Best Remedies for Diabetes
Learn about the top integrative therapies and how they could enable you to remain medication free or, with your doctor’s approval, reduce the amount you’re taking.
Think of type 2 diabetes as an extreme form of insulin resistance. In type 2 diabetes, your pancreas usually still makes some insulin — the hormone that helps blood sugar enter cells — but your body isn’t very good at using it. That leaves more blood sugar, or glucose, floating around in the bloodstream. Some people with type 2 diabetes can control their blood sugar level with diet and exercise alone; others (usually those who’ve had the disease for years) also need oral medication or, eventually, insulin shots.
Our goal is to provide you with the top integrative therapies to enable you to remain medication free or, with your doctor’s approval, reduce the amount you’re taking. If you’re able to move from insulin to an oral medication, we’ll consider that a success. Do not go off your medication without first discussing it with your physician.
You also need to consider other health conditions that often coexist with diabetes. For instance, many people with type 2 diabetes are overweight. You’re also more likely to develop high cholesterol and coronary artery disease. And diabetes is first and foremost an inflammatory disease.
Our best advice concentrates on nonmedical treatments that can increase the effectiveness of diabetes drugs or insulin, or help you use less.
- Add at least one high-fiber food (like a vegetable, whole fruit, beans, or whole grain rice, cereal, or pasta) to every meal.
- At least once a day, substitute a low-glycemic food for a higher glycemic choice, like whole grain bread for white bread, a bran muffin for a bagel, whole wheat pasta for regular white pasta, etc.
- After checking with your doctor, start exercising at least 20 minutes a day.
- Start meditating 15 minutes a day or take yoga class three times a week.
- Take a multiple vitamin/mineral every day.
Why It Works
Fiber slows the speed at which your stomach empties after a meal, which also slows the rise in blood sugar that happens after you eat. It’s best to get your fiber from food (fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes). An excellent source is oat bran. One study found that simply eating a slice of oat bran bread with meals improved post-meal blood sugar and cholesterol levels in people with diabetes. Aim for about 2 ounces of oat bran a day for best results.
If you just can’t stomach enough fiber-rich food, take 5 to 10 grams of a fiber supplement such as psyllium or guar gum before meals. Caution: Fiber supplements can make it difficult for your body to absorb drugs and other supplements, so take your pills at least an hour before, or several hours after, taking a fiber supplement.
The glycemic index ranks foods according to how quickly the carbohydrates they contain increase blood sugar levels — the lower the score, the slower the rise in blood sugar. High-fiber foods are usually relatively low on the glycemic index. Stick with a diet high in vegetables and fruit, whole grains, and other high-fiber foods like beans, oats, and bran, and you’ll do well. An article that evaluated 16 clinical trials on the effects of a low-glycemic diet on blood sugar found that such diets significantly reduced levels of fructosamine, a marker indicating blood glucose levels over two or three weeks, as well as total and LDL (“bad”) cholesterol.
Exercise makes your body more sensitive to insulin; in other words, it essentially helps to reverse your diabetes (it helps stave off the disease as well). In addition to lowering your blood sugar, it also lowers your risk of heart disease, which is high if you have diabetes. We’re not talking about marathons here — 20 to 30 minutes a day of physical activity, ideally a mix of aerobic exercise and strength training — is all it takes.
Exercise also helps by decreasing the production of stress hormones, which raise blood sugar. Meditation and yoga lower stress hormones too. Studies from Duke University find such relaxation techniques can significantly reduce blood sugar levels in people with diabetes.
Finally, the multivitamin/mineral is important to counteract oxidative stress, a main culprit behind many diabetes-related complications, including heart disease and nerve damage.
Particularly important vitamins/minerals include vitamin E (400 IU a day), vitamin C (500 to 1,000 milligrams a day), magnesium (300 to 600 milligrams a day), and zinc (30 milligrams a day). If you can’t find these amounts in one supplement, take separate supplements.
Two studies found that taking a daily combination of these four micronutrients for three months significantly decreased blood sugar levels while increasing levels of “good” HDL cholesterol and reducing blood pressure. An added benefit of a daily multivitamin is that it seems to reduce your risk of infections, which is higher if you have diabetes.
- Prickly pear cactus. In Latin American cultures, people eat the ripe fruit of this cactus fried or in shakes to lower blood sugar levels. More and more grocery stores stock such exotic fruits these days, but if you can’t find it, buy it as a juice or powder. Several small studies find prickly pear cactus can lower blood sugar levels, possibly because it contains components that work similarly to insulin. If you eat it as a food, aim for ½ cup of cooked cactus a day. Otherwise, follow label directions.
- Fenugreek. This spice is commonly used in Indian cuisine and as part of Ayurvedic medicine. It actually belongs to the legume family (as do peanuts), and its high fiber content (it’s 50 percent fiber) is a major reason for its blood sugar lowering benefits. Plus, studies find it increases the release of insulin from the pancreas. In one well-designed study, 25 people newly diagnosed with diabetes received either a fenugreek seed extract or followed a special diet and exercise program. After two months, blood sugar levels in both groups dropped about the same. An added bonus? Fenugreek can also reduce cholesterol levels. Mix 50 grams of powdered fenugreek with water to make a gruel, or take ½ to 1 tablespoon of a defatted fenugreek seed powder or two fenugreek pills before meals. Don’t worry if your urine smells like maple syrup while you’re taking it; that’s normal.
