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Type 2 Diabetes

Also indexed as: High Blood Sugar

Illustration

Also known as adult-onset diabetes, type 2 diabetes can often be managed by carefully monitoring your diet. According to research or other evidence, the following self-care steps may be helpful:

What you need to know

  • Aim for total nutrition with a multivitamin
  • Help ensure your body is getting the vitamins and minerals it needs to help prevent common infections
  • Check out chromium
  • Improve glucose tolerance by taking 200 to 1,000 mcg of this essential trace mineral every day
  • Fight back with fiber
  • Under a doctor's supervision, stabilize your blood sugar by eating fiber from whole grains, beans (legumes), vegetables, and fruit, and consider using a fiber supplement such as glucomannan or psyllium
  • Use a topical ointment
  • An ointment containing 0.025 to 0.075% capsaicin four times a day might help control nerve pain
  • Improve and protect with ALA
  • Take 600 to 1,200 mg a day of an alpha lipoic acid supplement to improve insulin sensitivity and help protect against diabetic complications such as nerve damage

These recommendations are not comprehensive and are not intended to replace the advice of your doctor or pharmacist. Continue reading the full diabetes article for more in-depth, fully-referenced information on medicines, vitamins, herbs, and dietary and lifestyle changes that may be helpful.

About diabetes

Diabetes mellitus is an inability to metabolize carbohydrates resulting from inadequate insulin production or utilization. Other forms of diabetes (such as diabetes insipidus) are not included in this discussion.

There are two types of diabetes mellitus, type 1 and type 2. This article concerns type 2 diabetes, which has also been called adult-onset diabetes or non-insulin-dependent diabetes. However, type 2 diabetes may also affect children and may also require treatment with insulin. With type 2 diabetes, the pancreas often makes enough insulin, but the body has trouble using it. Type 2 diabetes frequently responds well to natural therapies.

People with diabetes cannot properly process glucose, a sugar the body uses for energy. As a result, glucose stays in the blood, causing blood glucose to rise. At the same time, however, the cells of the body can be starved for glucose. People with diabetes are at high risk for heart disease, atherosclerosis, cataracts, retinopathy, stroke, poor wound healing, infections, and damage to the kidneys and nerves. In addition, those with diabetes have a higher mortality rate if they also have high homocysteine levels.1

Product ratings for diabetes mellitus

Science Ratings Nutritional Supplements Herbs
3Stars

Alpha lipoic acid

Brewer’s yeast (providing approximately 60 mcg of chromium per tablespoon)

Chromium

Evening primrose oil

Fiber

Glucomannan

Magnesium

Cayenne (topical for neuropathy)

Fenugreek (seeds)

Psyllium

2Stars

Acetyl-L-carnitine (for diabetic neuropathy)

Biotin

Coenzyme Q10

L-carnitine

Multiple vitamin–mineral supplement (for preventing infections)

Vitamin B1 (Thiamine) (in combination with vitamin B6 or B12 for diabetic neuropathy only)

Vitamin B12 (for diabetic neuropathy)

Vitamin B6

Vitamin C

Vitamin D

Vitamin E (for prevention of diabetic retinopathy)

Zinc (for deficiency only)

Aloe

American ginseng

Asian ginseng

Bilberry

Bitter melon

Cinnamon

Crepe myrtle (Lagerstroemia speciosa)

Gymnema

Hairy basil (seed)

Holy basil (leaf)

Onion

1Star

Fish oil (EPA/DHA)

Following are associated with diabetic retinopathy: Selenium, vitamin A, vitamin C, and vitamin E (combined)

Fructo-oligosaccharides (FOS)

Inositol

Manganese

Medium-chain triglycerides

Quercetin

Starch blockers

Taurine

Vanadium

Vitamin B3 (niacin)

Vitamin E (associated with abetalipoproteinemia)

Açaí

Ginkgo

Hibiscus

Mistletoe

Olive leaf

Reishi

3Stars Reliable and relatively consistent scientific data showing a substantial health benefit.
2Stars Contradictory, insufficient, or preliminary studies suggesting a health benefit or minimal health benefit.
1Star For an herb, supported by traditional use but minimal or no scientific evidence. For a supplement, little scientific support and/or minimal health benefit.

Medical options

Some people with type 2 diabetes are treated with insulin. Though some insulin is available over the counter, people should obtain an accurate diagnosis, as well as thorough guidance from their healthcare provider, before self-medicating. Insulin preparations are grouped according to onset and duration of action either as rapid-acting, such as regular (Humulin R, Novolin R); intermediate-acting, such as NPH (Humulin N, Novolin N) and lente (Humulin L, Novolin L); and long-acting, such as ultralente (Humulin U). Oral glucose tablets (such as B-D Glucose) and gels (Glutose, Insta-Glucose, and Insulin Reaction) are available to treat low blood sugar resulting from insulin overdose.

Prescription-only insulin includes insulin analog injection (Humalog, Novolog), insulin injection concentrated (Humulin R Regular U-500), insulin detemir injection (Levemir), insulin glargine (Lantus), insulin glulisine (Apidra), and human insulin powder for inhalation (Exubera). Injectable glucagon (Glucagon Emergency Kit) is used to treat severe hypoglycemia resulting from insulin overdose.

