Herbs for Type 2 Diabetes

Herbs for Type 2 Diabetes


Herbs for Type 2 Diabetes

There has been an epidemic of type 2 diabetes mellitus in the United States over the past few decades, which can be attributed to our aging population, easy access to processed foods and decreased physical activity.  It is especially alarming how this condition was once considered a disease of adults and the elderly, but now a sharp increase in the number of pediatric cases has been observed in the past decade.  Compared to type 1 diabetes, type 2 diabetes was historically considered a mild disease that did not require intensive therapy.  However, today we know that end-stage renal disease, extremity amputation, cardiovascular disease, stroke, adult blindness and decreased life expectancy of approximately 15 years can result from untreated type 2 diabetes.  Currently, diabetes is the sixth leading cause of death in the United States.

The majority of type 2 diabetic patients develop metabolic syndrome first, which is a prelude to full-fledged insulin resistance. Patients with type 2 diabetes tend to be overweight with fatty liver syndrome and muscle loaded with triglycerides. This disease should be viewed as a disorder of fat storage in which elevated levels of fatty acids circulate that are toxic to the pancreas, muscles, and liver. 

When the fatty acids block the liver from sensing normal amounts of insulin, it will produce and release more glucose than it normally would. The pancreas tries to compensate for this by producing more insulin to try and send a stronger biochemical signal, but over time, this fails to elicit the desired response. The liver becomes insulin resistant, and eventually, the rest of the skeletal muscle and fat cells also become insulin resistant. 

Abnormal glucose levels result because fat has infiltrated and compromised the organs in the body that keep glucose levels in homeostasis. When glucose cannot easily pass through cell walls and enter the cells, where it is needed for metabolism, an excess will collect in the bloodstream. Experiments with mice suggest that when fat storage is restored to normal parameters, blood sugar levels returned to normal as well.

Insulin resistance develops from a sedentary lifestyle, excessive calorie intake and obesity with accumulation of abdominal fat.  It is important to reduce blood glucose concentrations because elevated levels may result in the development of long-term cardiovascular complications,  unbalanced blood lipids, or high blood pressure.

Weight loss and exercise are the two primary lifestyle interventions required to properly treat type 2 diabetes and metabolic syndrome.  Management of type 2 diabetes is directed at the three defects that underlie the disease – insulin resistance, excessive glucose production by the liver, and impaired insulin secretion by the pancreas.  There are numerous herbs with antihyperglycemic activity that are useful for diabetic patients when diet and exercise fail to achieve acceptable glycemic control.  The anti-diabetic herbs listed below have been researched and utilized a great deal in India and China.

Bitter Melon (Momordica charantia), also known as balsam pear or karela, is grown in Asia, Africa and South America.  It is known as Ampalaya in the Philippines, where it is recommended by the Department of Health of the Philippines for treating diabetes.  Animal experimental models as well as human clinical trials involving type 1 and type 2 diabetic patients demonstrate the ability of the fresh juice or unripe fruit to lower blood sugar.  There are several compounds in bitter melon which have confirmed anti-diabetic properties.  Bitter melon increases the production of beta cells by the pancreas, which enables the body to produce more insulin.  Other studies report that the herb appears to inhibit gluconeogenesis and enhance glucose tolerance.

Banaba (Lagerstroemia speciosa) leaves are a popular medicine in the Philippines for treating diabetes mellitus.  The leaves contain corosolic acid, which is a natural plant insulin that can be taken orally with no side effects.  Much of the studies done on banaba have been done in Japan, and clinical trials have shown that corosolic acid universally lowers the blood sugar levels of all patients.  More recent studies have shown that there are at least three other active components in addition to the corosolic acid, and that corosolic acid alone could not be responsible for the glucose transport effect of banaba extracts.  Therefore, taking wild organic banaba leaves in supplement form is recommended rather than a corosolic acid extract.

Fenugreek (Trigonella foenum-graecum) has been commonly used as a remedy for diabetes in India.  The defatted seed contains the active principals and when fed to diabetic dogs, has been shown to reduce fasting and postprandial blood levels of glucose, glucagon, somatostatin, insulin, total cholesterol and triglycerides, with increased HDL-cholesterol levels.  In studies with type 2 diabetics, powdered fenugreek seed soaked in water significantly lowered postprandial glucose levels.  Because at least 50% of the seed is fiber, which may slow absorption in the intestinal tract, it is recommended that any other oral medications be taken at a different time than fenugreek.

Gurmar (Gymnema sylvestre) is a plant native to the tropical forests of India and has long been used to improve blood sugar control.  Also called Gurmarbooti and Merasingi.  In one study, patients that were given Gymnema sylvestre along with their oral hypoglycemic drugs all demonstrated a lowering of blood sugar levels.  Most were able to reduce the amount of oral hypoglycemic drug they were taking and a few were able to discontinue the medication completely and maintain blood sugar control using only Gymnema sylvestre extract.  Studies have shown that this herb enhances the production of insulin by increasing the number of beta cells in the pancreas.

Chota Chiraita (Enicostemma littorale Blume) is a potent antidiabetic herb that has been studied extensively in India.  It is also called Chota Chirayata, Nahi, Mamijava and Maja-makka booti.  Enicostemma significantly reduces plasma glucose levels and glycosylated hemoglobin, increases serum insulin levels and prevents the progression of complications in diabetic patients.  Also observed was great improvement in kidney function, lipid profile, insulin sensitivity and blood pressure.  In one study, the aqueous extract enhanced the release of insulin in the rat pancreas.

Kino (Pterocarpus marsupium) is another plant that has a long history of use in India to treat diabetes.  A potent flavonoid from the bark of this tree called epicatechin has been shown to prevent damage of pancreatic beta cells in rats; it has helped to regenerate pancreatic beta cells in another study.  In clinical studies, it has been shown to be highly effective in controlling blood sugar. 

Cinnamon (Cinnamomum cassia) contains a flavonoid called MHCP (methylhydroxychalcone polymer) that mimics the action of insulin and works with the insulin in the body to help effectively regulate blood sugar. In a test tube of fat cells, MHCP increased glucose metabolism roughly 20 times.  The other bioactive compounds in cinnamon stimulated glucose uptake into cells and increased the amount of stored glucose.  In clinical trials, cinnamon intake of 1 gram per day significantly reduced blood glucose, cholesterol and triglyceride levels.  True cinnamon, Cinnamomum verum or the cinnamon most commonly sold in the U.S. – Chinese cinnamon – (Cinnamomum cassia) can be used.

The herbs described above are less likely to have the adverse side effects and drawbacks of conventional drugs, but it should be noted that herb-drug interactions need to be carefully monitored for any potential adverse effects.  Patients still taking conventional antidiabetic medications should not start taking herbs along with the prescription medications, nor should they stop taking their prescription medications and switch to herbal remedies, until they first consult their physician.

Denise Rubens is an herbalist and energy healer with degrees in chemistry and biology.  She is a practitioner of Quantum-Touch Levels 1 and 2, and can be reached at deniserubens@frii.com

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