Q: What alternative therapies are available to treat diabetes?

A: The answer is LOTS. Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM), covers a wide range of therapies that not considered to be "traditional" medicine. This means that these treatments are not usually taught in medical schools, not usually used in hospitals, and generally not reimbursed by insurance companies.

CAM therapies include:


• Acupuncture
• Relaxation techniques
• Therapeutic massage (Swedish, Deep Tissue, Trigger Point, Myofascial/ Cranial Sacral, Meridian, Shiatsu, Acupressure, Reflexology)
• Reiki, Chakra Balancing
• Medication and prayer
• Herbal medicine
• Vitamins and minerals
• Dietary Supplements

Relaxation techniques include deep breathing, yoga exercises, Tai Chi, guided imagery and progressive muscle relaxation. All these therapies have been successfully used by people with diabetes as tools for stress management. Decreased stress generally means decreased blood sugar and blood pressure levels, results backed up by numerous scientific studies. I would recommend you try any of these self-guided techniques and consider them to be harmless. However, more studies are needed in this area to assess both benefits and safety issues.

Therapeutic massage may help with stress management, edema, and pain. If given by a qualified therapist I can think of no reason why this treatment could not be used to help people with diabetes. However, I know of no studies that have been done in this area to assess benefits or safety issues.

Acupuncture is an ancient oriental art and there are many trained medical doctors and non-medical parishioners throughout the US. Similar to Reiki, this art is supposed to promote balance and harmony in the body to promote wellness. I know of no known studies that have examined the benefits or safety issues related to diabetes and Reiki or acupuncture.

Many studies (but not enough) have been done on herbals, vitamins, dietary supplements and minerals. Several of these products may have some benefit for people with diabetes. It is very important to consider the safety issues involved with these products. Herbals, vitamins, dietary supplements and minerals are actually drugs. Two big concerns are:

• Does this substance have any side effects?
• Can this substance interfere with other medications that I am taking?

For example, Fenugreek is an herbal that has been found (in studies) to delay gastric emptying, slow carbohydrate absorption, stimulate insulin secretion, and to help insulin work better. However, if Fenugreek is given with prescribed medications or other herbals that thin the blood (such as ginger and garlic), bleeding may occur. If taken with certain diabetes drugs, it may cause low blood sugar to occur.

The following herbals have been used to lower blood sugar. But, keep in mind, that more studies are needed to assess effectiveness and safety: Cinnamon, Gymnema, Fenugreek, Bitter melon, Ginseng, Nopol, Aloe, Banaba, Baiapo, Bilberry, and Milk thistle.

Some studies indicate that the following vitamins and minerals may help to lower blood sugars: Chromium, vanadium and nicotinamide.

In addition, the following have been used to treat diabetes complications such as neuropathy. These are: Alpha-lipoic acid, gamma linolenic acid, ginko biloba, garlic, and St. John's wort.

In general, small studies have been done on most of the above-mentioned substances. However, most of these studies have been small and were not well designed. The bottom line is that more research is needed to determine if most of these are effective, how they work, how they react with other drugs, if they have side effects, if they are safe, and to determine the best dosage.

Other concerns are that vitamins, minerals and herbals are classified by the government as dietary supplements. Therefore, manufacturers of these substances are not held up to vigorous standards required of companies that make prescription and non-prescription drugs. Thus, there is no guarantee that the drug is safe, or that the drug is pure, consistently formulated or stable. Some organizations have started programs to inspect and certify vitamins, herbals, and minerals by giving them a seal of approval. The letters "GMP" on a product stands for "good manufacturing practices."

Cost is another issue. Many herbals cost more than prescription drugs and none are covered by health insurance. Also, if not taken safely, use may result in diabetes problems like hospitalization, extra doctor visits, and lost work wages.

It is a good thing that you are thinking outside of the box and looking beyond traditional medicine to manage your diabetes. Researchers have indicated that people who take charge of their diabetes manage it better than others that are less assertive. Just recently, I compiled a list of herbals, minerals and vitamins that have been studied as related to diabetes. The paper was 23 pages long! So, there is LOTS of CAM therapy out there that is being studied and that may help you. Good luck in your search. I will leave you with these important recommendations on using CAM therapy:

• Make safety a priority. Understand that supplements may interact with prescription or over-the-counter medications

• Check with your healthcare team before use.

• Start Small. Take one new product at a time at the smallest dose, watch for side effects. Stop if reactions occur and contact your doctor or pharmacist.

• Check your blood sugar levels frequently.

• Keep records such as changes in blood sugar, blood pressure, pain, etc.

• Take precautions for surgery. Some CAM drugs may need to be stopped before surgery to decrease the likelihood of bleeding.

• Don't neglect basic diabetes care like meal planning, staying active, and taking your diabetes meds.

• Shop smart. Read claims carefully, ignore personal testimonials and products that claim to cure or fix many things at once or can give you "immediate" benefits. Does the product have legitimate research to back up claims of effectiveness or safety?

• Look for the "GMPs" seal

• Consider cost.

• Evaluate effect. Use for specified time. If no benefit, discontinue. Save pills in case you experience adverse effects.

- Donna Yuscavage, RN, BSN, CDE



Last Modified Date: June 24, 2013

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