Many patients with type two diabetes are searching for help. Unfortunately, many of them are only treading water or stuck on the hamster wheel of mixed messages, misleading product claims, and our profit driven medical-pharmaceutical marketplace.
Before I delve into the morass of diabetes treatment claims, let me first state that type two diabetes is often preventable if you can do these three things in a cohesive, enduring way: maintain a healthy weight, eat healthy foods, enjoy healthy activities. You might notice that those three things are pretty simple and you might even consider me naive for stating the obvious, but for someone struggling with metabolic syndrome, syndrome X, pre-diabetes, or type 2 diabetes these simple things can prove a difficult challenge. For many, getting healthy means a major upheaval in their daily lives, including dietary changes, time management, budgetary adjustments, and personal attitude.
In our culture, we are continuously bombarded with advice. In the pharmacy, our patients often ask about the latest and greatest “thing” that they saw on TV or the internet, promoted by some guru, doctor or expert. Usually, they don’t want to know what a pharmacist might think of this particular product, only where to find it. Stories told by your hairdresser, nail technician, masseuse, or bartender are not reliable sources of health information. We would love for all our problems to be solved by taking one little pill.
I’ll grant that scientific studies are not always completely unbiased, but scientific research is certainly superior to the opinions of most of the hucksters out there trying to make a buck off people desperate to improve their health.
Before looking at some of the supplements suggested for controlling diabetes, remember that the supplement industry is NOT regulated by the FDA and analysis of supplements sold in the marketplace have found up to 80% of products with little or no ingredient listed on the label and/or adulterated with worthless or harmful ingredients. I’m going to leave the prescription drug side of this issue for a later post. It has its own dark side.
So what is worth trying? Not much.
Chromium continues to be promoted as a great way to control blood sugar. Yes, chromium is a necessary trace mineral for your metabolism. Trace means we are talking about micrograms. Chromium is best consumed in your food and more than adequate amounts are in most Americans’ diets. Do not buy a chromium supplement! Buy some green vegetables!
The NIH states that “High-quality clinical evidence (i.e., studies in people) to support the use of cinnamon for any medical condition is generally lacking.” ‘Nuff said. A little cinnamon in your diet is great, but choose healthy sources. That Cinnabon with its 900 calories and 36 grams of fat is not the way to go!
A pharmacist writing in a national pharmacy magazine recently touted berberine as the equal to metformin for reducing blood sugar. Much of the research on this plant alkaloid examines its antibiotic properties but some do suggest that it can help regulate blood sugar. The natural sources include Goldenseal, the Oregon grape, and the Indian barberry root, none of which are commonly found in the produce section of your market. A 2008 study in the journal Metabolism is often cited as strong support for the use of berberine for diabetes. The authors updated their findings in a 2010 study in that same journal finding “The fasting blood glucose and hemoglobin A(1c)-lowering efficacies of berberine were similar to those of metformin and rosiglitazone.” Other data seems to indicate very little liver toxicity from berberine. The key to all this is to find a reliable berberine product. Alas, I can really offer little help with that. There are a variety of berberine capsules on the market but I could not find one that was USP quality. One Chinese company offers USP grade berberine in bulk at $1,600 per kilogram. Caveat Emptor!
Magnesium is another mineral essential for proper metabolic function. Getting enough magnesium from natural sources is easy when you eat a healthy diet. If you must take a supplement, you may have more GI problems with the oxide or sulfate forms, as well as less absorption of actual magnesium. Just eat a balanced diet and you’ll get plenty of magnesium.
There are a seemingly endless array of other alternative or complimentary supplements that have been proposed as treatments for type 2 diabetes and I really believe many of them such as another trace mineral, vanadium, and things like omega-3 and L-carnitine are already part of a normal diet. The NIH recently updated its information on diabetes and dietary supplements and concludes: “Other herbal supplements studied for diabetes include aloe vera, bitter melon, Chinese herbal medicines, fenugreek, garlic, Gymnema sylvestre, milk thistle, nettle, prickly pear cactus, and sweet potato. None have been proven to be effective.”
Remember that the longer a patient has been living with type two diabetes, the longer it may take to gain control and eventually reverse the negative effects of this disease. Lifestyle changes are always part of a newly diagnosed patient’s prescription and yet when I see what these folks have in their shopping carts, I know they are in for a bumpy ride. Too many of us make poor nutritional choices, rarely exercise, poorly manage stress, and generally do not understand how all of that leads to poor health. We can do a whole lot better!