Common prescription medications used specifically to treat type 2 diabetes include sulfonylureas, such as glipizide (Glucotrol, Glucotrol XL), glimepiride (Amaryl), and glyburide (DiaBeta, Micronase, Glynase PresTab); the biguanide metformin (Glucophage); the meglitinides repaglinide (Prandin) and nateglinide (Starlix); alpha-glucosidase inhibitors including acarbose (Precose), and miglitol (Glyset); the incretin mimetic agent exenatide (Byetta); and thiazolidinediones, such as rosiglitazone (Avandia) and pioglitazone (Actos). Many oral antidiabetic drugs are also available in combination products. Injectable glucagon (Glucagon Emergency Kit) is used to treat severe hypoglycemia resulting from insulin overdose.

Dietary changes that may be helpful

The relationship between eating carbohydrates and type 2 diabetes is complex. While eating carbohydrates increases the need for insulin to keep blood sugar normal, diets high in total carbohydrates do not necessarily increase the risk of type 2 diabetes.2 3 Researchers have found that diets very high in sugar may worsen glucose tolerance in nondiabetic animals and humans.4 5 However, the amount of sugar used in these studies in proportion to other foods was much larger than is typically found in human diets.

Eating carbohydrate-containing foods, whether high in sugar or high in starch (such as bread, potatoes, processed breakfast cereals, and rice), temporarily raises blood sugar and insulin levels.6 The blood sugar–raising effect of a food, called its “glycemic index,” depends on how rapidly its carbohydrate is absorbed. Many starchy foods have a glycemic index similar to table sugar (sucrose).7 People eating large amounts of foods with high glycemic indexes have been reported to be at increased risk of type 2 diabetes. 8 9 On the other hand, eating a diet high in carbohydrate-rich foods with low glycemic indexes is associated with a low risk of type 2 diabetes. 10 11 12 Beans, peas, fruit, and oats have low glycemic indexes, despite their high carbohydrate content, due mostly to the health-promoting effects of soluble fiber.

Diabetes disrupts the mechanisms by which the body controls blood sugar. Until recently, health professionals have recommended sugar restriction to people with diabetes, even though short-term high-sugar diets have been shown, in some studies, not to cause blood sugar problems in people with diabetes.13 14 15 Currently, the American Diabetic Association (ADA) guidelines do not prohibit the use of moderate amounts of sugar,16 as long as blood levels of glucose, triglycerides, and cholesterol are maintained within normal levels.

Most doctors recommend that people with diabetes to reduce the amount of sugar eaten in snacks and processed foods, and replace these foods with high-fiber, whole foods. This tends to lower the glycemic index of the overall diet and has the additional benefit of increasing vitamin, mineral, and fiber intake. Other authorities also recommend lowering the glycemic index of the diet to improve the control of diabetes.17

A high-fiber diet has been shown to work better in controlling diabetes than the diet recommended by the ADA, and may control blood sugar levels as well as oral diabetes drugs.18 In this study, the increase in dietary fiber was accomplished exclusively by eating foods naturally high in fiber—such as leafy green vegetables, granola, and fruit—to a level beyond that recommended by the ADA. No fiber supplements were given. All participants received both the ADA diet (providing 24 grams of fiber per day) and the high-fiber diet (providing 50 grams of fiber per day) for a period of six weeks. After six weeks of following each diet, tests were performed to determine blood glucose, insulin, cholesterol, triglyceride, and other values. When glucose levels were monitored over a 24-hour period, participants eating the high-fiber diet had an average glucose level that was 10% lower than participants eating the ADA diet. Insulin levels were 12% lower in the group eating the high-fiber diet compared to the group eating the ADA diet, indicating a beneficial increase in the body’s sensitivity to insulin. Moreover, people eating the high-fiber diet experienced significant reductions in total cholesterol, triglycerides, and LDL (“bad”) cholesterol compared with those eating the ADA diet. They also had slight decreases (improvements) in glycosylated hemoglobin levels, a measure of long-term blood glucose regulation.

High-fiber supplements, such as psyllium,19 guar gum (found in cluster beans),20 pectin (from fruit),21 oat bran,22 and glucomannan,23 24 have improved glucose tolerance in some studies. Positive results have also been reported with the consumption of 1 to 3 ounces of powdered fenugreek seeds per day.25 26 A review of the research revealed that the extent to which moderate amounts of fiber help people with diabetes in the long term is still unknown, and the lack of many long-term studies has led some researchers to question the importance of fiber in improving diabetes.27 Nonetheless, most doctors advise people with diabetes to eat a diet high in fiber. Focus should be placed on fruits, vegetables, seeds, oats, and whole-grain products.

Eating fish also may afford some protection from diabetes.28 Incorporating a fish meal into a weight-loss regimen was more effective than either measure alone at improving glucose and insulin metabolism and high cholesterol.29

Vegetarians have been reported to have a low risk of type 2 diabetes.30 When people with diabetic nerve damage switch to a vegan diet (no meat, dairy, or eggs), improvements have been reported after several days.31 In one trial, pain completely disappeared in 17 of 21 people.32 Fats from meat and dairy may also contribute to heart disease, the leading killer of people with diabetes.

