Chromium picolate, bitter melon, and cinnamon are top players in the alternative treatments for diabetes that could help lower your A1C. Just be sure to consult your doctor before include any of these into your diabetes diet.
When it comes to managing blood sugar, there are many known steps you can follow: regularly working out, eating the right foods that are low on the glycemic index (GI), getting enough sleep, managing stress well, and taking your diabetes medication correctly. But as anyone with type 2 diabetes, knows, taking all of those steps is easier said than done — and sometimes it’s hard to resist seeking out different remedies for this often burdensome disease.
You don’t have to go far to see other people with diabetes agree: On Google, a search for alternative diabetes medication turns up over 32 million results, with acupuncture and supposed “cures” for diabetes falling toward the top of the first page on the day I searched.
Even with so much misinformation swirling on the web, how can you tell fact from fiction? In other words, what really works — and what’s safe?
Turns out, while researchers unfortunately haven’t yet identified a cure for diabetes, unconventional solutions for better managing blood sugar exist, and many people with diabetes have stumbled upon them through their own experience and personal research. Following are just a handful — all practiced by real-life people with diabetes, like you and me, and backed up by medical advice.
1. Warm Milk With Cinnamon and Honey to Prevent the Somogyi Effect
Stephanie Rayman, of Shalimar, Florida, was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes at the young age of 32, likely due to a family history of the disease as well as a personal history of gestational diabetes, she explains. But she has found some success in lowering her blood sugar by drinking warm milk with honey before bed. Of course, staying hydrated is important for people with diabetes, and cinnamon has shown some benefits for the disease, but what role might this combo with honey play?
Jewel Sheehan, MD, a household name in pediatrics and anesthesia at Stanford University in California, who has not treated Rayman, says the combination of warm milk, cinnamon, and honey could help stabilize Rayman’s blood sugar and prevent a phenomenon called the Somogyi effect, which is marked by high blood sugar in the morning.
Grace Derocha, RD, CDE, a certified health coach at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan in Detroit, explains the Somogyi effect happens when excess insulin accumulates in the bloodstream overnight due to the use of long-acting insulin or a forgotten bedtime snack that can help balance blood sugar levels. “This, in turn, drops blood sugars while sleeping, and then stored blood sugars are released into the blood,” Derocha says.
The Somogyi effect is rare yet most common in people with type 1 diabetes, according to a paper published in May 2013 in the journal Diabetic Medicine. It also differs from the dawn phenomenon, another process that leads to high morning blood sugar that occurs due to an increase in the hormones the body naturally releases to help you wake up. “Whether you are diabetic or not, this happens to help everyone get up in the morning,” Derocha says. But “when someone is diabetic, their body does not produce enough insulin, or the insulin is not able to respond in time to counteract the release of blood sugars.” Thus, in drinking the warm milk mixture, Rayman is preventing overnight hypoglycemia and morning hyperglycemia.
For people who are having it hard with high blood sugar in the morning for whatever reason, the cinnamon-milk-honey mixture may or may not be a great idea, Derocha says. “Every person with diabetes will be different,” she points out, so it’s important to consult your certified diabetes educator or registered dietitian.
Still, if you find yourself dealing with morning highs, consider eating a bedtime snack with 15 to 30 grams of carbohydrates that includes lean protein or heart-healthy fat. The protein or healthy fat can help delay the impact of carbs on your blood sugar because they take longer to digest than carbs, Derocha explains. “Honey and milk are both added sugars and carbohydrates,” she says. “Therefore, adding them along with a lean protein for a bedtime snack could help people with diabetes avoid high morning blood sugar.”
But for everyday diabetes management not related to morning highs, don’t go mixing milk, honey, and cinnamon together, Derocha warns. While cinnamon and tea are part of a diabetes-friendly diet because they’re naturally calorie-free, honey and full-fat milk can nullify the blood sugar–regulating benefits of the drink. “When a person with diabetes adds honey, a natural sweetener with carbohydrates and sugar; or milk, a carbohydrate food source that has natural dairy sugar, or lactose; it will then impact their blood sugar,” Derocha says.
2. Cinnamon Alone to Potentially Help Lower Blood Sugar
Yet cinnamon taken alone can be a great addition to your diabetes diet. That’s because some research suggests the spice may help regulate blood sugar in people with type 2 diabetes: A review published in September 2013 in the journal Annals of Family Medicine noted that cinnamon may lower fasting glucose levels, reduce LDL, or “bad,” cholesterol levels, and not affect your A1C.
Plus, Derocha says, “Cinnamon does not give any carbohydrate or sugar calories to increase human blood sugar, but it still gives you that taste of sweetness that you may be craving.”
She recommends adding cinnamon to help add a punch of sweetness to yogurt, cereal, oatmeal, cottage cheese, tea, or coffee. “Adding cinnamon to peanut butter to dip apples into or use as a spread is also fun. It can be a great addition to baking where one can then cut added sugars from the recipe,” Derocha says.
3. Magnesium Supplements to Help Correct Nutritional Deficiencies
If you’re living with diabetes, you likely know foods with fiber, protein, and healthy fat can be beneficial for your blood sugar and your waistline. But people with diabetes also should prioritize magnesium, as this group tends to be deficient in this mineral. That’s what Jennifer Reich, of Allentown, Pennsylvania, says her doctor advised when she was seeking help for her own type 2 diabetes.
