An increasing number of Americans are dealing with type 2 diabetes, as our country’s obesity epidemic continues to spread. Fortunately, prescription medications help many diabetics keep their blood sugar levels in check. Like all medications, however, diabetes drugs do have side effects, which has led many people to consider complementary and alternative therapies. One report estimated that as many as 3.6 million Americans have tried some form of alternative medicine to treat diabetes.
“Every diabetes drug has therapeutic effects and side effects,” says Jianping Ye, MD, a professor at Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Baton Rouge, La. “So it is a hot area right now to combine CAM [complementary and alternative medicine] therapies with synthetic drugs to enhance the therapeutic effect and reduce side effects.”
Here are a few of the alternative therapies for type 2 diabetes that are currently being investigated.
ALTERNATIVE THERAPIES AND TREATMENTS FOR TYPE 2 DIABETES
Although evidence is limited to support acupuncture as an effective method for controlling blood sugar or glucose, this ancient form of Chinese medicine has been shown to help with weight management, a key component to reducing the risks of diabetes. Initial studies suggest that traditional manual acupuncture as well as electroacupuncture, in which needles are used to direct weak electrical currents to pressure points, and transcutaneous electrical acupoint stimulation, wherein needles are used to apply pressure but are not inserted into the skin, may effectively help to control appetite in overweight individuals.
Dr. Ye recommends that people with type 2 diabetes take a multivitamin to meet the daily demands of the body. In particular, diabetics should make sure they are getting enough calcium and vitamin D. “Patients with diabetes may lose calcium quickly, which causes bones to lose density and fracture easily. So it is important to eat enough calcium and vitamin D, or take supplements,” Ye says.
People with type 2 diabetes may benefit from professional or self-administered massage. Besides helping to reduce stress, some studies suggest that massage can help normalize blood glucose levels and help with symptoms of diabetic neuropathy, but more research is needed in this area.
This plant alkaloid is a widely used herbal remedy in China for improving insulin sensitivity. “If you combine it with prescription diabetes drugs, it may enhance therapeutic effects and reduce side effects,” says Ye. In the United States, the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine is currently funding research on berberine. Keep in mind that all herbal medicines should be used cautiously and under the supervision of a CAM specialist.
An emerging natural therapy for type 2 diabetes is resveratrol, a substance found in the skin and seeds of red grapes. Resveratrol is found in red wine, which has recently been touted as being good for heart health. Now researchers are looking at resveratrol for preventing obesity and type 2 diabetes. The practical benefits of resveratrol for diabetes are still being debated, though, because it was used at such high doses in many of the preliminary studies.
TYPE 2 DIABETES: THE TRIED AND TRUE
If CAM doesn’t appeal to you, maybe these lifestyle changes, proven over and over again as the keystones of a healthy life, will do the trick:
One of the most commonly agreed upon, scientifically supported natural therapies for type 2 diabetes is physical exercise. “It has been proven in many studies that exercise is good for limiting body weight, preventing type 2 diabetes, and reducing cardiovascular risk,” says Ye. Staying active is a drug-free way of managing glucose — exercise not only burns calories but also increases the body’s sensitivity to any insulin it still makes, both of which lower blood glucose.
Research has also shown that being conscientious about food is especially critical for diabetics. “People with type 2 diabetes should eat a low glycemic diet, meaning less starch and more enriched protein and fiber,” advises Ye. “When starch is digested, it becomes glucose, which gets into the blood” and indirectly increases blood sugar levels, making diabetes that much harder to control.
There are many unknowns regarding complementary and alternative therapies for type 2 diabetes, but with the increasing incidence of this condition, there is a growing recognition that additional treatment strategies are needed. If you have type 2 diabetes and are interested in alternative medicine, keep eating right, exercising, and taking your medication, and talk to your doctor about whether any complementary therapies may also help you.
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