Authors: Pat Harper, R.D. and Richard Laliberte with William A. Pettit, Jr., M.D.
Excerpt from: Change One for Diabetes, Reader’s Digest Association, Inc.
Some of the most promising alternative treatments for high blood sugar come from nature’s pharmacy, which isn’t surprising. Plants and herbs have long been part of traditional treatment for diabetes, and they may be the closest thing to “real” medicine in the entire alternative arsenal. In fact, some countries, such as Germany, require doctors to study herbal medicine as part of their medical training.
GYMNEMA: THE SUGAR BLASTER
In India and Africa, where Gymnema sylvestre can be found creeping in tropical forests, the woody plant has been used for centuries as a remedy for diabetes. In fact, its name in Hindi is gurmar, which mans “sugar destroyer.” It got its reputation in part because chewing its leaves is said to make you insensible to the taste of sweetness, but there’s probably more to it than that. Lab analyses have found that gymnema boosts the activity of enzymes that help cells take up glucose, so there’s less of it floating in the blood. More than a decade ago, animal studies found that it brings down blood sugar-but not in animals that had had their pancreases removed. These revelations have led researchers to theorize that gymnema may battle high blood sugar by:
- Boosting the realese of insulin by making cells in the pancreas more permeable
- Stimulating insulin-making beta cells in the pancreas
- Increasing the number of beta cells
FENUGREEK: A POTENT SPICE
In Mediterranean and near Eastern countries, fenugreek has a long history as a spice and flavor enhancer, but that’s not all it’s been used for over the centuries. Early Greek and Latin catalogs of medicines list it as a treatment for high blood sugar. Animal research and a handful of small human studies suggest that ancients were on to something. In one study, for example, 60 people with type 2 diabetes who took a total of 25 grams of fenugreek powder in two equal doses at lunch and dinner for six months dropped their fasting blood sugar from an average 151 to 112.
Fenugreek seems to make the stomach empty more slowly, hinder the absorption of carbohydrates, and put the brakes on the movement of glucose through the body-all of which may be due to the fact that fenugreek is extremely high in fiber.
BITTER MELON: A STRONG VEGETABLE
Although it’s a staple of Chinese and Indian cuisine, bitter melon lives up to its name-or names: It’s also known as bitter gourd, bitter apple, and bitter cucumber. Cultivated in tropical areas of Asia, Africa, and South America, it’s been used as a contraceptive, a treatment for psoriasis, and a variety of other purposes. Mainly, though, it’s been hailed for lowering blood sugar, and the fruit and seed are loaded with chemicals that appear to have an impact on glucose or insulin (one of the chemicals is similar to cow insulin).
Lab and animal studies suggest that bitter melon may work on several levels, such as boosting insulin secretion, improving the ability of cells to absorb glucose, and hindering the release of glucose from the liver. One of the largest studies of bitter melon in people with type 2 diabetes lasted only two days, but it caused significant drops in blood sugar.
CONTROL WITH CHROMIUM
Although it sounds like something you’d use to polish your wheel covers, chromium is actually a trace mineral that helps the body use glucose. For example, chromuim appears to make it easier for insulin to bind with cells so that glucose can enter tissues and not build up in the blood. Despite its importance, you probably don’t get enough: Most Americans get about 30 micrograms a day, but it’s estimated that we should get 50 to 200 micrograms.
Will getting more give you a hand with blood sugar control? Even though chromium is one of the bettter known micronutrients suggested for diabetes, research with people who have high blood sugar has produced mixed results. In one of the largest studies, 180 people were assigned to groups that got either chromium (two different doses were tried) or a dummy pill. Those who got the chromium significantly reduced their A1C numbers (which indicate long-term blood sugar control) after four months.
BOOST INSULIN SENSITIVITY WITH VANADIUM
When a Swedish chemist discovered this trace element, he name it after Vanadis, the Scandinavian goddess of youth and beauty, because of its lovely colors. In the 19th centrury, before the discovery of insulin, a form a vanadium was used to treat diabetes, and it now appears that it influences insulin’s performance in a variety of ways. In animals, it’s been shown to help cells take up glucose in lab studies with rats, high doses of vanadium (thousands of times greater than the amount thought necessary for good health) have brought down elevated blood sugar.
Small human studies using more reasonable doses have shown promising effects as well. For example, research at Harvard’s Joslin Diabetes Center found that vanadium improves insulin sensitivity in people with type 2 diabetes and lowers cholesterol as well. Does it bring down blood sugar numbers? That’s what happened in a study at Temple University in Philadelphia in which people with type 2 diabetes took vanadyl sulfate, one form of vanadium, for three weeks.