Western research is proving the mechanisms by which foods, supplements, and Chinese herbs regulate blood sugar levels. Also, how they help prevent the progression of, and ameliorate/reverse the complications associated with Type 2 Diabetes- namely neuropathy, nephropathy, and retinopathy.
It is hopeful that combining Western research with Chinese herbal theory can reduce oral diabetic drug dose, prevent the need for more than one drug, or insulin-dependence. The ultimate goal being to nip pre-diabetes in the bud and decrease the overall morbidity associated with the disease.
Why might there be varying degrees of benefit from foods, supplements and herbs that have been popularized and commercialized to help manage blood sugar?
Because, Western research shows that different herbs, foods & supplements affect different aspects of blood sugar control. Similarly, according to Chinese herbal theory, they should be matched to a person’s constitution. Lastly, even if a person is self-treating with the right herb, food or supplement, they are usually taking too low a dose, and/or should be combining them. Customized treatment plans can be based upon Chinese medical theory, Western medical research, or both. [See "EVENTS" for presentations on this topic].
Cinnamon/ Rou Gui
In 2013, the American Diabetes Association said there is no evidence to support the daily use of Cinnamon to control blood sugars. However, there are many studies showing the contrary. A review of animal studies revealed that Cinnamon decreases blood sugars by increasing glucose uptake and storage. It also benefits diabetes-related nephropathy, and peripheral neuropathy.
Human studies show that low daily doses of Cinnamon has the added benefit of lowering triglycerides and increasing HDL (good cholesterol). Cinnamon bark is categorized as a yang tonic in Chinese herbal theory, meaning it is stimulating, warming and/or drying to the body. Therefore, constitution is considered when prescribing this herb to yin and blood deficient persons.
Bitter Melon/ Lu Han Guo
Bitter melon is sold as “Bitter Melon Sugar Balance Plus”. In animal studies 400mg/kg of this herb lowered post-meal blood sugars. In these studies, it inhibited glucose absorption from the gastrointestinal tract, enhanced insulin sensitivity, and inhibited the creation of glucose by the liver (gluconeogenesis). It was shown to be a potent stimulator of insulin release, and may increase insulin excretion.
A review of human studies showed contradictory effects on blood sugar control. Ironically, Bitter Melon is not traditionally used in Chinese medicine to lower blood sugars per sea. Rather, it benefits thirst due to “Summer-heat”, which is somewhat similar and different than the thirst (polydipsia) caused by elevated blood sugars. Plus, the medications that control post-meal blood sugar surges are taken at each meal, which is also the recommended dosing of Bitter Melon.
Gynostemma/ Jiao Gu Lan
Gynostemma is an adaptinogen, and a cooling qi tonic that is similar to American Ginseng. It is sold in health food stores as “Jiao Gu Lan” pills, or “Panta Tea”. A clinical trail demonstrated that low doses of Gynostemma improved fasting, and post-meal blood sugars. Paradoxically, in this study 800mg of Gynostemma daily lowered HbgA1c (a benchmark of
adequate blood sugar control) only 0.6%. Oral medications lower HbgA1c up to 2% in comparison. HbgA1c <7.0 is desirable for diabetics.
Gynostemma was shown to regenerate pancreatic cells in animal studies, with 200mg/kg of the leaf extract equivalent to 4 units/kg of insulin. Blood sugar levels dropped significantly after 45 days of administration. Too much insulin production [despite insulin resistance] is the problem in early Type 2 Diabetes, and this may be a consideration with both Gynostemma and Bitter Melon.
Astralagus/ Huang Qi
This Chinese herb is inexpensive and commonly sold in health food stores, and herbal apothecaries. It indirectly lowers blood sugar, and increases insulin sensitivity. Numerous studies demonstrate its protective effect against diabetes-related skin ulcers, nephropathy, renal hypertension, and vascular endothelial cell damage. By enhancing immunity and blood circulation, it supports micro and macro vascular health. For this effect, Huang Qi is prescribed in very high daily doses (30g to 60g).
Asiatic Cornelian Cherry/ Shan Zhu Yu
Albuminuria (protein in the urine) marks the onset of kidney damage from diabetes. Therefore, Standard of Care is safeguarding kidney function from the time of diagnosis. Certain drugs prevent or slow the onset of kidney damage. But there is little in the Western medicine arsenal to reverse severe albuminuria.
Hopeful studies demonstrate how Shan Zhu Yu prevents and reverses diabetic nephropathy. In one study 143 out of 153 human participants with diabetes-related kidney disease tested negative for albuminuria after taking a formula containing Shan Zhu Yu daily for 6 to 30 days.
Goldthread Root/ Huang Lian
Huang Lian is comprehensive in regulating the livers role in blood sugar control: glucagon, glucogenesis gluconeogenesis, In addition, Huang Lian contains berberine. Berberine benefits all aspects of Metabolic Syndrome- a constellation of insulin resistance (non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, and pre-diabetes), obesity, high cholesterol, and hypertension. Metabolic Syndrome is often diagnosed hand-in-hand with Type 2 Diabetes.
Tianqi Capsules [Heillongjiang Baoquan Pharmaceuticals, China]
Herbs are prescribed in synergistic combinations [formulas] in Chinese medicine- rarely as single herbs. For example Tianqi, a Chinese patent formula, contains Huang Lian, Huang Qi and Shan Zhu Yu.
Tianqi Capsules were tested in a double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled, multi-center trial with 804 participants. It lowered pre and post meal blood sugars. More importantly, it lowered HbgA1c 1.15%, which is comparable to oral diabetic drugs. Most importantly, it prevented the onset of Type 2 Diabetes in patients with pre-diabetes over the course of 12 month (18% compared to 29.32% placebo).
Metabolic Stress & Inflammation
Chronic physical, psycho-emotional, and metabolic stress leads to inflammation and the release of stress hormones like glucgon and cortisol. Glucagon has the opposite action of insulin. It stimulates the liver to release stored glucose and create new glucose. Excess cortisol causes insulin resistance/ insensitivity. Both result in hyperglycemia. Herbs that moderate these stress responses are Zhi Mu, Sheng Di Huang, Di Gu Pi, and Xuan Shen. These herbs seem to be ubiquitous in formulas for the treatment of diabetes.
The supplements called berberine (also concentrated in the Chinese herb Huang Lian), and Protandim (composed of Chinese, Western, and Ayurvedic herbs) address oxidative stress, the stress of the metabolism of living. They are very good for metabolic syndrome, the constellation of insulin resistance (type 2 diabetes), hypertension, abdominal obesity, and high cholesterol.
Insulin Resistance & Risk Reduction
Magnesium deficiency can increase insulin-resistance by 25%. Magnesium also helps protect the eyes against diabetic retinopathy, and decreases the HOMA score (a measure of insulin resistance). Vitamin D is essential for proper pancreatic cell function, with low levels often hand-in-hand with the severity of insulin resistance. Vitamin K decreases the risk for diabetes up to 50%. They are synergistic as a vitamin K2/D3 supplement, however both are in mushrooms. Ironically, Reishi, Tremella and Cordyceps mushrooms are deemed "functional foods" for the management of diabetes. They are also sold as dietary supplements, often in combination.
Diabetes causes 213,062 deaths in the U.S. Diabetics have twice the mortality of non-diabetics due to diabetes-related cardiovascular disease and chronic renal failure.The risk of cardiovascular disease in diabetics is so high that it is assumed that they have CVD if they have diabetes.