Across the nation, an estimated 20 million people—7 percent of the US population—have diabetes. As many as 40 million more teeter on the edge of the illness and are classified as pre-diabetic—meaning they have insulin resistance and higher-than-normal blood sugar levels that indicate they’re heading toward diabetes. But even for pre-diabetics, the disease isn’t inevitable: Weight loss, a healthy diet, and consistent exercise can significantly cut the risk of developing diabetes.
Research also suggests certain herbs can help regulate blood glucose levels by boosting production of insulin or by slowing the absorption of sugar from the intestine. Along with lifestyle modifications, consider adding the following plants to your medicine cabinet to help keep your blood sugar in check. But before you do, consult your healthcare professional.
Gymnema (Gymnema sylvestre)
Also called gurmar, or “sugar destroyer,” the leaves of this woody climbing plant are traditionally used in ayurvedic medicine to treat high blood sugar. Several studies confirm long-term use of the herb holds promise in lowering blood glucose levels. In one 47-person trial conducted in India, blood glucose levels fell by nearly a third, on average, in type-2 diabetic patients given 400 mg of gymnema extract for a year and a half. David Winston, an herbalist in Washington, New Jersey, and coauthor of Herbal Therapies and Supplements: A Scientific and Traditional Approach (Lippincott, 2001) suggests 5 ml of tincture, three to four times a day.
Cinnamon (Cinnamomum cassia)
Researchers at the Department of Agriculture kicked off the current wave of interest in the use of cinnamon for diabetes when they found that a constituent in the spice improved cells’ sensitivity to insulin. A 2003 follow-up study published in Diabetes Care asked 60 type-2 diabetics to take 1, 3, or 6 grams of cinnamon in capsules or a placebo each day for 40 days. The cinnamon group reported a drop in blood levels of glucose, fats, and cholesterol of up to 30 percent. Karta Purkh Singh Khalsa, a registered herbalist in Eugene, Oregon, and author of Body Balance (Kensington, 2004), recommends 6 to 10 grams a day in capsules. Additional studies show other forms of cinnamon may also prove helpful, including tea brewed from 3 grams of ground cinnamon bark a day (and drunk throughout the day), or a dash of the ground spice—1/2 to 11/2 teaspoons—in food each day.
IAmerican ginseng (Panax quinquefolius)
The research supporting ginseng’s efficacy is “among the best available for herbs,” says Ryan Bradley, a diabetes specialist at the Bastyr Center for Natural Health near Seattle. Ginseng is an adaptogenic herb with a broad range of healing and protective effects, and it may fight diabetes in several ways. Researchers think components called ginsenosides stimulate cells within the pancreas to make more insulin. American ginseng may also help the body remove glucose from the blood and slow its absorption from food. In one study, type-2 diabetics who took 1 to 3 grams of American ginseng in capsules 40 minutes before meals experienced smaller surges in blood sugar afterward. Other studies, including two 8-week clinical trials, reported decreases in fasting blood glucose. Khalsa recommends up to 6 grams in capsules per day.
Be sure to read labels. Studies on diabetes have primarily used American ginseng, not the more common Siberian variety (Eleutherococcus senticosus).