Warning: I’m not a doctor and nothing I say in this article should be construed as medical advice. I’m merely presenting my own opinions. I always recommend people seek out their own answers on issues like these, and please take my information as one piece of your puzzle.
Diabetes isn’t a condition you can treat with medicine. At least not in a way that’ll truly allow you to feel your best. It’s causes are absolutely rooted in lifestyle (with a little big of genetic predisposition thrown in), and its cure ultimately relies on the same channel.
Type II diabetes is the more prevalent form of the disease, and its presence and effect is both ubiquitous and misunderstood. While Type I is the result of an autoimmune disorder that causes your body to obliterate its own pancreas, Type II is almost entirely due to the choices made at the menu and grocery store. Poor food choices result in persistently high blood sugar levels, which eventually results in your body’s inability to respond to insulin, the chemical responsible for sweeping energy and other nutrients out of the blood and into its cells.
An inability to respond to a particular peptide within your body might seem like an academic point that shouldn’t have to get in the way of your enjoyment of the Big Kahuna burger you’re about to indulge in, but insulin’s powers as a cosmic life force are greatly under-appreciated.
If you had to make a list of what makes the world go round it should look like this:
Think I’m exaggerating?
Let’s go over the widespread effects that happen when your body can’t process insulin the way it’s supposed to:
- Heart Attacks and Strokes. People who are type II diabetic or insulin resistant are four times as likely to die from cardiovascular disease than people who are not.
- High Blood Pressure. 75% of people who are diabetic also have high blood pressure.
- Blindness. Diabetes (not old age), is the leading cause of blindness. Growing old isn’t a death sentence for your vision if you have a healthy endocrine system.
- Amputations and Deformations. Do your heart strings tug when you see someone missing a leg or a foot being pushed around in a wheelchair? More than 60% of lower limb amputations that occur in the US occur among people with diabetes.
- Gum disease. More than just brushing your teeth, good tooth health has a lot to do with your body’s ability to utilize its own energy and supply ample amounts of minerals and fat soluble vitamins to build its enamel. Impaired insulin sensitivity inhibits your body’s ability to do this. 1/3 of people with diabetes have serious gum disease.
- Depression and mental health. This is another surprising one. It’s possible that as many as 1 in 2 people suffer from some sort of mental ailment. Depression is significantly more difficult to treat in diabetic patients, and brains that become resistant to insulin are more than 40% more likely to develop alzheimers.
- Autoimmune disorders. Being diabetic almost always goes hand in hand with having a deficient antioxidant profile within your body, which makes you more susceptible to inflammation and other autoimmune disorders.
Stats taken from the Encyclopedia of Natural Medicine.
To me that all sounds truly awful. At their root they’re caused by insulin resistance, which is most commonly manifested as type II diabetes. Insulin is at least a billion years old, and at least some form of it is found in practically all living organisms, even down to lowly bacteria. To lose your ability to respond to insulin is to lose your body’s ability to monitor itself.
And please understand that diabetes isn’t a sickness that you “catch” like the flu. It’s a condition that you develop over time, and for every person that’s diabetic, there are 3 more that are developing diabetic like symptoms. 26 million people are type II diabetic and it’s estimated there are 79 million more who are pre-diabetic. Whether or not someone officially goes over the hump depends on a few variables. People who are genetically susceptible to the disease might accidentally find themselves in the express lane without knowing it. Someone who exercises a lot might be able to put off developing the disease until their fifties or sixties despite their sugar addiction. Others might contract another lifestyle disorder and begin taking medication for that before they can be diagnosed.
But in any event there can be no doubt that diabetes (and insulin resistance more generally) is a widespread and subversive problem that eats away at the roots of basic human functioning. It’s a big deal.
The Limits of Treatment
For better or worse, diabetes really is a lifestyle condition. You can take drugs, but it’s probably not going to have the same impact as changing the way you make decisions.
Intuition would suggest this is true, and scientific observation cements it as truth. In a famous study published in The New England Journal of Medicine in 2002 a group of 3,234 people with impaired glucose tolerance were randomly assigned to a treatment with a placebo, the popular drug Metformin, and monitored lifestyle intervention. The people who did the lifestyle change had results that were 58% better.
So improving your diabetes really does come down to certain unavoidable truths. Those are the facts.
