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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, August 26, 2001

Herbs may help reduce effects of Type II diabetes

Editor's note: This is the third in a series of columns by naturopathic physician Laurie Steelsmith on the topic of diabetes. On July 1 she wrote about how people who are at risk for Type II diabetes can help prevent the disease by making changes in diet and lifestyle; on July 29 the topic was how those with Type II diabetes may benefit from nutritional and herbal supplements. Today she addresses herbal medicines for Type II diabetes.

By Laurie Steelsmith

The good news is that, on the average, Hawai'i residents live five years longer than the rest of the nation. The bad news is that we have a higher-than-national average risk for contracting Type II diabetes. Perhaps we live longer because our beautiful tropical weather allows us to be physically active all year round. However, our typical local diet is exceptionally high in fat and sugar, which are major contributors to the onset of Type II diabetes. Fortunately, lifestyle changes, nutritional supplementation and herbal medicines can help prevent and manage the disease.

A person with diabetes is unable to maintain normal blood sugar levels. While obesity and family history are major risk factors for the onset of Type II diabetes, eating a well-balanced diet, maintaining a healthy weight and exercising regularly can help prevent it. As reported in my two previous articles on this topic, there are lifestyle and nutritional changes that can make an enormous difference in the progression of the disease. They include exercising regularly, maintaining an ideal weight, and eating well-balanced meals consisting of low-fat foods, lean protein, complex carbohydrates with a low glycemic index, and an abundance of fruits and vegetables. The antioxidants vitamin C, vitamin E, beta-carotene, alpha lipoic acid, and N-acetyl cysteine can help protect against heart disease and other complications of diabetes.

For centuries, herbal medicines have been used worldwide for the treatment of Type II diabetes. Some herbs improve imbalances in blood-sugar levels while others help prevent complications of the disease. (Important: Be sure to check with your doctor before taking any medicine or dietary supplement; herbal treatments should not be used independent of a physician's care and advice.)

The most noteworthy herbal medicine is bilberry, a rich source of flavonoids (part of the vitamin C complex). European studies have demonstrated that flavonoids can help strengthen blood-vessel walls and can help prevent eye disorders such as diabetic retinopathy. Blueberries, cherries and blackberries also are good sources of flavonoids. Bilberry can also be taken as an herbal supplement. Look for a standardized extract of 25 percent anthocyanidin. The recommended dose is 80 to 160 milligrams three times per day.

Although it is better known for its reputed benefits in increasing memory in the elderly, ginkgo biloba can also help diabetics. It has antioxidant properties, contains flavonoids, and can increase circulation to the entire body. Ginkgo biloba can be purchased as a supplement. Buy a standardized extract that contains 24 percent ginkgo flavoglycosides. Recommended dosage is 40 to 80 milligrams three times a day.

Gymnema sylvestre, an herb from India, has been used for centuries in traditional Ayurvedic medicine for the treatment of diabetes. A study published in the journal Ethnopharmacology in 1990 showed that after ingesting 400 milligrams of G. sylvestre per day for 20 months, blood glucose levels in diabetic patients were significantly reduced. Five of the twenty-two participants were able to discontinue conventional drugs and maintain blood-sugar levels within a normal range.

G. sylvestre provides an added bonus for sugar lovers and diabetics who can't seem to break their sugar addiction: It contains compounds that can block the sweet-taste receptors in the mouth! A gum called Sugarest contains this herb and is purported to make sweets taste bitter after it has been chewed. It can be ordered online at www.sugarestgum.com (Important warning: Diabetics should use this herb only under the supervision of a physician because it can stimulate the release of insulin.)

Fenugreek seeds can have a favorable effect on blood sugar levels in the diabetic. An article published in 1988 in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition reported that fenugreek seeds can also have a positive effect on cholesterol and triglyceride levels — very important in preventing cardiovascular complications from diabetes. Studies focus on using defatted fenugreek seed powder at a dosage of 50 grams twice daily.

If you are diabetic, remember that it is important to work closely with your physician and to self-monitor your blood glucose levels. Adopting healthier lifestyle and dietary practices, and using herbal medicines to lower your blood sugar, may necessitate lowering the dosage of your medication. Your goal is to keep your blood sugar within a healthy range, not too high and not too low. By successfully managing your disease, you can live a long and healthy life.

Laurie Steelsmith is a naturopathic physician and licensed acupuncturist in Honolulu.

Hawai'i experts in traditional medicine, naturopathic medicine, diet and exercise take turns writing the Prescriptions column. Send your questions to: Prescriptions, 'Ohana Section, The Ho-nolulu Advertiser, P.O. Box 3110, Honolulu, HI 96802; e-mail ohana@honoluluadvertiser.com; fax 535-8170. This column is not intended to provide medical advice; you should consult your doctor.