Controlling Diabetes with Complementary Therapies

Controlling Diabetes with Complementary Therapies

If you are one of the more than 16 million Americans suffering from diabetes, you know that controlling your disease is a daily battle. You get regular exercise, follow a strict meal plan that includes a close watch on your dietary intake of sugar, fat, and salt, and possibly take pills or tablets that help your body produce more insulin or use its insulin more effectively. Daily insulin injections may even be a part of your routine. The good news is that complementary therapies are showing promise in helping people with diabetes maintain better control over their health, and potentially reduce their need for oral hypoglycemic agents and insulin.

Complementary approaches have focused primarily on herb and supplement treatments. The following herbal remedies have been shown to be useful in treating diabetes:

Gymnema stimulates the pancreas to produce more insulin. It may take several months for the benefits to become apparent. In one study, gymnema helped reduce the need for oral hypoglycemic agents. The recommended dose is 400 mg/day.

Fenugreek may lower blood sugar levels; however, some people may be allergic to it. The recommended dose is 25 g/day of powdered seed in divided doses (that is, don't take it all at once).

Ginkgo may improve vision (long-term diabetes often results in damaged blood vessels and nerve cells, sometimes leading to vision problems, among other things). The recommended dose is 120 to 240 mg/day in divided doses.

Bilberry may help people with diabetes who have cataracts or retinopathy (long-term, poorly controlled diabetes may lead to this disease). The recommended dose is 80 to 160 mg/twice a day.

The following dietary supplements may also be helpful if you have diabetes:

Chromium may decrease the need for insulin and the need for oral hypoglycemic agents. It is most effective when taken in combination with niacin. The recommended dose is 200 mcg chromium and 100 mg niacin/day.

Magnesium may reduce the risk of cardiovascular problems, a major complication for most diabetics. It may also correct hypomagnesemia, a risk factor for diabetic retinopathy. Magnesium should not be used along with tetracyclines. The recommended dose is 250 to 750 mg/day.

Alpha-lipoic acid helps cells absorb sugar from the blood and protects against nerve damage. The recommended dose is 600 mg/day.

Vitamin E has been shown to improve insulin action in those with type 2 diabetes and to protect blood vessels from damage in those with type 1 diabetes. The recommended dose is 400 to 800 IU/day, taken with meals. Higher doses may be more effective for people with type 1 diabetes; talk with your doctor.

Oligomeric procyanidins (OPCs) may improve blood vessel strength (often weakened during long-term diabetes). The recommended dose is 150 mg OPCs/day.

Be sure to discuss all complementary therapies first with your physician to effectively integrate them into a complete diabetes control plan. Note: If you are taking anticoagulant or antiplatelet therapy, it is very important that you talk to your physician prior to taking ginkgo, vitamin E, or OPCs.


Type 1 diabetes: Usually begins in early childhood or young adulthood and is marked by the body's lack of insulin production.

Type 2 diabetes: Occurs mostly in later life and is characterized by the body's inability to use the insulin it produces effectively.

Insulin: A hormone produced by the pancreas and released when blood sugar levels rise. It facilitates the movement of blood sugar into body cells to be used for energy (or stored for later use).

Oral hypoglycemic agents: Diabetes medicine taken by mouth. These agents help the body to effectively use its insulin.

Retinopathy: Damage to the blood vessels in the retina of the eye, which may result in partial or complete blindness.

Suggested Resources

Diabetes and Hypoglycemia: How You Can Benefit from Diet, Vitamins, Minerals, Herbs, Exercise, and Other Natural Methods by Michael T. Murray, Prima Publishing, 1994.

Alternative and Complementary Diabetes Care: How to Combine Natural and Traditional Therapies by Diana W. Guthrie, John Wiley & Sons, published in April 2000.


Baskaran K, Kizar Ahamath B, Radha Shanmugasundaram K, Shanmugasundaram ER. Antidiabetic effect of a leaf extract from Gymnema sylvestre in non-insulin-dependent diabetes mellitus patients. J Ethnopharmacol. 1990;30(3):295-300.

