diabetes.
These techniques do not aim to cure diabetes, but instead help a person’s body function better. Traditional treatments should still be used while trying alternative treatments. Always talk to your doctor before starting a new treatment.