Diabetes; What Herbs Can Help?

According to the American Diabetes Association, more than 16 million Americans have diabetes–the 5th leading cause of death in the United States.  Diabetes is a chronic disorder characterized by elevated fasting (overnight) serum glucose (blood sugar) levels, and is essentially caused by the body's inability to produce sufficient insulin–a hormone that allows glucose in the blood to enter cells–and/or by the resistance of cells to the action of insulin.  Thus, glucose remains circulating in the bloodstream–a condition which, in some cases, can be fatal if left untreated.
Type I (juvenile-onset) diabetes, also known as insulin-dependent diabetes mellitus (IDDM), requires insulin use to regulate blood glucose.  Type I diabetes is associated with the destruction of insulin-producing beta-cells of the pancreas, and the body's inability to produce enough insulin to regulate blood glucose.  With Type II (adult-onset) diabetes, the body has become resistant to insulin–the body produces insulin but is unable to use it efficiently.  This results in hyperglycemia (high blood glucose) which, over time, can damage the eyes, kidneys, nerves and heart.  About 92% of American diabetics are Type II, most of whom are middle-aged and overweight–obesity, sedentary lifestyle, and a diet high in refined carbohydrates are the primary risk factors for Type II diabetes.  Fortunately, most cases of Type II diabetes can be controlled by diet alone, thus it is also known as non-insulin-dependent diabetes mellitus (NIDDM).
Many herbs and natural substances can be helpful in maintaining normal blood sugar levels, I have outlined a few of these below:
Nopal leaves (Opuntia streptacantha) are well known throughout Latin America for their apparent hypoglycemic (reduce blood glucose) effects.  A 1991 study of 14 Type II diabetics showed nopal significantly reduced serum glucose by up to 40.8 mg/dL less than initial values, 3 hours after intake.  A similar study with 8 Type II diabetics again found nopal significantly decreased serum glucose by 41-46% less than the values at the start of the 6-hour test.  Additional studies with Type II diabetics have further confirmed nopal's hypoglycemic effects.  In fact, 1 study found nopal had a hypoglycemic effect in healthy individuals with induced hyperglycemia, causing glucose levels to rise significantly less with nopal than with the control.
Fenugreek seeds (Trigonella foenum-graecum) have demonstrated significant antidiabetic effects in both experimental and clinical studies.  Fenugreek has been shown to help reduce blood glucose levels and improve glucose tolerance in both Type I and Type II diabetics, as well as lower elevated cholesterol and triglyceride levels.  A study of Type I diabetics showed fenugreek significantly reduced fasting glucose levels by 30% and decreased 24-hour urinary glucose excretion by 54%.  Serum total cholesterol, LDL and VLDL (very low-density lipoproteins) cholesterol, as well as triglycerides were also significantly reduced.  In a 3-month placebo-controlled study of patients with mild Type II diabetes, fenugreek significantly reduced both fasting and postprandial (after-eating) glucose levels.  Furthermore, in a study of 60 Type II diabetics (none of whom were taking cholesterol-lowering medication), fenugreek significantly changed cholesterol levels after just 4 weeks.  By the end of the 24-week study, total mean cholesterol had decreased by 14%, triglycerides decreased by as much as 17%, and LDL and VLDL cholesterol decreased by as much as 23%.  Also, HDL cholesterol improved by 10%.
Fenugreek contains various hypoglycemic compounds that may function synergistically to reduce fasting glucose.  Fenugreek is also a rich source of soluble fiber, which slows carbohydrate digestion and absorption, thus preventing rapid increases in blood glucose.  High fiber content may also account for fenugreek's blood cholesterol-lowering and blood lipid-lowering actions.  In addition, researchers have discovered a new compound, an amino acid known as 4-hydroxyisoleucine, which increases glucose-induced insulin release by directly affecting isolated islets of Langerhans (clusters of insulin-secreting cells in the pancreas).  The activity of 4-hydroxyisoleucine is believed to account, at least in part, for fenugreek's antidiabetic properties.  Although fenugreek has no known toxicities, it does contain estrogen-like compounds and should not be taken if pregnant or trying to conceive.  Also, people with allergies to chickpeas (garbanzo beans) may experience similar allergic reactions to fenugreek.
Gymnema leaves (Gymnema sylvestre) is considered one of the most effective complementary therapies for managing diabetes, and is primarily used to help regulate elevated and/or fluctuating blood glucose levels in Type I and Type II diabetics.  Gymnema hs also been shown to lower blood cholesterol and triglyceride levels without side effects.  In a study of 27 Type I diabetics on insulin therapy, gymnema reduced insulin requirements by an average of nearly 50%, based on observed decreases in fasting glucose levels.  Researchers also noted a possible regeneration or revitalization of beta-cells resulting from gymnema therapy.  Likewise, 22 Type II diabetics on oral hypoglycemic drugs were also given 400mg of a standardized gymnema extract daily.  After 18 to 20 months, all participants exhibited improved blood glucose control–21 of the 22 were able to considerably reduce their drug dosages, with 5 being able to discontinue medication entirely, using only gymnema to maintain blood glucose control.  Study data suggested that beta-cells may have been regenerated or repaired, based on the increases in serum insulin levels following gymnema supplementation.  In addition, the researchers of the study considered to be superior to medication for long-term blood sugar stablization.  Although preliminary, research strongly suggests that gymnema may be capable of not only enhancing glucose metabolism and increasing insuling levels, but also regenerating the pancreas of Type I diabetics.
In order for gymnema to lower blood glucose in insulin-dependent diabetics (Type l) it needs to be taken continuously for 6 to 12 months.  Gymnema's effects are gradual, requiring long treatment time; however, this helps to protect against blood glucose levels falling too low (a common experience with hypoglycemic medications).  Gymnema may be combined with fenugreek–which is fast acting–to achieve quick, yet sustainable results.  No toxicity or contraindications have been reported for gymnema; however, because gymnema enhances insulin secretion, it may not be appropriate for individuals with hyperinsulinemia (chronically high levels of circulating insulin).
Bitter melon fruit (Momordica charantia) has been shown to significantly improve glucose tolerance without raising blood insulin levels, improves fasting blood glucose levels and decreases blood and urine glucose levels.  An early study showed bitter melon improved glucose tolerance in 73% of Type II diabetics.  In a study of 100 moderate Type II diabetics, bitter melon significantly reduced both fasting and postprandial serum glucose levels in 86 patients, while another 5 patients exhibited decreases in fasting serum glucose only.  A study involving 6 Type II diabetics showed after 3 weeks of daily bitter melon intake, fasting blood glucose levels had dropped an average of 54%.  After 7 weeks, blood glucose levels of all participants were at or near normal, with no detectable urinary glucose.  Bitter melon's hypoglycemic activity appears to be the result of either an improvement in the insulin-secreting capacity of beta-cells or an improvement in the action of insulin.  Bitter melon also exhibits the ability to increase HDL cholesterol and reduce total cholesterol and triglycerides.

DISCLAIMER: The information provided in this column is intended for educational purposes only.  It is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.  Please seek the advice of a QUALIFIED  health care practitioner before using any herbs, supplements or other natural approaches to health discussed in this column.