Vegetarians also eat less protein than do meat eaters. Reducing protein in the diet has lowered kidney damage caused by diabetes and may also improve glucose tolerance.33 34 and may also improve glucose tolerance.35 However, in a group of 13 obese males with high blood-insulin levels (as is often seen in diabetes), a high-protein, low-carbohydrate diet resulted in greater weight loss and control of insulin levels, compared with a high-carbohydrate diet.36 Switching to either a high- or low-protein diet should be discussed with a doctor.

Diets high in fat, especially saturated fat, worsen glucose tolerance and increase the risk of type 2 diabetes,37 38 39 40 an effect that is not simply the result of weight gain caused by eating high-fat foods. Saturated fat is found primarily in meat, dairy fat, and the dark meat and skins of poultry. In contrast, glucose intolerance has been improved by diets high in monounsaturated oils,41 42 which may be good for people with diabetes.43 The best way to incorporate monounsaturates into the diet is to use olive oil, especially extra virgin olive oil, which has high antioxidant values.

Lifestyle changes that may be helpful

Most people with type 2 diabetes are overweight.44 Excess abdominal weight does not stop insulin formation,45 but it does make the body less sensitive to insulin.46 Excess weight can even make healthy people prediabetic,47 though weight loss can reverse this problem.48 In most studies, type 2 diabetes has improved with weight loss.49 50 51

Exercise helps decrease body fat and improve insulin sensitivity.52 53 People who exercise are less likely to develop type 2 diabetes than those who do not.54 However, exercise can induce low blood sugar in diabetics taking blood sugar–lowering medications, or even occasionally increased blood sugar.(55 Therefore, people with diabetes should never begin an intensive exercise program without consulting a healthcare professional.

Moderate alcohol drinking in healthy people improves glucose tolerance.56 57 58 59 However, alcohol has been reported to worsen glucose tolerance in the elderly and in people with diabetes in some studies.60 61 People with diabetes who drink have also been reported to have a high risk for eye and nerve damage.62 63

Questions remain about where the line should be drawn regarding alcohol intake. For healthy people, light drinking will not increase the risk of diabetes, and may even reduce the risk of developing type 2 diabetes;64 however, heavy drinking does increase the risk of developing diabetes and should be avoided.65 People with diabetes should limit alcohol intake to two drinks per day. Total avoidance of alcohol in people with diabetes who are not suffering from alcoholism, liver disease (e.g., cirrhosis), gastritis, ulcers, and other conditions made worse by alcohol might actually be counterproductive. In one report, older people with type 2 diabetes who drank daily, but moderately, had a dramatically lower incidence of deaths from heart disease compared with nondrinkers.66 This outcome is not surprising since moderate alcohol intake is associated with protection from heart disease in most other reports. This finding may be of particular importance because heart disease is the leading killer of people with diabetes. In another study, nondrinkers had a higher incidence of type 2 diabetes than did moderate drinkers.67

People with diabetes who smoke are at higher risk for kidney damage,68 heart disease,69 and other diabetes-linked problems. Smokers are also more likely to develop diabetes,70 so it's important for diabetic smokers to quit.

Although most healthcare professionals agree on the necessity of self-monitoring of blood glucose (SMBG) by people with type 1 diabetes, disagreement exists within the medical community regarding the efficacy and necessity of SMBG by people with type 2 diabetes. A controlled clinical trial found that home glucose monitoring strips did not affect the management of type 2 diabetes.71 Moreover, a review of available literature concluded that the efficacy of SMBG in people with type 2 diabetes is questionable and should be tested in a rigorous high-quality trial.72 Advocates of SMBG, such as the ADA, have observed that SMBG by people with diabetes has revolutionized management of the disease, enabling them to achieve and maintain specific goals.73 These observations are well-supported in the medical literature.74 Detractors point out that indiscriminate use of self-monitoring is of questionable value and adds enormously to healthcare costs.75 The ADA acknowledges that accuracy of SMBG is instrument- and technique-dependent. Errors in technique and inadequate use of control procedures have been shown to lead to inaccurate test results.76 Nevertheless, it is likely that self-monitoring of blood glucose, if used properly, can have a positive effect by increasing a person's involvement in overall diabetes care.77 Pharmacists and healthcare practitioners can teach people with diabetes certain skills that will enhance their ability to properly self-manage blood glucose.

Vitamins that may be helpful

A variety of vitamins, minerals, amino acids, and other supplements may help with symptoms and deficiencies associated with diabetes.

