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Researchers are exploring acupuncture as a possible treatment for many health conditions. Alina555/Getty Images
  • About 415 million people worldwide live with diabetes.
  • Researchers have been looking into acupuncture, which is an alternative medical therapy with over 3,000 years of history, to see if it could benefit people with diabetes.
  • A new study from Edith Cowan University found that acupuncture may be useful in helping prediabetic patients ward off type 2 diabetes.
  • Researchers believe acupuncture also provides a holistic approach to combating medical issues known to make diabetes worse.

Acupuncture has been used as an alternative medical practice for about 3,000 years. First started in China, acupuncture has become a more widespread practice in Western countries since the 1950s. A survey of Americans in 2012 reported about 3.5 million Americans used acupuncture as a complementary health approach.

Past research shows acupuncture to be effective in providing relief from a variety of different medical issues, including low back pain, headaches, nausea, and menopausal symptoms.

Adding to this list, a team of researchers from Edith Cowan University in Australia reports findings showing acupuncture therapy may be useful in helping prediabetic patients ward off type 2 diabetes.

The new study was recently published in the journal Holistic Nursing Practice.

Acupuncture is an ancient practice from traditional Chinese medicine. An acupuncturist inserts very thin needles into various areas of the body. The needles help stimulate these specific areas — known as acupuncture points — to help remove any “blockages” in the body’s natural energy flow, called “qi” (pronounced /chi/).

Researchers have examined acupuncture as a possible treatment for diabetes for some time now. About 415 million people globally live with diabetes, with projections to hit half a billion in 2040.

Past research examined acupuncture as a treatment for insulin resistance, and as a complementary therapy for controlling type 2 diabetes

According to Min Zhang, a Ph.D. candidate at the School of Nursing and Midwifery at Edith Cowan University in Perth, Australia, associate professor at the College of Nursing and Rehabilitation at North China University of Science and Technology, China, and the lead author of this study, the aim of this research was to identify the effects of acupuncture-related therapies on prediabetes management in community settings; and to find the best treatment protocol.

“Acupuncture works by improving insulin sensitivity, which determines how sensitive our body’s cells are in response to insulin — a hormone to help our body turn food into energy,” she explained to MNT.

“That means acupuncture can help to control blood sugar levels among people with prediabetes by enhancing insulin production and the efficacy of insulin utilization,” Dr. Zhang said.

For this study, Zhang and her team analyzed data regarding acupuncture-related therapy interventions for glycemic control of prediabetes from 14 databases and five clinical registry platforms. The studies ranged over 100 years, from April 1921 to December 2020, and included more than 3,600 individuals with prediabetes.

From their research, the team discovered acupuncture therapy helped significantly improve key markers, including fasting plasma glucose, two-hour plasma glucose, and glycated hemoglobin. They also found acupuncture helped lower the incidence of prediabetes.

The study also showed no reports of adverse reactions from acupuncture therapy among patients.

Additionally, Zhang and her team believe acupuncture provides a holistic option to help alleviate other health issues known to worsen diabetes. These include stress, sleep issues, and high blood pressure.

“More than 70% of prediabetic people will develop diabetes within their lifetime. If you ignore it, your risks for heart disease and stroke will also go up,” Zhang explained.

She also touched on its advantages over some medications for some people.

“[T]he medication used for people with diabetes, such as metformin, is not recommended or approved for prediabetes by TGA (Therapeutic Goods Administration in Australia) due to side effects. Since prediabetes is reversible, holistic and non-pharmacological treatment is an investment rather than an expenditure,” she pointed out.

Additionally, Zhang said past research has demonstrated that acupuncture also has benefits for patients with type 2 diabetes.

“Acupuncture could improve glycemic control in adults with type 2 diabetes without significant adverse events,” she said. “This effect is facilitated through improved glucose tolerance and insulin sensitivity that reduces the blood glucose level.”

MNT also spoke with Dr. Mahmud Kara, founder of KaraMD & Alternative Health Solutions, about the study. Dr. Kara said there are a few areas that warrant further research.

“The first is that the study does not exclude those who received acupuncture treatment while also making lifestyle changes, specifically dietary changes, which makes it difficult to conclude that acupuncture alone has a significant impact on diabetes risk,” he said.

“Another area to look at is the benefits of acupuncture on other health areas indirectly related to diabetes. For example, chronic stress is often associated with glycemic levels and fluctuations in blood sugar levels. Based on this, it would be important to look at whether acupuncture directly impacts blood sugar levels or whether it has an impact on stress reduction and through this, it indirectly benefits one’s health,” Dr. Kara explained.

“Finally, relying on acupuncture alone may not produce the results one is looking for,” he continued.

“While acupuncture may offer some health benefits, other time-proven methods such as lifestyle changes (e.g. diet, exercise, stress reduction) should not be overlooked when it comes to prediabetes and reducing disease risk.”
— Dr. Mahmud Kara

Dr. Rohit Moghe, an ambulatory care and population health clinical pharmacist at Trinity Health Mid-Atlantic, agreed that further research in this area was merited.

“My overall approach to practice after reading this study is that it informs it, but doesn’t change it, at least not right now,” he explained to MNT.

“I will continue to push hard and coach my patients through lifestyle as medicine through the ADCS7, with significant emphasis on dietary modification, enjoyable physical activity, addressing stress through coping skills, and restful sleep. If someone with prediabetes has musculoskeletal pain and/or looking for non-pharmacological treatment of pain, I would recommend acupuncture along with other complementary approaches to treat it,” he said.

Dr. Moghe also stressed the need for more research funding in non-pharmacological methods for treating and preventing common chronic conditions.

“Due to heavy research on medications, devices, and procedures accepted within Western view of medicine, we are able to prove they work and how they get approved,” he detailed, adding: “However, we need to also devote equal and equitable resources to studying medicine and procedures from other traditions to bring these therapies into options for those who want to use them.”

“Medical traditions that are older than Western medicine, like acupuncture, traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), Ayurveda, yoga therapy, and other shamanistic medical practices also need due respect and equitable research funding. Since we are now a global community, it is only prudent to do so.”
— Dr. Rohit Moghe