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Complementing Your Conventional


Recent research has shown that people with diabetes who use conventional medical treatment (medication and insulin, when necessary) to manage their condition use complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) in addition to their regular treatment regimens. A survey of 2,474 adults with diabetes showed that 48 percent of them used CAM therapies. When you consider that about 15 million people in the U.S. have diabetes, that means that there are probably 7 million who use CAM therapies.

Medical professionals have often worried that people who use alternative therapies are more likely to abandon conventional treatment, but the research has shown the opposite. In fact, studies show that people who use CAM therapies are more likely to get a pneumonia shot and visit a primary care doctor.

Common CAM treatments that can help with diabetes include

Acupuncture: Researchers and practitioners of acupuncture say it can trigger the release of the body's natural painkillers. If you have pain related to complications of diabetes, like diabetic neuropathy, acupuncture may be an option worth exploring.

Massage therapy: Massage is considered a healing therapy all over the world. It's beneficial for everyone, but people with diabetes may find it especially helpful in dealing with the everyday stress that's a part of keeping diabetes in control. The skillful touch of a therapist can actually decrease the production of stress hormones, which is beneficial because stress hormones can cause blood sugar levels to rise.

Relaxation therapy: This can include techniques such as biofeedback, which emphasizes relaxation and stress reduction, and teaches a person to become more aware of the body's response to pain; and guided imagery, which brings peaceful images to mind, such as ocean waves. This relaxation is a way for some people to ease the symptoms of a chronic condition. Chinese exercise that are slow and meditative, such as t'ai chi and qigong, are also extremely relaxing when practiced regularly.

Supplements: The first thing to keep in mind if you're interested in trying supplements is that very little research has been done to verify the claims that these substances help manage diabetes. But if you do decide you want to try any of these, be sure to talk with your doctor first. Some of the more common supplements used for diabetes include:

  • Alpha lipoic acid (ALA)-Small studies have indicated that ALA may help improve the way your body uses insulin. But there's a possibility that ALA can cause blood sugar to become too low, so it's important to test frequently.

  • Magnesium-It's common for people with diabetes to have low levels of magnesium. Researchers are studying the effects of magnesium supplementation on diabetes, but the picture remains unclear. However, since magnesium is an important mineral, it's worth considering taking a low-dose supplement. But keep in mind that magnesium can interfere with certain drugs, such as antibiotics, calcium channel blockers, diuretics (water pills) and muscle relaxants.

  • Coenzyme Q10 (also called CoQ10)-Very little research has been done on the effects of coenzyme Q10 on diabetes, but there is some evidence that this supplement is beneficial for your heart. CoQ10 is safe for most adults, but it can interact with certain medications, such as warfarin (a blood thinner) and drugs for high blood pressure and cancer chemotherapy.

A supplement it's best NOT to try:
  • Chromium-Some researchers believe that chromium acts with insulin to promote normal blood glucose levels by moving glucose into the cells. It may also help to increase HDL cholesterol (the "good" kind) and decrease total cholesterol and triglycerides. However, the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine states that chromium could be dangerous for people with diabetes, because high doses can cause kidney failure.

Insulin, other medications, a healthy food plan and regular exercise are still the cornerstones of diabetes treatment. But CAM can be a helpful complement to your traditional diabetes treatment plan. If you're interested in exploring ways to enhance your treatment, talk with your doctor. And be sure to monitor your blood sugar carefully if you do add to your treatment plan.

Diabetes Care, January 2006; National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine; National Institutes of Health NIDDK National Diabetes Information Clearinghouse
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