Multiple Vitamin–Mineral Supplement
In a double-blind study, supplementation of middle-aged and elderly diabetics with a multiple vitamin and mineral preparation for one year reduced the risk of infection by more than 80%, compared with a placebo.78

Chromium
Medical reports dating back to 1853, as well as modern research, indicate that chromium-rich brewer’s yeast (9 grams per day) can be useful in treating type 2 diabetes.79 80 In recent years, chromium has been shown to improve glucose levels and related variables in people with glucose intolerance and type 2, gestational, and steroid-induced diabetes.81 Improved glucose tolerance with lower or similar levels of insulin have been reported in more than ten trials of chromium supplementation in people with varying degrees of glucose intolerance.82 Chromium supplements improve glucose tolerance in people with type 2 diabetes,83 apparently by increasing sensitivity to insulin.84 Chromium improves the processing of glucose in people with prediabetic glucose intolerance and in women with diabetes associated with pregnancy.85 86 Chromium even helps healthy people,87 although one such report found chromium useful only when accompanied by 100 mg of niacin per day.88 Chromium may also lower levels of total cholesterol, LDL cholesterol, and triglycerides (risk factors in heart disease).89 90

A few trials have reported no beneficial effects from chromium supplementation.91 92 93 All of these trials used 200 mcg or less of supplemental chromium, which is often not adequate for people with diabetes, especially if it is in a form that is poorly absorbed. The typical amount of chromium used in research trials is 200 mcg per day, although as much as 1,000 mcg per day has been used.94 Many doctors recommend up to 1,000 mcg per day for people with diabetes.95

Supplementation with chromium or brewer’s yeast could potentially enhance the effects of drugs used for diabetes (e.g., insulin or other blood sugar-lowering agents) and possibly lead to hypoglycemia. Therefore, people with diabetes taking these medications should supplement with chromium or brewer’s yeast only under the supervision of a doctor.

Magnesium
People with type 2 diabetes tend to have low magnesium levels.96 Double-blind research indicates that supplementing with magnesium overcomes this problem.97 Magnesium supplementation has improved insulin production in elderly people with type 2 diabetes.98 However, one double-blind trial found no effect from 500 mg magnesium per day in people with type 2 diabetes, although twice that amount led to some improvement.99 Elders without diabetes can also produce more insulin as a result of magnesium supplements, according to some,100 but not all, trials.101 However, in people with type 2 diabetes who nonetheless require insulin, Dutch researchers have reported no improvement in blood sugar levels from magnesium supplementation.102 The American Diabetes Association acknowledges strong associations between magnesium deficiency and insulin resistance but has not said magnesium deficiency is a risk factor103 Many doctors, however, recommend that people with diabetes and normal kidney function supplement with 200 to 600 mg of magnesium per day.

Diabetes-induced damage to the eyes is more likely to occur in magnesium-deficient people with type 1 diabetes.104 In magnesium-deficient pregnant women with type 1 diabetes, the lack of magnesium may even account for the high rate of spontaneous abortion and birth defects associated with type 1 diabetes.105 The American Diabetes Association admits “strong associations...between magnesium deficiency and insulin resistance” but will not say magnesium deficiency is a risk factor.106 Many doctors, however, recommend that people with diabetes and normal kidney function supplement with 200–600 mg of magnesium per day.

Alpha lipoic acid
Alpha lipoic acid is a powerful natural antioxidant. Preliminary and double-blind trials have found that supplementing 600 to 1,200 mg of lipoic acid per day improves insulin sensitivity and the symptoms of diabetic neuropathy.107 108 109 110 111 112 113 In a preliminary study, supplementing with 600 mg of alpha lipoic acid per day for 18 months slowed the progression of kidney damage in patients with type 2 diabetes.114

Evening primrose oil
Supplementing with 4 grams of evening primrose oil per day for six months has been found in double-blind research to improve nerve function and to relieve pain symptoms of diabetic neuropathy.115

Glucomannan
Glucomannan is a water-soluble dietary fiber derived from konjac root (Amorphophallus konjac)that delays stomach emptying, leading to a more gradual absorption of dietary sugar. This effect can reduce the elevation of blood sugar levels that is typical after a meal. 116 After-meal blood sugar levels are lower in people with diabetes given glucomannan in their food, 117 and overall diabetic control is improved with glucomannan-enriched diets, according to preliminary and controlled clinical trials. 118 119 120 One preliminary report suggested that glucomannan may also be helpful in pregnancy-related diabetes. 121 For controlling blood sugar, 500 to 700 mg of glucomannan per 100 calories in the diet has been used successfully in controlled research.

Vitamin E
People with low blood levels of vitamin E are more likely to develop type 1 and type 2 diabetes.122 123 Vitamin E supplementation has improved glucose tolerance in people with type 2 diabetes in most,124 125 126 but not all,127 double-blind trials. Vitamin E has also improved glucose tolerance in elderly people without diabetes.128 129 Three months or more of at least 900 IU of vitamin E per day may be required for benefits to become apparent.

In one of the few trials to find vitamin E supplementation ineffective for glucose intolerance in people with type 2 diabetes, damage to nerves caused by the diabetes was nonetheless partially reversed by supplementing with vitamin E for six months.130 Animal and preliminary human data indicate that vitamin E supplementation may protect against diabetic retinopathy and nephropathy,131 132 serious complications of diabetes involving the eyes and kidneys, respectively, though no long-term trials in humans have confirmed this preliminary evidence.

