Many people use popular supplements, like omega-3s and magnesium, to help manage their type 2 diabetes. But do these over-the-counter therapies really work?
Of the 29.1 million Americans with diabetes, as many as 31 percent use complementary or alternative medicines, including supplements, to help manage their condition. In fact, the amount of money spent on dietary supplements could be staggering. “I think it’s bigger than the pharmacy business, if you add it all up,” says Jeffrey Tipton, DO, MPH, vice president and medical director at AppleCare Medical Management in Los Angeles.
So is all that money going to good use? “There are some indications that some supplements may be helpful, but there’s nothing definitive,” says Julie T. Chen, MD, an internist and founder of Making Healthy EZ, an integrative health clinic in San Jose, California. While you shouldn’t use supplements to replace your diabetes medication, research on some of them does suggest that they can help with type 2 diabetes management.
Supplements for Type 2 Diabetes: A Closer Look
If you’re taking or considering taking a supplement, telling your doctor is a must because some supplements can interfere with diabetes or other drugs, such as blood thinners.
Here’s a look at nine dietary supplements that are commonly used by people with type 2 diabetes:
Chromium A metal and an essential trace mineral, this is thought to help reduce blood sugar levels. It is naturally occurring in meat, fish, fruits, vegetables, spices, and whole-wheat and rye breads. As a supplement, it is sold as chromium picolinate, chromium chloride, and chromium nicotinate.
“People were excited about chromium about 20 years ago,” Dr. Tipton says. At low doses, its use appears safe for most people and may be of some help; but taken over long periods, chromium can cause side effects that include kidney issues — already a problem for some people with diabetes.
Magnesium This metal is essential for healthy bones, muscle function, normal blood pressure, and proper heart rhythm. People with diabetes tend to be low in magnesium, which is linked to lowered insulin production and more insulin insensitivity. “If a blood test shows that magnesium levels are low, a supplement might be helpful,” says Susan Weiner, RDN, a certified diabetes educator in Merrick, New York and author of Diabetes: 365 Tips for Living Well. Note that taking too much magnesium causes diarrhea — be sure to speak with your doctor before taking it, or any kind of supplement. Good food sources of magnesium include pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, almonds, cashews, halibut, tuna, spinach, and oat bran.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids These come from foods such as fish, some vegetable oils (canola and soybean), walnuts, and wheat germ. Omega-3 supplements are available as capsules or oils. A review published in October 2015 in the journal PloS One showed that omega-3 fatty acids lower triglycerides but do not affect blood glucose control or total cholesterol. In addition, the University of Maryland Medical Center in Baltimore notes that omega-3 fatty acids from fish act to raise HDL (“good”) cholesterol in people with diabetes, while omega-3s from flaxseed oil may yield the same benefit. In some studies, omega-3 fatty acids also raised LDL (“bad”) cholesterol. Additional research, particularly long-term studies that look specifically at heart disease in people with diabetes, is needed. Fish oil can also interfere with blood-thinning and blood-pressure drugs.
Vanadium Like chromium, vanadium is also a trace mineral. In the 1980s, research first showed it could lower blood sugars. “Vanadium, along with its heavier cousins, molybdenum and tungsten, can mimic insulin,” Weiner says. “In research done with animal cells, these minerals have been able to replace insulin.” But later research showed it had no effect on blood sugar levels.
Glucosamine No research shows that glucosamine is helpful for people with diabetes, Tipton says. Evidence in its favor is only anecdotal, meaning that some people report that it helps them, Weiner says. “Glucosamine is important for the repair and maintenance of healthy cartilage in joints, but taking it in an oral form may not get it to where it needs to be in an amount that will do any real good,” she says.
Alpha-Lipoic Acid Also known as ALA, lipoic acid, and thioctic acid, this substance is similar to a vitamin. As an antioxidant, it protects against cell damage caused by free radicals. ALA is found in liver, spinach, broccoli, and potatoes. People with type 2 diabetes take ALA supplements to help their bodies use insulin more efficiently. ALA has also been used to prevent or treat diabetic neuropathy (a nerve disorder).
A study published in July 2014 in the journal Diabetology & Metabolic Syndrome found therapeutic benefits to ALA, but more research is needed, Weiner says. Among the cautions are that ALA may lower blood levels of iron and may interact with certain cancer drugs. In some cases, ALA might lower blood sugar too much, so blood sugars must be carefully monitored if you use this supplement.
Bitter Melon Despite its name, bitter melon is a vegetable that’s also found in supplement form. There is some evidence that botanicals like bitter melon have glucose-lowering properties. Dr. Chen likes bitter melon because it’s generally safe for most people. She recommends starting with 900 milligrams and adjusting the dosage if it helps you.
Cinnamon More research is needed, Chen says, but a systematic review of studies published in September 2013 in the journal Annals of Family Medicine suggests cinnamon may improve blood sugar levels in some people. Try adding cinnamon — make sure it’s the unsweetened kind — to oatmeal and other foods, or sprinkle it in your coffee.
If you want to use supplements, be sure to talk to your doctor about your choices to ensure that what you’re taking is safe and won’t interfere with your conventional diabetes therapy.
This article was published at everydayhealth.com