People with type 2 diabetes sometimes add complementary or alternative medicine (CAM) therapies to their treatment plans. But it’s important to choose carefully. While some CAM therapies might be of help, others could end up doing more harm than good.
Before you decide to use a CAM therapy to help manage type 2 diabetes, consider these steps:
Talk to your doctor before taking a supplement. “Some supplements and medications can interfere with each other, leading to dangerous side effects,” says Andrew Newberg, MD, director of research at the Myrna Brind Center of Integrative Medicine at Thomas Jefferson University and Hospital in Philadelphia. Talk to your doctor about why you want to add a CAM therapy, and specifically which of your type 2 diabetes symptoms aren’t being addressed with regular treatment. “Discussing the goals of CAM therapy is always important so that the most effective treatment plan with medications or supplements can be developed,” he says.
Keep taking medication as prescribed. Sometimes people quit their medications when they start taking a supplement, says Aunna Pourang, MD, an integrative family medicine doctor in Santa Monica, California. However, she says, "the last thing you want is for someone to stop taking their medications, take a supplement with no benefit, and wind up hospitalized with life-threatening high blood sugar or with a stroke, heart attack, or other complications as a result of uncontrolled type 2 diabetes."
Find reliable information. The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health website has a trove of information on CAM, including facts on safety and effectiveness of supplements, herbs, and other therapies. Also, the Academy of Integrative Health and Medicine has a provider locator database to search for integrative healthcare providers in your area, including endocrinologists, naturopathic physicians, massage therapists, and others.
Have realistic expectations. “Doctors need to help people realize what to expect, and to understand that there are rarely any ‘miracle’ cures,” Dr. Newberg says. Most complementary therapies, for example, are just that — complementary — and should be part of a comprehensive health plan. Treatment for type 2 diabetes is a multifaceted approach that includes diet, nutrition, exercise, stress management, and any necessary medications, he says.
CAM Therapies to Consider for Type 2 Diabetes
Not everyone in the medical community supports the use of CAM treatment for type 2 diabetes. The American Diabetes Association (ADA), for example, doesn’t support the use of dietary supplements because of a lack of research-based evidence, says Susan Weiner, RDN, a certified diabetes educator in New York and the 2015 Educator of the Year of the American Association of Diabetes Educators.
However, some medical experts see certain benefits to CAM treatment for type 2 diabetes. For instance, the antioxidant alpha-lipoic acid and the botanicals berberine and gymnema sylvestre have been shown in some studies to reduce blood sugar or regulate carbohydrate metabolism, Newberg says. However, he cautions that "these should only be used when working with a knowledgeable doctor, particularly someone who specializes in the treatment of type 2 diabetes."
Weiner adds that it's important to monitor your blood sugar even more closely than usual if you're taking a supplement along with prescription medication.
Other CAM methods to consider to help manage type 2 diabetes include:
Supplements to Avoid If You Have Type 2 Diabetes
St. John’s wort, a supplement often used for depression, can interfere with many drugs, Newberg says. Because of this, he says he typically doesn’t recommend it, especially for people with type 2 diabetes who are taking multiple medications.
Also steer clear of anything that promises to ‘cure’ type 2 diabetes, Weiner says.
Anyone considering supplements should also remember that the Food and Drug Administration doesn’t regulate supplements like it regulates drugs. Make sure any supplement you use is verified by an organization such as the U.S. Pharmacopeial Convention, Weiner says.