Glycosylation is an important measurement of diabetes; it refers to how much sugar attaches abnormally to proteins. Excessive glycosylation appears to be one of the causes of the organ damage that occurs in diabetes. Vitamin E supplementation has reduced the amount of glycosylation in many,133 134 135 136 137 although not all,138 139 140 studies.

In one report, vitamin E was found to impair glucose tolerance in obese patients with diabetes.141 The reason for the discrepancy between reports is not known.

Vitamin E appears to lower the risk of cerebral infarction, a type of stroke, in people with diabetes who smoke. A review of a large Finnish study of smokers concluded that smokers with diabetes (or hypertension) can benefit from small amounts of vitamin E (50 IU per day).142

Vitamin C
As with vitamin E, vitamin C may reduce glycosylation.143 Vitamin C also lowers sorbitol levels in people with diabetes.144 Sorbitol is a sugar that can accumulate inside the cells and damage the eyes, nerves, and kidneys of people with diabetes. Vitamin C may improve glucose tolerance in type 2 diabetes,145 146 although not every study confirms this benefit.147 Vitamin C supplementation (500 mg twice a day for one year) has significantly reduced urinary protein loss in people with diabetes. Urinary protein loss (also called proteinuria) is associated with poor prognosis in diabetes.148 Many doctors suggest that people with diabetes supplement with 1 to 3 grams per day of vitamin C. Higher amounts could be problematic, however. In one person, 4.5 grams per day was reported to increase blood sugar levels.149

One study examined antioxidant supplement intake, including both vitamins E and C, and the incidence of diabetic retinopathy (damage to the eyes caused by diabetes).150 Surprisingly, people with extensive retinopathy had a greater likelihood of having taken vitamin C and vitamin E supplements. The outcome of this trial, however, does not fit with most other published data and might simply reflect the fact that sicker people are more likely to take supplements in hopes of getting better. For the present, most doctors remain relatively unconcerned about the outcome of this isolated report.

B Vitamins
Many people with diabetes have low blood levels of vitamin B6.151 152 Levels are even lower in people with diabetes who also have nerve damage (neuropathy).153 Vitamin B6 supplementation has improved glucose tolerance in women with diabetes caused by pregnancy.154 155 Vitamin B6 supplementation is also effective for glucose intolerance induced by birth control pills.156 In a trial that included people with type 2 diabetes, 1,800 mg per day of a special form of vitamin B6—pyridoxine alpha-ketoglutarate—improved glucose tolerance dramatically.157 Standard vitamin B6 has helped in some,158 but not all, trials.159

A controlled trial in Africa found that supplementing with both vitamin B1 (25 mg per day) and vitamin B6 (50 mg per day) led to significant improvement of symptoms of diabetic neuropathy after four weeks.160 However, since this was a trial conducted among people in a vitamin B1–deficient developing country, these improvements might not occur in other people with diabetes. Another trial found that combining vitamin B1 (in a special fat-soluble form) and vitamin B6 plus vitamin B12 in high but variable amounts led to improvement in some aspects of diabetic neuropathy in 12 weeks.161 As a result, some doctors recommend that people with diabetic neuropathy supplement with vitamin B1, though the optimal level of intake remains unknown.

Biotin is a B vitamin needed to process glucose. When people with type 2 diabetes were given 9 mg of biotin per day for two months, their fasting glucose levels dropped dramatically.162 Biotin may also reduce pain from diabetic nerve damage.163 Some doctors try 9 to 16 mg of biotin per day for a few weeks to see if blood sugar levels will fall.

Vitamin B12 is needed for normal functioning of nerve cells. Vitamin B12 taken orally has reduced symptoms of nerve damage caused by diabetes in 39% of people studied; when given both intravenously and orally, two-thirds of people improved.164 In a preliminary trial, people with nerve damage due to kidney disease or to diabetes plus kidney disease received intravenous injections of 500 mcg of methylcobalamin (the main form of vitamin B12 found in the blood) three times a day for six months in addition to kidney dialysis. Nerve pain was significantly reduced and nerve function significantly improved in those who received the injections.165 Oral vitamin B12 up to 500 mcg three times per day is recommended by some practitioners.

The intake of large amounts of niacin (a form of vitamin B3), such as 2 to 3 grams per day, may impair glucose tolerance and should be used by people with diabetes only with medical supervision.166 167 Smaller amounts (500 to 750 mg per day for one month followed by 250 mg per day) may help some people with type 2 diabetes,168 though this research remains preliminary.

Coenzyme Q10
Coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10) is needed for normal blood sugar metabolism. Animals with diabetes have been reported to be CoQ10 deficient. People with type 2 diabetes have been found to have significantly lower blood levels of CoQ10 compared with healthy people.169 In one trial, blood sugar levels fell substantially in 31% of people with diabetes after they supplemented with 120 mg per day of CoQ7, a substance similar to CoQ10.170 The importance of CoQ10 supplementation for people with diabetes remains an unresolved issue, though some doctors recommend approximately 50 mg per day as a way to protect against possible effects associated with diabetes-induced depletion.