Bursell S, Clermont AC, Aiello LP, et al. High-dose vitamin E supplementation normalizes retinal blood flow and creatinine clearance in patients with type I diabetes. Diabetes Care. 1999;22(8):1245-1251.

Cefalu WT. Treatment of type II diabetes: what options have been added to traditional methods? Postgrad Med. 1996;99(3):109-119, 122.

Diabetes Overview. National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases Web site. Available at: http:/ dmover.htm. Accessed August 5, 1999.

Eibl NL, Kopp HP, Nowak HR, Schnack CJ, Hopmeier PG, Schernthaner G. Hypomagnesemia in type II diabetes: effect of a 3-month replacement therapy. Diabetes Care. 1995;18(2):188-192.

Gisinger C, Jeremy J, Speiser P, Mikhailidis D, Dandona P, Schernthaner G. Effect of vitamin E supplementation on platelet thromboxane A2 production in type I diabetic patients. Double-blind crossover trial. Diabetes. 1988;37(9):1260-1264.

High-Dose Vitamin E Beneficial for Type I Diabetes, Herb & Dietary Supplement Report, November 1999.

Lagrua G, Oliver-Martin F, Grillot A. A study of the effects of procyandidol oligimers on capillary resistance in hypertension and in certain nephropathies. Sem Hosp. 1981;57:1399-1401.

Lebuisson DA, Leroy L, Rigal G. Treatment of senile macular degeneration with Ginkgo biloba extract. A preliminary double-blind drug vs. placebo study [in French]. Presse Med. 1986;15(31):1556-1558.

L-Carnitine and Type II Diabetes, The Integrative Pharmacy, July 1999.

McNair P, Christiansen C, Madsbad S, et al. Hypomagnesemia, a risk factor in diabetic retinopathy. Diabetes. 1978;27(11):1075-1077.

Mosby's Medical Encyclopedia [book on CD-ROM]. Boston, Mass: The Learning Company, Inc; 1994-1995, 1996, 1997.

Packer L, Witt EH, Tritschler HJ. Alpha-lipoic acid as a biological antioxidant. Free Radic Biol Med. 1995;19(2):227-250.

Paolisso G, D'Amore A, Giugliano D, Ceriello A, Varricchio M, D'Onofrio F. Pharmacolgoci doses of vitamin E improve insulin action in healthy subjects and non-insulin-dependent diabetic patients. Am J Clin Nutr. 1993;57(5):650-656.

Ravina A, Slezack L. Chromium in the treatment of clinical diabetes mellitus. Harefuah. 1993;125(5-6):142-145, 191.

Shanmugasundaram ER, Rajeswari G, Baskaran K, Rajesh Kumar BR, Radha Shanmugasundaram K, Kizar Ahmath B. Use of Gymnema sylvestre leaf extract in the control of blood glucose in insulin-dependent diabetes mellitus. J Ethnopharmacol. 1990;30(3):281-294.

Speetjens JK, Colloins RA, Vincent JB, Woski SA. The nutritional supplement chromium (III) tris(picolinate) cleaves DNA. Chem Res Toxicol. 1999;12(6):483-487.

Urberg M, Zemel MB. Evidence for synergism between chromium and nicotinic acid in the control of glucose tolerance in elderly humans. Metabolism. 1987;36(9):896-899.

Review Date: January 2000
Reviewed By: Integrative Medicine editorial

Copyright © 2004 A.D.A.M., Inc

The publisher does not accept any responsibility for the accuracy of the information or the consequences arising from the application, use, or misuse of any of the information contained herein, including any injury and/or damage to any person or property as a matter of product liability, negligence, or otherwise. No warranty, expressed or implied, is made in regard to the contents of this material. No claims or endorsements are made for any drugs or compounds currently marketed or in investigative use. This material is not intended as a guide to self-medication. The reader is advised to discuss the information provided here with a doctor, pharmacist, nurse, or other authorized healthcare practitioner and to check product information (including package inserts) regarding dosage, precautions, warnings, interactions, and contraindications before administering any drug, herb, or supplement discussed herein.

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