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Diabetes is a lifelong condition that affects the blood sugar and insulin levels in the body. Treatment includes lifestyle strategies and sometimes medication, but some complementary therapies, such as herbs and supplements, may help.
Herbs and supplements will not cure diabetes and do not constitute a standalone treatment, but some may combine with conventional treatment to provide relief from symptoms and reduce the risk of complications.
Learn more here about types 1 and 2 diabetes.
Here are seven herbs and supplements that may be of benefit to people with type 2 diabetes.
1. Aloe vera
Aloe vera is a common plant with many different uses. Many people are aware of its benefits for skin care, but it may also have other benefits, including slowing the progress of type 2 diabetes.
One review, published in 2013, looked at the use of aloe vera to treat symptoms of diabetes in rats. Findings suggested that aloe vera might help protect and repair the beta cells in the pancreas that produce insulin. The researchers believed this might be due to aloe’s antioxidant effects.
The researchers called for more research into aloe and its extracts to be sure of these effects.
Ways of taking aloe include:
- adding juiced pulp to a drink or smoothie
- taking capsules that contain aloe as supplements
People should not eat aloe vera skin care products.
Aloe vera juice may offer a number of health benefits. Find out more here.
Click here to purchase aloe vera supplements online. Please note that this link will take you to the website of an external vendor.
Cinnamon is a fragrant spice that comes from the bark of a tree. It is a popular ingredient in sweets, baked goods, and other dishes.
It has a taste that can add sweetness without any additional sugar. It is popular with people with type 2 diabetes for this reason alone, but it may also offer other benefits.
A 2010 review found evidence from studies involving humans that cinnamon may improve levels of:
- insulin and insulin sensitivity
- lipids, or fats, in the blood
- antioxidant status
- blood pressure
- lean body mass
In another review published in 2013, researchers concluded that cinnamon might lead to:
- lower fasting blood glucose levels
- less total cholesterol and “bad” low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol
- higher levels of “good” high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol
- a reduction in triglycerides, or fat, in the blood
- increased insulin sensitivity
It did not appear to have a significant impact on hemoglobin A1C. The A1C test is a standard test for diagnosing and monitoring diabetes.
Nevertheless, lipids, cholesterol, and insulin sensitivity are all important markers for people with diabetes.
In both studies, the researchers note that the results may depend on:
- the type of cinnamon, as the amount of active ingredient depends on the type
- the amount or dose
- the individual’s response to cinnamon
- other medications the person may be taking
Most studies have not involved humans, so there is a lack of evidence about how cinnamon might affect people, including its possible side effects. Scientists need to carry out more research to confirm the safety and effectiveness of cinnamon as a therapy.
People can take cinnamon:
- in a variety of cooked dishes and baked goods
- in teas
- as a supplement
Anyone who is thinking of using cinnamon supplements should speak to their doctor first.
3. Bitter melon
Momordica charantia, or bitter melon, is a medicinal fruit. Practitioners of traditional Chinese and Indian medicine have used bitter melon for centuries. People can cook the fruit and use it in many dishes. Some scientists have been looking into its potential medicinal uses.
There is some evidence that bitter melon may help with the symptoms of diabetes. One review has noted that people have used many parts of the plant to help treat diabetes.
Research has shown that taking bitter melon in the following forms can lead to a reduction in blood sugar levels in some people:
- blended vegetable pulp
Eating or drinking the bitter melon can be an acquired taste, but taking supplements may make it more palatable.
There is not enough evidence to support using bitter melon instead of insulin or medication for diabetes.
However, it may help people rely less on those medications or lower their dosages.
Learn more here about the impact bitter melon can have on blood sugar levels.
Bitter melon capsules are available for purchase online.
4. Milk thistle
People have used milk thistle since ancient times for many different ailments, and especially as a tonic for the liver.
Silymarin, the extract from milk thistle that has received the most attention from scientists, is a compound with antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. These are the properties that may make milk thistle a useful herb for people with diabetes.
Many of the studies on silymarin are promising, but the research is not strong enough to recommend the herb or extract alone for diabetes care, according to one review published in 2016.
There appear to be no reports of significant side effects, and many people take milk thistle as a supplement. However, it is best to speak to a doctor first before using any supplements.