L-carnitine
L-carnitine is an amino acid needed to properly utilize fat for energy. When people with diabetes were given DL-carnitine (0.5 mg per 2.2 pounds of body weight), high blood levels of fats—both cholesterol and triglycerides—dropped 25 to 39% in just ten days in one trial.171

Acetyl-L-carnitine
In a double-blind study of people with diabetic neuropathy, supplementing with acetyl-L-carnitine was significantly more effective than a placebo in improving subjective symptoms of neuropathy and objective measures of nerve function.172 People who received 1,000 mg of acetyl-L-carnitine three times per day tended to fare better than those who received 500 mg three times per day.

Zinc
People with type 2 diabetes tend to be zinc deficient,173 but some evidence indicates that zinc supplementation does not improve their ability to process sugar.174 Nonetheless, many doctors recommend that people with type 2 diabetes supplement with moderate amounts of zinc (15 to 25 mg per day) as a way to correct the deficit.

Antioxidants
Because oxidation damage is believed to play a role in the development of diabetic retinopathy, antioxidant nutrients might be protective. One doctor has administered a daily regimen of 500 mcg selenium, 800 IU vitamin E, 10,000 IU vitamin A, and 1,000 mg vitamin C for several years to 20 people with diabetic retinopathy. During that time, 19 of the 20 people showed either improvement or no progression of their retinopathy.175 People who wish to supplement with more than 250 mcg of selenium per day should consult a healthcare practitioner.

Vitamin D
Vitamin D is needed to maintain adequate blood levels of insulin.176 Vitamin D receptors have been found in the pancreas where insulin is made, and preliminary evidence suggests that supplementation can improve some measures of blood sugar control in people with type 2 diabetes.177 178 Not enough is known about optimal amounts of vitamin D for people with diabetes, and high amounts of vitamin D can be toxic; therefore, people with diabetes considering vitamin D supplementation should talk with a doctor and have their vitamin D status assessed.

Inositol
Inositol is needed for normal nerve function. Diabetes can cause a type of nerve damage known as diabetic neuropathy. This condition has been reported in some, but not all, trials to improve with inositol supplementation (500 mg taken twice per day).179

Taurine
Animal studies have shown that supplementing with taurine, an amino acid found in protein-rich food, may affect insulin secretion and action, and may have potential in protecting the eyes and nerves from diabetic complications.180 However, a double-blind trial found no effect on insulin secretion or sensitivity when men with high risk for developing diabetes were given 1.5 grams per day of taurine for eight weeks.181 In another double-blind trial, taurine supplementation (2 grams per day for 12 months) failed to improve kidney complications associated with type 2 diabetes.182

Fish oil
Glucose tolerance improves in healthy people taking omega-3 fatty acid supplements,183 and some studies have found that fish oil supplementation also improves glucose tolerance,184 high triglycerides,185 and cholesterol levels in people with type 2 diabetes.186 And in one trial, people with diabetic neuropathy and diabetic nephropathy experienced significant improvement when given 600 mg three times per day of purified eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA)—one of the two major omega-3 fatty acids found in fish oil supplements—for 48 weeks.187 However, other studies have found that type 2 diabetes worsens with fish oil supplementation.188 189 190 191 Until this issue is resolved, people with diabetes should feel free to eat fish, but they should consult a doctor before taking fish oil supplements.

Quercetin
Doctors have suggested that quercetin might help people with diabetes because of its ability to reduce levels of sorbitol—a sugar that accumulates in nerve cells, kidney cells, and cells within the eyes of people with diabetes—and has been linked to damage to those organs.192 Clinical trials have yet to explore whether quercetin actually protects people with diabetes from neuropathy, nephropathy, or retinopathy.

Vanadium
Vanadyl sulfate, a form of vanadium, may improve glucose control in people with type 2 diabetes.193 194 195 Over a six-week period, a small group of people with type 2 diabetes were given 75 to 300 mg of vanadyl sulfate per day.196 Only in the groups receiving 150 mg or 300 mg was glucose metabolism improved, fasting blood sugar decreased, and another marker for chronic high blood sugar reduced. At the 300 mg level, total cholesterol decreased, although not without an accompanying reduction in the protective HDL cholesterol. None of the amounts improved insulin sensitivity. Although there was no evidence of toxicity after six weeks of vanadyl sulfate supplementation, gastrointestinal side effects were experienced by some of the participants taking 150 mg per day and by all of the participants taking 300 mg per day. The long-term safety of the large amounts of vanadium needed to help people with type 2 diabetes (typically 100 mg per day) remains unknown. Many doctors expect that amounts this high may prove to be unsafe in the long term.

Fructo-oligosaccharides
In a preliminary trial, supplementation with fructo-oligosaccharides (FOS) (8 grams per day for two weeks) significantly lowered fasting blood-sugar levels and serum total-cholesterol levels in people with type 2 diabetes.197 However, in another trial, supplementing with FOS (15 grams per day) for 20 days had no effect on blood-glucose or lipid levels in people with type 2 diabetes.198 In addition, some double-blind trials showed that supplementing with FOS or galacto-oligosaccharides (GOS) for eight weeks had no effect on blood-sugar levels, insulin secretion, or blood lipids in healthy people.199 200 Because of these conflicting results, more research is needed to determine the effect of FOS on diabetes and lipid levels.

