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Alternative Medicine: 10 Supplements You May Want to Consider

separator If you’re serious about complementing your diabetes treatment plan with supplements, here are some you may want to try. According to Roxanne Murthy, Doctor of Pharmacy at AMC Pharmacy Services in Minneapolis, while there have been very few large scale studies, done on alternative supplements, “there are small studies, with case reports by qualified healthcare providers, indicating that there are supplements that have potential evidence of being beneficial for diabetes. These are 10 supplements that fall into that category:”

Alpha lipoic acid: “This is a vitamin-like antioxidant,” explains Dr. Murthy. “It’s known for improving insulin control in Type 2 diabetes, for preventing cell damage and restoring vitamins E and C. People who have blood clots or thyroid conditions shouldn’t take this medication, and it might decrease the effectiveness of chemotherapy.” You can find alpha lipoic acid naturally in spinach, broccoli and potatoes.

Bitter melon: “Bitter melon is a plant, and the fruit and seeds are used for medicine,” says Dr. Murthy. Bitter melon contains a chemical that acts like insulin.

Chromium: “This is what’s called an essential trace element,” explains Dr. Murthy. “It may help keep sugar levels normal by improving the body’s use of insulin.” People who have kidney disease or who suffer from depression or anxiety should not take chromium. And, “in high doses, chromium can impair thinking, judgment and coordination.”

Fenugreek: “This can slow the absorption of sugar in the stomach and stimulate insulin,” says Dr. Murthy. “People who are allergic to chickpeas, peanuts, soybeans or green peas should not use fenugreek. If you’re taking other medications, you should take fenugreek no less than two hours before or after taking the other drugs.” Fenugreek can also increase the effects of blood thinners, such as coumadin and aspirin.

Ginseng: This has been studied only for short-term use—less than three months, and benefits have been found only in the American Panax varieties. “Ginseng has chemicals that affect insulin levels and lower blood sugar. People who have heart conditions, insomnia, high blood pressure, or breast, uterine or ovarian cancer should use ginseng with caution.”

Prickly pear cactus: This also has been studied only for short-term use. It contains fiber and pectin which can help lower blood glucose by decreasing sugar in the stomach and intestines. “Pectin is also found in apples,” adds Dr. Murthy, 

Gymnema: The leaves of this plant can help decrease sugar absorption. They may also increase insulin and growth of cells in the pancreas.

Pycnogenol (pine bark extract): This extract may improve blood flow and enhance the immune system. It may also help decrease the effects of retina disease.

Vanadium: “This is a mineral that may act like insulin or increase insulin’s effects,” says Dr. Murthy. “People with kidney disease should not take vanadium, and it’s unsafe in large amounts if taken over a long period of time.” Additionally, vanadium can increase the side effects of blood thinners.

Vitamin E: This antioxidant can help the body’s functioning and prevent cell damage. “People who take doses greater than 1,000 milligrams per day are at increase risk of experiencing side effects such as nausea, diarrhea, cramps, fatigue and weakness,” Dr. Murthy adds.

Use caution no matter what you try
Be sure to read labels on all supplements, because even though the products are “natural” they can cause side effects, such as diarrhea, increased blood pressure, rapid heart beat, allergic reactions, etc. 

“In general, I would encourage patients to learn from reliable, unbiased sources such as the National Institutes of Health’s National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine ( or The FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition ( Patients should share their information with their healthcare providers before deciding whether to take a supplement or not. Make sure the dose you’re taking is right for you, and be aware that age and gender can cause variations in dosing, as can certain conditions, such as kidney disease.

Dr Murthy also advises against using the following supplements, which have been known to cause sever or life-threatening side effects, especially in high doses: alfalfa, aloe gel, aloe latex; alpine ragwort, bilberry, bitter orange, blue-green algae, borage seed oil, chinese cucumber root, colloidal minerals and colloidal silver, the shell of English walnut, fish oils in high doses, long-term use of ginseng panax, golden ragwort, khella, Madagascar periwinkle, magnesium, mountain ash, pau d’arco, pyridoxine in large doses, vanadium in high doses, vitamins E and A in high doses, zinc.

Roxanne C. Murthy, PharmD, Allina Medical Clinics Pharmacy Services.
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