Certain NHPs look promising, but more in-depth studies are needed to confirm their effects.
Many people try natural health products for various reasons. It is normal to want to try different remedies when ill but the best choice is still conventional medicine whose efficacy has been proven and which is governed by strict regulations in terms of efficacy and safety.
What is a natural health product (NHP)?
A NHP can be:
- a plant, plant material or a plant extract
- vitamins and minerals
- amino acids
- essential fatty acids (e.g.: omega-3)
A lack of rigor
At the moment, there is insufficient evidence as to the effectiveness and safety of NHPs to allow us to recommend them for the treatment of diabetes, unlike conventional drugs whose effects have been established in a number of rigorous scientific studies.
Also, regulations governing natural health products are less stringent than for drugs, and product purity is often unknown.
If you still wish to use natural-health products, consider these precautions:
- Exercise caution: “natural” doesn’t mean “safe.” It is important to be well informed of any potential health effect.
- Verify that any information on potential product benefits comes from a reliable source (a credible web site with references, a health care professional, etc.).
- Talk to your doctor or pharmacist about any potential side effect or interactions with your medication, or any contraindications related to the state of your health.
- If you decide to use an NHP, take blood glucose (sugar) readings more often to check its impact.
Natural-health products cannot replace your medication.
If you have type 1 diabetes
Since people with type 1 diabetes depend on insulin treatment because their pancreas does not produce insulin, it is dangerous, even fatal, to replace this treatment with an alternative medicine or a natural-health product.
For people with type 1 diabetes, it is dangerous, even fatal, to replace their treatment with an alternative medicine or natural health product.
If you have type 2 diabetes
The pancreas of people with type 2 diabetes still produces insulin. Hence, the chances that a complementary treatment might work are better, but there are no conclusive studies at the moment.
The latest on NHPs
Cinnamon’s effects on the blood glucose (sugar) levels of people with type 2 diabetes have been studied for several years, with contradictory results. Some studies show promise but the verdict is still out.
In the last few years, a few studies found a reduction in the blood glucose (sugar) levels of diabetic participants who consumed capsules containing between 1 g and 6 g of cinnamon extract for several weeks.
More studies are needed to better understand how cinnamon acts on the body, its efficacy, and its optimal and safe dose.
Ginseng is a natural-health product extracted from the root of a plant with many varieties, the most popular of which are American and Asian ginseng, whose effects may differ.
In Chinese medicine, ginseng is used to treat:
- erectile dysfunction
- several other diseases
The inadequate methodology of the studies conducted to verify the effect of ginseng on blood glucose and the small number of participants does not permit us to draw any conclusions.
Likewise, we do not know the long-term effect of taking ginseng on blood glucose (sugar) levels, or if a person could develop a tolerance to it so that its efficacy would decline after taking it for a while.
The many side effects of ginseng include:
- increase and decrease in blood pressure
Ginseng is contraindicated for:
- children and pregnant or lactating women
- people with heart or clotting problems, or who have been diagnosed with a hormone-sensitive cancer, or with schizophrenia
You should check with your pharmacist to determine whether ginseng will interact with your other medications, including:
- insulin and diabetes medications
- anticoagulants or antiplatelets
- heart-failure drugs
- certain hormones
Chromium is an essential mineral found naturally in many foods. The foods highest in chromium are brewer’s yeast and calf liver.
Broccoli, green beans, potatoes, whole-grain cereals, wheat germ, Swiss (gruyère) cheese, plums, mushrooms, asparagus, meat, egg yolks and beer also contain significant amounts.
Chromium has been sold as a supplement for many years for weight loss and to improve mood, energy, vision and acne, but its effectiveness remains unproven.
Although its exact action is still not understood, chromium may improve insulin’s action in the body, hence its interest for people with type 2 diabetes. It would not be effective for type 1 diabetes. Some sources also claim that dietary chromium or chromium supplements lower triglycerides and LDL (the “bad” cholesterol), while raising HDL (the “good” cholesterol).
The scientific studies on chromium’s effect are contradictory.
Another obstacle: the chromium dose used in studies was five times higher than the recommended and recognized safe daily dose.
Also, significant side effects have been reported after taking chromium:
- skin problems
- liver problems
- serious kidney problems
Some people use it to treat osteoarthritis, in combination with a pharmacological treatment.
Contrary to the above-mentioned natural-health products, glucosamine might have a possible hyperglycemic effect. This effect of glucosamine is still controversial, but caution is advised.
Despite its name, glucosamine is not a source of glucose (sugar), but people with diabetes should use it with caution:
- When you take glucosamine, your liver can produce more glucose and raise your blood sugar. Glucosamine decreases the activity of an enzyme (glucokinase) that controls the production of glucose by the liver.
- In rats, glucosamine can reduce insulin secretion by the pancreas.
- Glucosamine could increase insulin resistance over the long term, thus accelerating the progression of type 2 diabetes.
- One in vitro study found that glucosamine caused the destruction of pancreatic cells, but the doses were 5 to 10 times higher than recommended by the manufacturer, and there is no study on humans. If taken at the manufacturer’s recommended dose to treat osteoarthritis, it appears that glucosamine has no deleterious effect on blood sugar levels or insulin resistance, but there are no clinical studies to confirm this.
Unfortunately, no studies to date have been conducted for a long enough time to prove the real long- or medium-term effect of the product on blood glucose (sugar) levels. We do not yet know its long-term effects on diabetes.
Glucosamine products on the market may contain various other ingredients, in addition to glucosamine. Often the amounts of these other products are not indicated on the label because there is no regulation requiring it. For example, some glucosamine tablets containing sodium may be detrimental to patients with high blood pressure. Others contain potassium and magnesium, which can be harmful to people with kidney problems.
Research and text: Diabetes Québec Team of Health Care Professionals
Canadian Diabetes Association Clinical Practice Guidelines Expert Committee, “Natural Health Products,” Canadian Diabetes Association 2013 Clinical Practice Guidelines for the Prevention and Treatment of Diabetes in Canada, (Canadian Journal of Diabetes, vol. 37, pp. S97-S99), Canadian Diabetes Association.
Leach, MJ; Kumar, S, (2012) “Cinnamon for diabetes mellitus”. [Online] http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22972104 (Web page consulted July 23, 2014.)
Martin, J. et al., (August 2006) “Chromium Picolinate Supplementation Attenuates Body Weight Gain and Increases Insulin Sensitivity in Subjects with Type 2 Diabetes,” Diabetes Care, vol. 29, no. 8, pp. 1826-1832.
Yeh, G. et al., (2003) “Systematic Review of Herbs and Dietary Supplements for Glycemic Control in Diabetes,” Diabetes Care, vol. 26. no. 4., pp. 1277-1294.
Evert, A. et al., (2014) “Position Statement: Nutrition Therapy Recommendations for the Management of Adults,” Diabetes Care, vol. 37, supplement 1, pp. S120-S143.
Natural Medicines in the Clinical Management of Diabetes. [Online] http://naturaldatabase.therapeuticresearch.com/ce/ceCourse.aspx?s=ND&cs=&pc=10%2D107&cec=1&pm=5 (Web page consulted July 23, 2014.)