Can Herbs Treat Diabetes?

by David Fitz-Patrick, M.D., Endocrinology

Standard treatment for people with diabetes consists of careful meal planning, a regular exercise program, monitoring blood sugar levels and, when necessary, taking medications. By actively managing their disease and keeping blood sugar levels as close to normal as possible, people with diabetes not only feel better, they also help prevent the long-term complications, such as vision loss, heart attack, stroke, and kidney and nerve damage, that commonly develop when blood sugar levels are regularly too high.

Since there is no cure for diabetes, maintaining good health requires a lifelong commitment to blood sugar control--on-again, off-again efforts are not effective. The self-care requirements of diabetes, or any chronic disease, can be psychologically difficult to adjust to, and resisting the need to follow a regular, day-in and day-out, care plan is a common reaction. The result is that some people seek alternative treatments, if not outright "miracle cures," that seem easier or more "natural" and that allow them to avoid dealing with the realities of a chronic disease.

A so-called diabetes remedy that is gaining popularity today is herbal treatment, with a variety of plant-derived preparations being promoted as capable of controlling blood sugar levels. In fact, herbal treatment for diabetes is not new. Plants and plant extracts were used to combat the disease as early as 1550 B.C., with as many as 400 "prescribed" before the development earlier this century of effective medications to control diabetes. However, claims for the benefits of herbal treatments should be viewed with caution for several reasons.

Keep in mind that few of the herbs that reportedly lower blood sugar have been adequately studied to determine their actual effects. Although some of those that have been studied, often in animals rather than humans, do show a slight ability to lower blood sugar, their effects are not strong or predictable enough to adequately manage diabetes.

Of serious concern is the fact that herbal remedies are unregulated, and no preparation standards have been set for them. This means you can’t be sure the product you buy contains the ingredients its label promises in the amounts it promises, that its active ingredients are actually absorbed by the body or that it was manufactured safely and contains no harmful contaminants. The label may not mention known toxic effects, a particular problem since people often take excessive doses of herbal remedies believing that because they are "natural" they are also safe, so serious side effects can be a problem. Nor will there be information about how the herb may interact with other conventional medications a person may also be taking.

People who decide to try herbs may find they feel better, and therefore assume their diabetes is under control. Unfortunately, this is likely to be an illusion created by some preparations that produce a feeling of well-being without controlling excess sugar in the blood.

People considering, or already using, herbal or other alternative treatments for diabetes should discuss this interest with their physician, even if they fear looking silly or getting a lecture. A lot of progress in treating diabetes has been made since the time when nothing more effective than herbs was available. People with the disease do best when they work closely with their physician to be sure they gain the benefits of this knowledge.

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Diabetes and Hormone Center of the Pacific
Ala Moana Pacific Center
1585 Kapiolani Boulevard, Suite 1500
Honolulu, Hawaii 96814
Tel: (808) 531-6886 Fax: (808) 523-5115

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  1998 All Rights Reserved. David Fitz-Patrick, M.D.