The Role of Nutrition and Supplements
We can safely conclude popping pills won’t get you to where you want to go (at least not entirely). It doesn’t matter if you get them from your pharmacist or your local Vitamin Shoppe. You have to reduce your intake of refined carbohydrates. You have to have some sort of pattern of physical activity that will work for you.
But a typical diabetic patient does have elevated nutritional needs that can be difficult to fulfill through diet alone. This is especially true if you have to endure social circumstances that are not ideal for achieving your lifestyle goals.
And there are stacks of additional vitamins and herbs that can help reduce some of the collateral damage brought on by type II diabetes. Insulin is indirectly involved in a lot of different physiological processes, so your body will likely be developing bottlenecks in pathways that are seemingly unrelated to blood sugar itself. You can also help accelerate the effects of your bread and butter lifestyle changes and get the needle moving a little quicker.
When it comes to the role of vitamins, powders, supplements, herbal tonics and treating diabetes here are the important points to keep in mind:
- Some vitamins and minerals rely on the presence of insulin in some way to be used by the body, so you might be deficient in them even if you’re getting an amount that would be adequate for a person with normal health.
- Other vitamins and minerals are used in metabolic pathways that are responsible for helping your body metabolize blood sugar and allowing insulin to function properly. In this case you might need an optimal amount that’s higher than most people.
- Acute “Aha!” improvements from supplementation are most likely to occur in people who are severely diabetic. The ability for supplements to produce a demonstrable effect tapers off the closer your metabolism is to normal, if they occur at all.
- In the big scheme of things the presence or absence of additional supplements and vitamins is not going to be the deciding factor in your ability to treat (and possibly defeat!) your diabetes. The battle is ultimately won and lost with the fork. The effect of supplements will be marginal, even if they can help.
So with that being said, here are the nine nutrients and herbs that diabetics might want to consider in order to assist themselves in managing their condition:
Vitamins and Minerals
- Chromium and Niacin. Chromium and niacin are key constituents of a molecule called glucose tolerance factor, which is very important for facilitating the action of insulin. Together they work closely with insulin in assisting uptake of glucose into cells. Specific dietary recommendations for chromium are not presently available, but most likely people are only marginally meeting their body’s chromium needs, and the need for chromium is elevated for diabetics.
- Vitamin C. Vitamin C is fairly common in the diet and most people get sufficient amounts of it if they eat a reasonable amount of fruits and vegetables. However, in surveys 83% of type II diabetics state they don’t regularly eat fruits and vegetables. Vitamin C transport is also enhanced by insulin, so being diabetic reduces your ability to use the vitamin C you have. It’s not directly tied to the process of glucose uptake and insulin metabolism, but vitamin C is a widely used antioxidant that supports a variety of functions and adequate vitamin C is probably useful for ameliorating other downstream consequences of impaired glucose metabolism.
- Vitamin E. Vitamin E is a powerful antioxidant within the body and slightly improves insulin action if taken at dosages between 400 and 800 IU. I’ve written before that most people don’t benefit from a vitamin E supplement. However, people with type II diabetes almost always have very low levels of important antioxidants which makes their body susceptible to additional degradation. Vitamin E is particularly useful for protecting nerve cells and neuropathy is one of the most common side effects of impaired glucose tolerance and insulin resistance.
- Magnesium. Magnesium is directly involved with glucose metabolism, and almost half of all diabetics suffer from magnesium deficiency, and deficiency is acutely present in diabetics who suffer from retinopathy and neuropathy. It’s very difficult to get magnesium from processed foods….the manufacturing processes almost always strip them out. The RDI for magnesium is 420 mg/day for males and 320 mg/day for females, but diabetics tend to lose excessive amounts of magnesium through their kidneys, and probably need more.
- Zinc. Zinc is a mineral that’s involved in more than 200 different enzymatic reactions within the body and helps catalyze almost all aspects of insulin metabolism. Zinc deficiency is highest among the elderly and diabetics, and diabetics have a tendency to excrete excessive amounts of zinc through the urine, so supplementation is probably a good idea. 30-40mg/day seems to be the amount used in most studies.