- Cinnamon. Researchers from Pakistan, the birthplace of cinnamon, found that people with type 2 diabetes who took between 1 and 6 grams (about 1/4 to 1 ½ teaspoons) of cinnamon for 40 days had blood glucose levels 18 to 29 percent lower than those who didn’t take any cinnamon (the more cinnamon, the lower the blood sugar levels). Try mixing the spice into coffee or tea, sprinkling it over cereal, yogurt, or cottage cheese, and adding to baked goods and even sauces.
- Bitter melon. This South American fruit/vegetable (it’s referred to as both) has been used as a diabetes treatment in folk medicine for centuries — and for good reason. Animal and human studies find it can reduce blood sugar levels, most likely through a chemical in the plant that acts like insulin. Buy bitter melon capsules and follow the package directions.
- Gymnema sylvestre. This plant has been used to treat diabetes in Ayurvedic medicine for thousands of years. Chewing the leaf or even holding the extract in your mouth for a minute suppresses your ability to taste sweetness for more than an hour, reducing the amount of food (and calories) you take in during your next meal. You can find several products on the market that take advantage of this action, including gums called Sweet Relief and SugarFighter. Gymnema also boosts the release of insulin from the pancreas, and may enable you to take less diabetes medicine. Take 400 milligrams of a gymnema extract twice a day.
- Bilberry. Not only does a tea made with this herb reduce blood sugar levels in animal studies, but the fruit of the plant, rich in antioxidants called anthocyanidins, also seems to help prevent damage to very tiny blood vessels. This damage is common in people with diabetes, resulting in a nerve-related complication called neuropathy, as well as the eye problem called retinopathy. Take 80 to 160 milligrams of an extract standardized to 25% anthocyanidins in divided doses.Prescription Drugs
In addition to injectable insulin, several oral drugs are available for the treatment of type 2 diabetes. These include:
- Sulfonylureas. Sulfonylureas are the oldest class of oral diabetes drugs. The newer drugs within this class, such as Amaryl (glimepiride), are less likely to induce hypoglycemia, or dangerously low blood sugar. They work by stimulating your pancreas to make more insulin, so only use them if the insulin-producing beta cells in your pancreas still work.
- Biguanides. The most commonly prescribed biguanide is Glucophage (metformin). It seems to work by reducing the amount of glucose the liver releases and helps insulin push glucose into muscle cells. Don’t use it if you have kidney failure or congestive heart failure.
- Thiazolidinediones. Avandia (rosiglitazone) and Actos (pioglitazone), help your muscles take in more glucose, thus reducing the amount of glucose your liver releases, although not as much as metformin. There’s some evidence it may also help maintain the pancreas’s ability to produce insulin, which often weakens over time. Downsides are that they take up to a month to begin working (four months for maximum effect), and can cause weight gain. Stay away if you have congestive heart failure.
- Alpha-glucosidase inhibitors. Used rarely these days, Precose (acarbose) and Glyset (miglitol) slow the absorption of carbohydrates. They have to be taken throughout the day as soon as you start eating. They also cause gas and bloating, side effects that may disappear once you’ve been using them awhile.
- Meglitinides. Prandin (repaglinide) and Starlix (nateglinide) help the pancreas make more insulin, but only when blood sugar is high — a plus over the sulfonylureas because they reduce the risk of hypoglycemia. They’re taken before meals so they work right when you need them. Incretins. This is the newest class of diabetes drug. The first drug, Byetta (exenatide) was approved in April 2005, and others are coming. Given by self-injection with a prefilled pen, it enhances the effect of hormones secreted by the intestines that signal the pancreas to make more insulin. It also prevents the liver from releasing stored glucose, and slows the rate at which food enters the intestine, further blunting any post-meal glucose spikes. There’s also some evidence these drugs can help maintain the health of insulin-producing cells in the pancreas. Byetta even suppresses the appetite and may therefore help with weight loss. It’s often prescribed along with oral diabetes medications (although it may also be prescribed alone), and is taken before breakfast and dinner.
- The right ratio of macronutrients. In addition to choosing from low-glycemic foods, follow the standard diet recommended for people with diabetes: 40 to 50 percent of your calories from complex carbohydrates (whole grains, fruits, vegetables, beans and legumes, i.e., low-glycemic), 20 to 30 percent from protein (limit meat and substitute soy and seafood whenever possible to reduce saturated fat); and 20 to 30 percent from fats, particularly “good” (monounsaturated) fats like olive and canola oil.
- Onions and garlic. Make these a regular part of your diet. Animal and a few human studies find the fragrant vegetables can lower blood sugar as well as cholesterol and blood pressure.
- Green or oolong tea. A small study of 20 people with type 2 diabetes found that those who drank 1 ½ quarts of oolong tea a day for 30 days significantly reduced their blood sugar levels and their levels of fructosamine (a marker that provides information about your glucose levels over the past two to four weeks) compared to when they drank only water. In lab animals, there’s evidence in animals that green tea helps cells soak up more glucose.
- Follow a high-fiber, low-glycemic diet. Make it high in dietary magnesium sources, like leafy green vegetables and whole grains, which studies find can reduce the risk of diabetes. At the same time, decrease the amount of meat in your diet, particularly processed meats like bacon and cold cuts. Studies find the higher your consumption of these foods, the higher your risk of developing type 2 diabetes.
- Maintain a normal body weight. Being overweight or obese is probably the greatest risk factor for type 2 diabetes.
- Take a yoga class. One study of 98 people with a variety of illnesses, including diabetes, found that nine days of yoga classes reduced blood glucose, total and LDL (“bad”) cholesterol levels, and triglycerides, while increasing HDL (“good”) cholesterol, likely due to yoga’s ability to reduce the effects of stress on the body.
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