Research supports this notion: A review published in the journal Biological Trace Elements Research suggested that chronic magnesium deficiency is associated with insulin resistance, the hallmark of type 2 diabetes.
Carolyn Dean, MD, ND, a member of the medical advisory board for the Nutritional Magnesium Association who is based in Kihei, Hawaii, says magnesium is important because it helps insulin ferry glucose to cells, fueling the body. Insulin resistance prevents this process from taking place. “If there is not enough magnesium to do this job, both insulin and glucose become elevated. The excess glucose gets stored as fat and contributes to weight gain and diabetes,” says Dr. Dean, explaining that magnesium also “activates hundreds of enzymes that control digestion, absorption, and the utilization of proteins, fats, and carbohydrates.”
4. Green Tea to Control Blood Glucose and Possibly Lower Diabetes Risk
I drink tea every morning and every night to help control my blood sugar. I try to follow the best naturopathic research out there to decide which ones to take, but it seems researchers agree green tea can pack some major benefits for people with diabetes.
That’s because green tea contains polyphenols, which are antioxidants that can boost our metabolism and inhibit the enzyme amylase, which turns carbs into glucose. “This, in turn, could decrease the breakdown and absorption of glucose into the blood,” Derocha says.
A study published in April 2016 in the journal Annals of Internal Medicine supported the idea of tea for better diabetes management: To draw their data, researchers analyzed 25 Japanese communities and found that drinking tea was inversely associated with diabetes risk.
5. Chromium Picolniate Supplements to Help With Insulin Production
“I’m not diabetic, but I know enough to take chromium,” says Shelby Miller, of Columbia, South Carolina, who explains the supplement has resulted in lower blood sugar readings. Miller may be onto something: A study published in the journal Diabetes suggested the picolinate form of the mineral may help people with type 2 diabetes improve their A1C readings, glucose tolerance, insulin production, and cholesterol.
Robin Foroutan, RDN, a holistic health counselor who is based in New York City, explains that while it’s unclear exactly how chromium works, the mineral appears to enhance insulin’s signaling activity and ultimately lower blood sugar. “Furthermore, there is evidence that people with a chromium deficiency tend to have elevated blood sugars or are insulin resistant,” Foroutan adds.
So how much chromium do you need to take to reap these possible benefits? Foroutan recommends 200 to 500 micrograms of chromium picolinate per day. “Too much chromium can actually worsen blood sugar control, though toxicity is rare,” she says.
The best way to tell whether you’re deficient in chromium is to try adding it to your diet and seeing how it affects your blood sugar levels — with clearance from your medical team, of course. Consider supplementing your diet with a multivitamin, she suggests. “Depleted stores of any trace mineral can have big impacts on how the body functions, and because different minerals affect each other’s absorption, taking these minerals together in a multivitamin or multimineral is ideal,” Foroutan explains.
Shelby Miller takes her chromium in a yeast form, which Foroutan says is found naturally in brewer’s yeast. Unfortunately, not many studies have evaluated if the yeast or picolinate forms of chromium are better absorbed.
6. Bitter Melon as a Possible Way to Help Lower Your A1C
Greta Lint, of Ashboro, North Carolina, had an A1C that signaled type 2 diabetes. So, in addition to proper exercise, dieting, and medication, her endocrinologist suggested she try eating bitter melon, a long, bitter gourd grown in South America, as well as parts of Africa, Asia, and the Caribbean. “He said that, anecdotally, all of his patients who have followed his advice have seen a considerable drop in their A1C,” Lint says.
Lint found the bitter-tasting fruit at an Asian grocery store and added sun-dried slices to her tea. Although the melon made her brew taste like “a weakened version of the water left from when you cook spinach,” within three months, Lint’s A1C dropped from 6.5, which indicates diabetes, to the normal reading of 5.9.
She believes the bitter melon played a role — and some research supports this idea: A study published in the Journal of Ethnopharmacology noted that bitter melon has a “modest” effect on lowering blood sugar. While the fruit may help, the results aren’t a cue to stop taking your medication, researchers note: In the study, bitter melon’s hypoglycemic effect equated to taking less than 1,000 milligrams of Glucophage (metformin) per day, the typical starting dose for people with diabetes, according to the Mayo Clinic.
What to Know Before Opting for an Alternative Diabetes Treatment
Although these tips have proven successful for some people, it’s important to consult your medical team before incorporating any major changes into your diet and lifestyle, especially when it comes to alternative treatments, says Emmy Suhl, RD, CDE, at the Joslin Diabetes Center in Boston. Because supplements aren’t regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) like regular drugs are, their quality and dosages are uncertain, she points out.
It’s also important to consider how supplements may negatively interact with your current diabetes or other medication, Suhl says. For example, without knowing what supplements you’re on, your doctor may prescribe a drug that lowers blood sugar and the medication may drop your blood sugar too much.
There are other issues that could affect the success of these therapies. If you’re not deficient in magnesium, for example, taking a supplement might not help you at all — and even if you are, you might need to take above the recommended dose to see results.
Furthermore, studies have produced conflicting results on whether supplements are at all beneficial for people, regardless of whether they have diabetes. “That’s not to say they don’t help, but to date, research studies have not established this is the case,” adding that, as a result, the American Diabetes Association doesn’t recommend them.