Diabetes Alternative Treatments

Written by Rachel Nall, RN, BSN | Published on July 8, 2014
Medically Reviewed by Peggy Pletcher, MS, RD, LD, CDE on July 8, 2014

What Are Alternative Treatments for Diabetes?

When a person has diabetes, maintaining excellent blood sugar control is one aspect of disease management, but does not paint the entire picture. In addition to medications, such as insulin injections, patients may choose to use complementary and alternative therapies to better manage their diabetes. These therapies may aim to treat the mind as well as the body.

About one-third of Americans with diabetes use some form of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) therapies, according to an article published in the journal Clinical Diabetes. “Integrative medicine” is a term for the combination of traditional medicine and CAM therapies.

Before you begin such treatments, it is important to recognize that there is limited evidence on how well they do or do not work. Also, just because supplements are “all-natural” does not mean they will not interfere with diabetes medications or other medications. People with diabetes should always tell their physician about any alternative therapies they are taking to ensure safety.

What Herbs and Supplements Are Used As Alternative Therapies?

Herbs and supplements are some of the most popular CAM therapies for people with diabetes. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not consider these therapies “medicines.” Therefore, they are not regulated.

In its 2014 “Standards of Medical Care in Diabetes” statement, the American Diabetes Association took the following positions on supplements for diabetes:

  • There is no evidence that taking supplements or vitamins are beneficial for those with diabetes who do not have vitamin deficiencies.
  • Taking long-term antioxidant supplements, such as vitamin C, vitamin E and carotene have been associated with safety concerns.
  • There is no evidence that people with diabetes and vascular disease benefit from taking EPA and DHA supplements.
  • There is not enough evidence to suggest taking nutrients, such as vitamin D, chromium, magnesium, or cinnamon aid in diabetes treatment.

Below are some of the most popular supplements used with diabetes.

  • Aloe Vera: You can apply gel from this common household plant topically or take it as an oral supplement. Gel is commonly used to relieve burns.  Two clinical trials found that aloe vera taken orally helped to lower the fasting blood sugar during a six-week trial period. However, the studies did not cover long-term use.
  • Alpha-Lipoic Acid: Alpha-lipoic acid is an antioxidant found naturally in foods like spinach, broccoli, and potatoes. The supplement is thought to reduce nerve damage related to diabetes (diabetic neuropathy) and improve the body’s ability to use insulin. Some studies support the use of this supplement for neuropathy. While there is some evidence for the benefits of this treatment when taken intravenously, several studies show zero effectiveness in protecting against diabetic macular edema or improve the body’s response to insulin, according to the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM).
  • Chromium: Patients with diabetes have been shown to lose more chromium in their urine. This is thought to affect insulin resistance. A U.S. study that measured the effectiveness of chromium supplements across 180 patients found patients who took 500 μg of the supplement twice a day saw improved HbA1C (A1C) levels than those in the placebo group. However, other studies do not support these findings.
  • Cinnamon: Studies on this popular diabetes supplement have provided very inconsistent results. According to the Mayo Clinic, some studies show that cinnamon can enhance insulin sensitivity while others have found no effects. If cinnamon is helpful, its benefits are minimal.
  • Garlic: Garlic, or allium sativum, is a popular supplement, but research on its effects in people with diabetes is minimal. Clinical trials in patients with type 2 diabetes who took garlic did not show changes in blood sugar or insulin levels. Some clinical trials found garlic lowered total cholesterol levels and blood pressure levels.
  • Ginseng: Ginseng is a powerful herbal supplement known to interact with several medications, particularly warfarin, which doctors prescribe as a blood thinner. According to NCCAM, no current research supports ginseng supplementation.
  • Gymnema Sylvestre (Gymemna): This Ayurvedic treatment involves chewing the leaves of the gymnema plant. The Hindi name for the plant is “gurmar” or “sugar destroyer.” The plant is rumored to have blood sugar-lowering effects. However, valid clinical studies have yet to demonstrate its effectiveness.
  • Magnesium: This mineral is present in many foods, including whole grains, nuts and green, leafy vegetables. A 2011 meta-analysis of diabetes research related to magnesium found that patients with low magnesium levels were more likely to develop diabetes. However, supplementation is not recommended until clinical studies can better assess its effectiveness.
  • Omega-3 Fatty Acids: Considered “good” fats, omega-3 fatty acids are those found in salmon, walnuts, soybeans, and other foods. While supplements may help reduce heart disease risk in as well as reduce triglyceride levels, there is no evidence that they reduce diabetes risk or help patients better manage diabetes. Also, the supplements can interact with medications used to thin the blood.
  • Polyphenols: Polyphenols are antioxidants found in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. Current evidence on the effectiveness of a high-polyphenol diet is only preliminary and has not produced conclusive findings.
  • Prickly Pear Cactus: Also known as nopal, this plant is used in cooking and for its reported medicinal effects. However, no direct link has been made with taking nopal and treatment for diabetes.  
  • Vanadium: A few studies show that in very high doses, vanadium may increase a person’s sensitivity to insulin. However, the evidence is not yet conclusive. Vanadium can cause side effects in high doses and can be toxic at very high doses, so excessive supplementation should be avoided.

What Mind and Body Approaches Are Used As Alternative Therapies?

Diabetes and other chronic conditions are associated with an increased risk depression and anxiety. According to the Mayo Clinic, increased stress can also affect the ability of people with diabetes to properly manage medications. Mind-body approaches are used as alternative therapies for diabetes to help patients deal with these concerns.

The American Diabetes Association (ADA) recommends that most patients with diabetes engage in at least 150 minutes of moderate to intense aerobic physical activity on a weekly basis, with strength training at least two days a week. In addition to this, other activities that can help reduce stress,, such as tai chi and yoga, may be beneficial. But according to research published in Clinical Diabetes,  while these may help a person relax and promote flexibility and strength, they are not associated with improvements in diabetes measurements, such as glycemic control or improvements in A1C tests.

While meditation may not burn calories, it can help to relieve stress. Meditation techniques can vary from mantra-based, such as repeating an uplifting thought or statement, to breathing techniques and methods. Examples of meditation techniques include Vipassana, Transcendental, and Zen meditation.

What Other Complementary Medicine Techniques Are Used as Alternative Therapies?

Acupuncture is a traditional Chinese medicine practice that involves inserting small needles into strategic points in the skin. This can help to re-direct energy flow and restore harmony to the body. In so doing, patients may feel more relaxed.

Acupressure is another technique that involves placing pressure on strategic points in the body to produce similar effects to acupuncture.

These techniques do not aim to cure diabetes, but instead aim to help a person’s body function more optimally.

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