Diabetes: Do Alternative Treatments Work?

There’s something about Type 2 diabetes that inspires creativity, innovation and promises from the alternative medicine industry. People who want to control their blood sugar without medications can choose from a huge variety of pills and elixirs. “I hear new claims on a nearly daily basis,” says Dr. Daniel Einhorn, clinical professor of medicine at UC San Diego and the president of the American Assn. of Clinical Endocrinologists. “There’s a constant market for new products.”

Many current products take an herbal approach to blood sugar control. The liquid supplement Sugar Crush from NaturEra, for example, combines common sage, cinnamon, hibiscus and fenugreek, among other ingredients.

The product comes in two varieties, regular Sugar Crush and the milder Sugar Crush Daily. Users are instructed to drink 2.5 milliliters of regular Sugar Crush mixed with a glass of water right before breakfast and dinner every day. Sugar Crush Daily is recommended as a prelude to lunch and bedtime. After two or three months, users are told that they can stop taking Sugar Crush and stick with two doses of Sugar Crush Daily, one before each of the two largest meals of the day.

Sugar Crush isn’t yet sold in stores — company President Uri Man says it will be widely available starting in March — but you can buy a 125 ml bottle of either variety online for $89.95. https://shop.buysugarcrush.com/ProductDetails.asp?ProductCode=SUGARD2//

If you prefer more simplicity in your supplement, you could always try one of several products offering Cinnulin PF — an extract of cinnamon bark made by Integrity Nutraceuticals — as their sole active ingredient. Each capsule of Cinnulin PF from iVitals contains 125 milligrams of the extract. Users are instructed to take one capsule before breakfast and one before dinner for best results. A bottle of 120 capsules, available only online, costs about $30.

Nature’s Way sells a supplement called Blood Sugar that contains, among other things, 133 mg of cinnamon bark extract, 100 micrograms of chromium and 33 mg of extract of the tropical South Asian herb Gymnema sylvestre per capsule. Users are instructed to take three capsules twice daily. You can buy a bottle of 90 capsules, available at many health food stores, for about $15.

The Claims

The Sugar Crush website says that the products “are the world’s first liquid, clinically tested, completely natural dietary supplements which help maintain healthy glucose levels.” Man, the NaturEra president, says that company studies have found that the supplements, which are already very popular in Israel, have been shown to reduce blood sugar levels by up to 40% in just 30 days.

The company has not yet published any studies in medical journals, although it did present results at a recent meeting of the American Diabetes Assn. and the American Assn. of Diabetes Educators. (Both the ADA and the AADE declined to comment on Sugar Crush or any other specific products.) Adds Man, “99% of the other [diabetes] products on the market haven’t been proven to do anything.”

The iVitals website doesn’t expressly claim that Cinnulin PF can help treat diabetes. Instead, the site says the product “may support healthy glucose levels in healthy individuals.” Tim Romero, president of Integrity Nutraceuticals, says cinnamon reduces blood sugar levels by making cells more sensitive to insulin, the hormone that helps cells take in blood sugar.

The website for Nature’s Way Blood Sugar hardly makes any claims beyond the name of the supplement. The site simply says that the product contains “chromium which is an important factor for insulin.” A spokesperson for the company declined to answer any questions about the ingredients or potential benefits of the product.

The Bottom Line

There’s no doubt that diet — including supplement choices — can affect blood sugar levels. But Einhorn says there’s still no herbal supplement with a scientifically proven track record for helping people with diabetes really get their blood sugar under control. “It would be very attractive to have natural treatments,” he says. “But the scientific evidence that they work is very slim.”

Richard Anderson, a research chemist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Diet, Genomics and Immunology lab in Beltsville, Md., has a more optimistic view of the potential of herbs and supplements, especially cinnamon and chromium. Anderson says research in his lab — including human trials of Cinnulin PF — suggests that each of these ingredients can increase the body’s sensitivity to insulin.

A 2006 study of 22 people with pre-diabetes published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition found that taking 500 mg of Cinnulin PF a day for 12 weeks reduced fasting blood glucose — a measure of blood sugar after one hasn’t eaten for eight hours that is used to diagnose pre-diabetes or diabetes — by about 8%.

And in 2007, researchers at UC San Francisco reported in the journal Pharmacotherapy that cinnamon might have “modest” effects on blood sugar, but they also warned that the spice shouldn’t be used as a substitute for standard treatment of diabetes, including exercise, a healthy diet and prescription drugs.

Anderson cautions that some claims about diabetes remedies may be overblown. To his mind, it’s “hard to believe” that Sugar Crush could reduce blood sugar levels by 40%. He adds that, although cinnamon and chromium are generally safe, it would be risky for anyone to switch medications for herbs without first talking to his or her doctor.

Einhorn, meanwhile, thinks it would be unwise to expect anything from an herbal diabetic product. “I’m surprised that anyone from the USDA said that these things have any therapeutic value,” he says.

Einhorn adds that there are exactly two proven and reliable ways to control blood sugar without resorting to prescription medications: regular exercise and a healthy diet.

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