Research shows it is possible to prevent, halt, and even reverse type 2 diabetes with proper diet and lifestyle. Fresh, whole foods are fundamental to this approach, but nutritional supplements can also help. A number of herbs, spices, and dietary supplements can significantly boost efforts to control blood sugar levels and reduce insulin resistance.
Modern science has only recently begun to investigate herbal remedies to control diabetes and has already documented intriguing evidence of their effectiveness and safety. Because they are natural—and because, in many cases, they have been widely used in medicinal contexts for centuries—safety is seldom an issue. Some supplements even have mechanisms of action that are similar to those of anti-diabetes pharmaceuticals.
Nevertheless, it is important that before beginning any type of treatment, you discuss it with either your primary care doctor, or your specialist.
Cinnamon is an excellent example. Modern research shows that cinnamon not only helps regulate blood sugar, but it also reduces inflammation. Diabetes is one of several common diseases associated with inflammation. Another example is atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries), which is the underlying cause of most cardiovascular disease.
According to recent research, cinnamon has anti-inflammatory properties. It also reduces insulin resistance, decreases high blood sugar, and provides antioxidant activity. Its use has even been linked to reduced glycation of proteins. Glycation is an undesirable chemical reaction that occurs more rapidly in diabetics. It’s one of the underlying causes of the kind of tissue damage that is associated with uncontrolled high blood sugar. Such damage ultimately causes some of worst complications of diabetes, such as peripheral neuropathy and kidney disease (diabetic nephropathy).
In late 2011, researchers published a comprehensive meta-analysis of controlled trials focused on cinnamon and diabetes. The investigators considered data from eight separate clinical trials, and concluded that cinnamon and/or cinnamon extract produces a statistically significant decrease in fasting blood glucose levels among pre-diabetic and diabetic patients. The fasting blood glucose test is commonly used to assess how much a patient’s blood sugar level drops after a 12-hour fast.
Furthermore, cinnamon appears to delay gastric emptying, meaning that when taken with a high-carbohydrate meal, it slows down the process by which the carbohydrates are converted into blood sugar, thus preventing sharp spikes in blood sugar—and insulin levels—following such a meal.
Vitamin B1 (also known as thiamine) is essential for energy metabolism, but it’s water-soluble, so it has difficulty getting past the fatty layer of the body’s cellular membranes, and into the cells where it’s needed. However, a supplemental form of thiamine, called Benfotiamine, is lipid-soluble; it easily penetrates cell membranes. Research shows that benfotiamine helps prevent diabetes complications by blocking three of the major metabolic pathways by which high blood sugar leads to tissue damage. Benfotiamine reduces diabetic retinopathy (a complication that can lead to blindness), and may even protect the kidneys from diabetes-related damage.
One of the pathways benfotiamine blocks is a metabolic route that ultimately leads to the formation of advanced glycation end-products (AGEs). As noted above, AGEs have been linked to much of the damage caused by diabetes. AGEs are implicated in inflammation and the stiffening of certain tissues, such as the hardening that can occur inside of arteries. Both thiamine and Benfotiamine may help combat diabetic complications.
Alpha-lipoic acid (ALA) is a potent fat-soluble antioxidant that has proven useful in reducing oxidative stress, lowering fasting blood sugar levels, and decreasing insulin resistance in people with type 2 diabetes. Some studies have shown that, compared to placebo, ALA slows the progression of diabetic polyneuropathy. Most studies have used doses of 600 mg ALA per day.
Bitter melon (Momordica chantaria) is a vegetable traditionally used in the ancient Indian Ayurveda system of medicine. Empirical evidence of its effectiveness against diabetes is somewhat limited, consisting primarily of animal and cell culture studies. But a recent controlled clinical trial with human subjects compared the effects of 2 grams per day of bitter melon, versus 1 gram per day of the standard diabetes drug, metformin, and found that bitter melon had a modest hypoglycemic (blood-sugar-lowering) effect, although it was not as strong as metformin’s effect.
Some animal studies offer tantalizing evidence that bitter melon may stimulate new growth of pancreatic beta-cells, the specialized cells that produce insulin. Among insulin-dependent diabetics these cells are essentially “burned out” and no longer produce insulin.
Green tea is a nutritional superstar. It’s the second most popular beverage in the world (after water), and with good reason. Studies have shown that people who drink 5-6 cups per day are less likely to die from cardiovascular disease, while other research suggests green tea may offer protection against some forms of cancer, and help improve insulin resistance in diabetics. Beneficial effects are likely due to a potent antioxidant, EGCG, which reduces diabetes-associated oxidative stress, among other actions.
Resveratrol is a chemical found in wine and grapes. In animal models of human diabetes, resveratrol works as a antihyperglycemic; it helps prevent high blood sugar. Studies also show that resveratrol significantly reduces oxidative stress due to its potent antioxidant activity. Resveratrol provides additional significant benefits, including restoring the body’s natural antioxidant defense system, reducing inflammation and improving insulin sensitivity.
Chromium is an essential trace element necessary for proper carbohydrate metabolism. People who are deficient in this mineral may benefit from supplementation. Diabetics or people with insulin resistance, who also have high levels of HbA1C (also known as glycosylated hemoglobin; a blood marker for blood sugar control) may benefit the most. Among these individuals, chromium has been shown to improve blood glucose levels. Recommended doses range from 200-1,000 mcg chromium, in the form of chromium picolinate.
Magnesium is also an important essential nutrient. It helps regulate both blood pressure and insulin sensitivity. Studies show that nearly two-thirds of Americans are deficient in magnesium. Research also shows that supplemental magnesium may improve insulin sensitivity in diabetics. Many poorly-controlled diabetic patients are deficient in magnesium and could benefit by correcting this imbalance.
Researchers have examined the relationships among magnesium intake and inflammation, insulin resistance, and the incidence of diabetes. They found a consistent link between magnesium intake and lower inflammation. They also found conclusive evidence of a link between higher magnesium intake and lower incidences of insulin resistance and diabetes. Even people without diabetes have been shown to secrete less insulin if they have low levels of magnesium.