Manganese
People with diabetes may have low blood levels of manganese.201 Animal research suggests that manganese deficiency can contribute to glucose intolerance and may be reversed by supplementation.202 A young adult with insulin-dependent diabetes who received oral manganese chloride (3 to 5 mg per day as manganese chloride) reportedly experienced a significant fall in blood glucose, sometimes to dangerously low levels. In four other cases, manganese supplementation had no effect on blood glucose levels.203 People with diabetes wishing to supplement with manganese should do so only with a doctor’s supervision.

Medium-chain triglycerides
Based on the results of a short-term clinical trial that found that medium-chain triglycerides (MCT) lower blood glucose levels,204 a group of researchers investigated the use of MCT to treat people with type 2 diabetes mellitus. Supplementation with MCT for an average of 17.5% of their total calorie intake for 30 days failed to improve most measures of diabetic control.205

Starch blockers
Starch blockers are substances that inhibit amylase, the digestive enzyme required to break down dietary starches for normal absorption. Controlled research has demonstrated that concentrated starch blocker extracts, when given with a starchy meal, can reduce the usual rise in blood sugar levels of both healthy people and diabetics.206 207 208 209 210 While this effect could be helpful in controlling diabetes, no research has investigated the long-term effects of taking starch blockers for this condition.

Are there any side effects or interactions?
Refer to the individual supplement for information about any side effects or interactions.

Herbs that may be helpful

Several herbs may help in managing symptoms associated with diabetes, including the control of blood sugar levels.

Aloe
Animal research and preliminary controlled human trials have found that Aloe vera, either alone or in combination with the oral hypoglycemic drug glibenclamide, effectively lowers blood sugar in people with type 2 diabetes.211 212 213 214 The typical amount used in this research was 1 tablespoon (15 ml) of aloe gel per day.

Cayenne
Double-blind trials have shown that topical application of creams containing 0.025 to 0.075% capsaicin (from cayenne [Capsicum frutescens]) can relieve symptoms of diabetic neuropathy (numbness and tingling in the extremities caused by diabetes).215 216 Four or more applications per day may be required to relieve severe pain. This should be done only under a doctor’s supervision.

Fenugreek
Fenugreek seeds are high in soluble fiber, which helps lower blood sugar by slowing down carbohydrate digestion and absorption.217 Animal research suggests that fenugreek may also contain a substance that stimulates insulin production and improves blood sugar control.218 219 In a controlled trial, incorporating 15 grams of powdered fenugreek seed into a meal eaten by people with type 2 diabetes reduced the rise in blood glucose following the meal.220 Another controlled trial found that taking 2.5 grams of fenugreek twice a day for three months reduced blood sugar levels in people with mild, but not those with severe, type 2 diabetes.221 In a double-blind study, 1 gram per day of an extract of fenugreek seeds for two months improved some measures of blood sugar control and insulin function in people with type 2 diabetes.222

Psyllium
Supplementing with psyllium has been shown to be a safe and well-tolerated way to improve control of blood glucose and cholesterol. In a double-blind trial, men with type 2 diabetes who took 5.1 grams of psyllium per day for eight weeks lowered their blood glucose levels by 11 to 19.2%, their total cholesterol by 8.9%, and their LDL (bad) cholesterol by 13%, compared with a placebo.223

Asian ginseng
Asian ginseng is commonly used in Traditional Chinese Medicine to treat diabetes. It has been shown in test tube and animal studies to enhance the release of insulin from the pancreas and to increase the number of insulin receptors.224 225 Animal research has also revealed a direct blood sugar–lowering effect of ginseng.226 A double-blind trial found that 200 mg of ginseng extract per day improved blood sugar control, as well as energy levels in people with type 2 diabetes.227

American ginseng
In a small preliminary trial, 3 grams of American ginseng was found to lower the rise in blood sugar following the consumption of a high-glucose drink by people with type 2 diabetes.228 The study found no difference in blood sugar–lowering effect if the herb was taken either 40 minutes before the drink or at the same time. A follow-up to this study found that increasing the amount of American ginseng to either 6 or 9 grams did not increase the effect on blood sugar following the high-glucose drink in people with type 2 diabetes.229 This study also found that American ginseng was equally effective in controlling the rise in blood sugar whether it was given together with the drink or up to two hours before.

Basil
Preliminary trials of holy basil (Ocimim sanctum) leaves and hairy basil (Ocimum canum) seeds have shown that these herbs may help people with type 2 diabetes control their blood sugar levels.230 231 232 While the mechanism of action of holy basil leaf is not understood, hairy basil seed may work by replacing simple sugars in the diet, which rapidly and detrimentally elevate blood sugar levels, with dietary fiber, which raises blood sugar levels more slowly for better control. It is unknown whether common culinary sweet basil (Ocimum basilicum) would have similar effects.