Find a range of milk thistle capsules on sale here.
Fenugreek is another seed that may help lower blood sugar levels.
The seeds contain fibers and chemicals that help to slow down the digestion of carbohydrates and sugar.
There is also some evidence that the seeds may help delay or prevent the onset of type 2 diabetes.
Findings of a 3-year investigation published in 2015 noted that people with prediabetes were less likely to receive a diagnosis of type 2 diabetes while taking powdered fenugreek seed.
The researchers concluded that taking the seed led to:
- increased levels of insulin in the body, leading to a reduction in blood sugar
- lower cholesterol levels
The study involved 66 people with diabetes who took 5 grams (g) of the seed preparation twice a day before meals, and 74 controls, who did not take it.
A person can:
- include fenugreek as a herb in certain dishes
- add it to warm water
- grind into a powder
- take it as a supplement in capsule form
A range of fenugreek capsules is available for purchase here.
Gymnema sylvestre is a herb that comes from India. Its name means “sugar destroyer.”
A 2013 review noted that people with both type 1 and type 2 diabetes who took gymnema showed signs of improvement.
In people with type 1 diabetes who took the leaf extract for 18 months, fasting blood sugar levels fell significantly, compared with a group who received only insulin.
Other tests using gymnema found that people with type 2 diabetes responded well to both the leaf and its extract over various periods.
Some people experienced:
- lower blood sugar levels
- higher insulin levels
Using either the ground leaf or leaf extract may be beneficial. But once again, talk to your doctor about using it before starting.
Click here for a range of gymnema capsules.
Ginger is another herb that people have used for thousands of years in traditional medicine systems.
People often use ginger to help treat digestive and inflammatory issues.
However, in 2015, a review suggested that it may also help treat diabetes. The results showed that ginger lowered blood sugar levels, but did not lower blood insulin levels.
Because of this, they suggest that ginger may reduce insulin resistance in the body for type 2 diabetes.
However, the researchers were uncertain as to how ginger might do this, and they called for more research to confirm these findings.
People can take ginger:
- by adding ginger powder or chopped, fresh ginger root to raw or cooked food
- brewed into tea
- as a supplement in capsule form
- by drinking it in a ginger ale
A range of ginger products are available for purchase here.
People should always work with a healthcare professional before taking any new herb or supplement.
The doctor may suggest starting with a lower dose and gradually increasing it until the person finds a suitable dose.
Some herbs can interact with other medications that do the same job, such as blood thinners and high blood pressure medications. It is essential to be aware of any interactions before starting a new supplement.
People should also ensure they obtain their herbs and supplements from a high-quality source.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) do not monitor herbs and supplements, so products may contain different herbs and fillers, recommend an incorrect dose, or be contaminated, for example, with pesticides.
Herbs and supplements are a complementary treatment option, and should not replace medications.
Discover more resources for living with type 2 diabetes by downloading the free app T2D Healthline. This app provides access to expert content on type 2 diabetes, as well as peer support through one-on-one conversations and live group discussions. Download the app for iPhone or Android.
What advice would you give to a person who is hoping to avoid the need for insulin by taking herbs and supplements?
There are two kinds of diabetes. People with type 1 must inject insulin into the body regularly. Using herbs or supplements may reduce the symptoms or side effects of type 1, but people should introduce these slowly, with careful medical supervision and monitoring of blood sugar. There is no cure for type 1 diabetes. A person with this condition will always have to take some form of insulin.
People with type 2 diabetes may use oral medication instead of insulin. Sometimes, people with type 2 can only control their blood sugar with insulin, but it is possible for people with this type to end their need for both insulin and oral medication. Through careful control of diet and establishing and maintaining a healthy weight body mass index (BMI), people can reduce and even reverse type 2 diabetes and its consequences.
Herbs may help manage blood sugar, weight loss, and adverse effects of the disease.
Regardless of the type of diabetes, the individual needs to work with their doctor, learn as much as they can about their treatment options, and monitor their blood sugars to keep them within a healthy range.
High blood sugar quickly damages body organs, but self-care is the key.
Debra Rose Wilson, PhD, MSN, RN, IBCLC, AHN-BC, CHT Answers represent the opinions of our medical experts. All content is strictly informational and should not be considered medical advice.