- Biotin. Biotin’s a B vitamin that helps your body utilize energy. Biotin’s particularly important for the activity of an enzyme called glucokinase, which catalyzes the first step of glucose metabolism. Without biotin your body’s ability to digest glucose is severely impaired, and evidence suggests that 8-16mg of biotin/day might help improve insulin sensitivity.
So far we’ve talked about different nutrients that have very specific uses in your body’s metabolic pathways which relate to insulin and glucose metabolism.
The herbs we’re going to talk about next are more complicated substances that aren’t as well studied as the vitamins and minerals we’ve listed, but they seem to have some ability to help your body lower its blood sugar levels.
It’s important to understand that the following herbs aren’t as well understood as the seven vitamins listed above, and the research surrounding them is less thorough, so it’s more difficult to make definitive yes/no decisions on whether or not it’d be a good idea for you to take these. (For example, I did not include nopal cactus here because, despite its reputation, there does not seem to be a lot of good evidence suggesting it helps control blood sugar).
So with that said, here are the three that stand out as possibly being useful for a diabetic:
- American & Panax Ginseng. Several randomized, double-blind placebo controlled studies have been conducted on these two types of ginseng that suggest they modestly lower your body’s blood sugar levels after a meal. For American Ginseng the best known study was conducted at Toronto’s Risk Factor Modification Center and found that regularly taking 3g of glucose significantly improved blood glucose levels after a meal. Another study was done with Panax Ginseng with much lower dosage (100 to 200mg) and found similar results.
- Bitter Melon. Bitter melon is a vegetable that’s frequently eaten in Asia and has a long history of being used as a folk remedy. Tradition is not always a reliable barometer of scientific truth, but in this case the folk tales ring true. Bitter melon contains two compounds called Charantin and polypeptide-P that mildly mimic insulin within the body and help lower blood glucose levels if taken regularly. Bitter melon can usually be bought at chinese grocery stores, and in clinical trials 2-4 fluid ounces is the amount that’s typically taken to elicit its effects.
- Berberine. I saved the best for last. Berberine is a chinese alkaloid that was not considered for diabetic treatment until recently, but recent studies suggest that it’s particularly potent. In several studies it’s even produced results similar to metformin, glipizide and rosiglitazone. Its effect is due to its uniquely strong antioxidant status and its ability to upregulate the expression of genese that allow for greater insulin receptors on the outside of your cells. Of all the herbs I know of, berberine seems to have the most potential for helping patients with diabetes.
A Few Closing Thoughts
Again, I want to reiterate that the three herbs I listed above are not as closely studied as many vitamins and minerals and scientific research is notorious for being difficult to replicate. So I would suggest using caution and tempered expectations when trying them. And since they’re biologically active it’s possible they could interfere with medications you’re currently taking so please consult with a doctor if you have any concerns about how they might affect your existing treatment.
I want you to help yourself, and not inadvertently hurt yourself by trying something you shouldn’t.
Again, I also want to reiterate that diabetes is a disease lifestyle . Lifestyle changes have to be your first step. Everything in this article will have a secondary effect.
I’d also like to point out that the majority of my research for this article came from the third edition of the Encyclopedia of Natural Medicine, and the Supplement Goals Reference Guide from examine.com. If you’re wondering where I got the specific amounts for the various vitamins and minerals I talked about…..now you know.
A Quick Word About Supplements
If you’re wondering where and how to supplement based on the information in this article, a good multivitamin is probably a decent place to start. I recommend a previous article of mine on some of the best brands of vitamins. I’d also recommend you read my interview with a supplement industry insider that offers good information.
Since vitamin E is fat soluble it might be a good idea to get that one separately.
Bitter melon is a vegetable that’s been eaten for a long time, so I don’t believe there’s anyone reason per se to believe it’s anymore or less dangerous than other produce.
Ginseng and berberine however might need to be given extra consideration before trying. If you buy them it’ll most likely be in supplement form and concentrated doses might not be a good idea. Also keep in mind that in the table below I list the dosage for american ginseng at 3g. This is way more than most people take with a egular capsule. I only list that amount in the table because it’s the amount used in the studies I referred to in this article.
The berberine supplement I like is Berberine Force by DaVinci labs.
Here’s a reference table that summarizes the different substances listed, and the dosages that created a clinically significant impact.
[table id=14 /]
I hope this helps!