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Botanical Approaches to the Treatment of Diabetes

The use of botanicals has a long folk history for the treatment of blood sugar abnormalities. Prior to the development of insulin injection therapy in 1921, diabetes was managed entirely with herbal medicines. The World Health Organization has researched numerous plants over the last two decades looking for a way to reverse or manage this debilitating disorder. This article will deal with some of the findings and how a person can become informed. As with any condition and especially diabetes, it is important to consult with your health care professional before changing your therapy.

Diabetes mellitus (diabetes) is a common disorder affecting approximately 4% of the population. This equates to over 30 million worldwide. Diabetes and blood sugar imbalances are associated with western, industrialized cultures that consume highly refined and processed fiber depleted diets.

This article will not deal with the dietary imbalances or the nutrient support that has been shown effective but will center on specific botanicals and how they work to improve blood sugar balance or work to prevent many of the negative breakdown conditions of the body such as retinopathy, neuropathy, ulcers, heart and circulatory disorders.

A brief description of diabetes is that it is a chronic degenerative disease caused by lack of or resistance to the hormone insulin, which is essential for blood sugar metabolism. Normally blood sugar rises after a meal as glucose is absorbed into the system. This causes the pancreas to produce enough insulin to return the blood sugar to normal. Diabetics have problems with either production of insulin or they have a resistance to insulin uptake thus having an excess of glucose in the blood which has a negative effect on the body overall. There are two types of diabetics: Type 1 (insulin dependent) or Type 2 (non-insulin dependent).

According to herbalist David Hoffman, past president of the American Herbalist Guild, there are many plants that have proven hypoglycemic (blood sugar lowering effects) properties that can contribute to a comprehensive management program. He further states that there are no plants that can replace insulin directly. Let’s take a look at some of the more prominent plants:

Gymnema Sylvestris – A native plant of India with over 2,000 years of use for the treatment of diabetes. It has been studied since the 1930s and has been proven to reduce the amount of sugar the intestinal tract can absorb. In India it is called gurmar that means sugar eliminator. The plant has the ability of being able to block the taste of sugar. The water-soluble extract of the leaf has shown to decrease insulin requirements by one half with an overall decrease in average blood sugar. Cholesterol and triglycerides were lowered significantly.
Bilberry (Vaccinium myrtillus) has long been used to treat diabetes. The flavanoid compounds known as anthocyanosides have been shown to lower plasma glucose levels by 26% in animal studies, and in the same study it also lowered triglyceride levels by 39%. The hypoglycemic effects are very interesting but more important are its effects on stabilizing collagen. Thus, it is useful in the prevention of the retinopathy and capillary fragility problems associated with diabetes. Anthocyanicides are potent antioxidants and have a way of improving circulation.
Fenugreek Seed (Trigonella foenum graecum) contains an alkaloid compound trigonelline which is thought responsible for its action relating to lowering of blood sugar. It has also been effective in lowering overall cholesterol and triglycerides. The ground seed is used daily.
Bitter Melon (Momordica charantia) found in China, India, South America and Africa has been used medicinally. Research has confirmed the ability of fresh juice from the unripe fruit to lower blood sugar directly. Charantin one of the active properties has been compared to the allopathic drug tolbutamide as an effective oral hypoglycemic agent. A variety of liquid extracts have shown to lower blood sugar and improve glucose tolerance in human and animal studies.
Other plants that have shown positive effects in diabetes treatment but are not as well recognized are:

Goat’s Rue (Galega officinalis) has shown to have hypoglycemic activity by enhancing glucose utilization. It was researched in the early 1920s as a possible therapy that led to the development of antidiabetic biguanide drugs. These drugs had numerous side effects which the whole plant did not produce. A study in 1961 found that galega actually regenerated pancreatic cells.
Gingko biloba enhances peripheral circulation and is being used to prevent vascular breakdown in diabetics. Supplementing with the standardized extract has shown to be effective in neuropathy, retinopathy and collagen stabilization.
The plants listed above are the most researched, but there are literally hundreds of plants with hypo and hyperglycemic activity. Another compound from plants, insulin is found in dandelion root, burdock root, licorice root and Echinacea. This compound is reported to be of benefit in lowering hyperglycemia. Inula is a sugar molecule that does not require insulin to be absorbed.

Two very popular vegetables have been shown to a have blood glucose lowering effects. They are onion and garlic with its sulfur compounds having the most effects. Active allicin is shown to compete with insulin through binding sites within the liver. The drawback is the quantity that needs to be eaten daily to have a therapeutic effect.

Plant fiber has also been studied in the control of blood sugar. Guar gum, pectins and glucomannan (a gel fiber), and psyllium have significantly improved glycemic control, insulin requirements and HDL cholesterol.

As you can see, there are numerous plants that can be used in conjunction with conventional diabetic maintenance programs. Of course, there are many lifestyle adjustments that have been showing some promise. I will address some of these dietary changes in a later article.

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