Gymnema
Gymnema may stimulate the pancreas to produce insulin in people with type 2 diabetes. Gymnema also improves the ability of insulin to lower blood sugar in people with both type 1 and type 2 diabetes. So far, no double-blind trials have confirmed the efficacy of gymnema for people with any type of diabetes. However, a preliminary study of type 2 diabetics reported that 400 mg per day of gymnema extract taken for periods of 18 months or longer resulted in improvement, according to diabetes blood tests, and allowed reduction of diabetic medications.233 In a controlled trial with type 1 (insulin-dependent) diabetics, a similar amount of gymnema extract reduced requirements for insulin.234 Whether the extract used in these studies was standardized for active constituents is unclear. Recently, a preliminary trial found improved blood sugar levels after three months in a group of type 1 and type 2 diabetics who took 800 mg per day of an extract standardized for 25% gymnemic acids.235 Gymnema is not a substitute for insulin, but insulin amounts may need to be lowered while taking gymnema to avoid hypoglycemia.

Bitter melon
Whole, fried slices,236 water extracts,237 and juice of bitter melon may improve blood-sugar control in people with type 2 diabetes,238 according to preliminary trials. However, double-blind trials are needed to confirm this potential benefit.

Cinnamon
Test tube studies have suggested that cinnamon may improve the glucose utilization. In a study of people with type 2 diabetes, supplementing with cinnamon in the amount of 1, 3, or 6 grams per day for 40 days was significantly more effective than a placebo at reducing blood glucose levels.239 The reduction averaged 18 to 29% in the three treatments groups, and 1 gram per day was as effective as 3 and 6 grams per day. However, in a double-blind study, supplementation with 1.5 g of cinnamon per day for six weeks was no more effective than a placebo for reducing blood sugar levels.240

Crepe myrtle
Lagerstroemia speciosa, commonly known as crepe myrtle, grows in various tropical countries and Australia. In folk medicine it has been used to treat diabetes. In a preliminary study of people with type 2 diabetes, supplementing with an extract from the leaves of Lagerstroemia speciosa for two weeks resulted in a fall in blood-glucose levels averaging 20 to 30%.241 The amount used was 32 or 48 mg of a product standardized to contain 1% corosolic acid (a putative active ingredient). The larger amount was somewhat more effect than the smaller amount. Although these results are promising, additional studies are needed to demonstrate the long-term safety and efficacy of this herbal preparation.

Onion
Preliminary trials and at least one double-blind trial have shown that large amounts of onion can lower blood sugar levels in people with diabetes.242 243 244 The mechanism of onion’s blood sugar-lowering action is not precisely known, though there is evidence that constituents in onions block the breakdown of insulin in the liver. This would lead to higher levels of insulin in the body.245

Bilberry
Bilberry may lower the risk of some diabetic complications, such as diabetic cataracts and retinopathy. One preliminary trial found that supplementation with a standardized extract of bilberry improved signs of retinal damage in some people with diabetic retinopathy.246

Açaí
Açaí is reported to be a traditional remedy for diabetes. Although oxidative stress may contribute to diabetes247 and anthocyanins may improve insulin secretion,248 there is no published evidence that açaí has any effect on diabetes.

Ginkgo
Ginkgo biloba extract may prove useful for prevention and treatment of early-stage diabetic neuropathy, though research is at best very preliminary in this area.249  

Hibiscus
Hibiscus is a traditional remedy in India for diabetes; this treatment is supported by preliminary studies from that country and by animal studies.250 251 Hibiscus is usually taken as tea, such as 1 to 2 teaspoons (3 to 6 grams) of dried flower infused in to 1 cup (250 ml) three times per day.

Mistletoe
Mistletoe extract has been shown to stimulate insulin release from pancreas cells,252 and animal research found that it reduces symptoms of diabetes.253 No research in humans has yet been published; however, given mistletoe’s worldwide reputation as a traditional remedy for diabetes, clinical trials are warranted to validate these promising preliminary findings. Traditionally, mistletoe is prepared by soaking 2 to 4 teaspoons (5 to 12 grams) of chopped mistletoe in 2 cups (500 ml) of water overnight. The mixture is drunk first thing in the morning and sweetened with honey if desired. Another batch may be left to steep during the day and drunk at bedtime.

Olive leaf
Olive leaf extracts have been used experimentally to lower elevated blood-sugar levels in diabetic animals.254 These results have not been reproduced in human clinical trials.

Reishi
Animal studies and some very preliminary trials in humans suggest reishi may have some beneficial action in people with diabetes.255 256

Are there any side effects or interactions?
Refer to the individual herb for information about any side effects or interactions.

Holistic approaches that may be helpful

Acupuncture may be helpful in the treatment of diabetes, or complications associated with diabetes. Preliminary trials have suggested that acupuncture can lower blood sugar and improve insulin production in people with type 2 diabetes,257 258 259 260 but trials on long-term effects have not been concluded. In a preliminary trial, 77% of people suffering from diabetic neuropathy experienced significant reduction in pain following up to six acupuncture treatments over a ten-week period. Many were also able to reduce pain medications, but no long-term change in blood-sugar control was observed.261 Bladder control problems, a complication of long-term diabetes, responded to acupuncture treatment with a significant reduction in symptoms in both controlled and uncontrolled trials.262 263

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