We all know that a healthy diet is key to managing your diabetes. But should you also be taking a diabetic supplement? Andrea Kirk asks the experts.
Living with diabetes can be challenging, so when you hear about a natural supplement that works wonders, it’s easy to get excited. “A number of supplements have been said to play a role in improving insulin sensitivity, blood sugar control, and helping to prevent complications of diabetes,” says endocrinologist Dr Joel Dave. “Although there is some observational evidence to suggest that some of these may be beneficial, unfortunately there are no large, long-term, placebo-controlled studies that prove any supplement is effective when it comes to diabetes.”
Dietician Cheryl Meyer agrees: “In some cases benefits have been shown, but at this stage there is just not enough scientific evidence.” Both experts believe that a well balanced diet should provide all the essential minerals and vitamins you need.
“I don’t recommend routine supplementation,” says Dr Dave, “but if someone is deficient in a specific vitamin or mineral, then I would recommend they take a supplement of that particular vitamin or mineral.”
When a supplement may be necessary
If you are experiencing specific symptoms and suspect you are deficient in a vitamin or mineral, speak to your doctor about having a blood test. Your doctor will make a recommendation based on the test results and may prescribe a supplement. Keep in mind that the type and dosage your doctor prescribes may be different from what is found on the shelf. Stick to your prescription rather than self-medicating.
Be careful of drug interactions
Dietary supplements can have adverse interactions with prescription drugs, other herbal products or over-the-counter medications, warns Meyer. The effects range from mild to potentially life-threatening, so it is important to disclose everything you are taking to your doctor.
Never replace your conventional prescription
“Don’t replace a proven conventional medical treatment for diabetes with an unproven health product or practice. The consequences can be very serious,” says Meyer.
“I generally advise my patients to steer clear of supplements unless we know for sure that it’s necessary,” says Dr Dave. “Rather focus on sticking to a healthy diet and lifestyle, monitoring your blood glucose and taking the medication your doctor has prescribed.”
Supplements and their claimed benefits
Alpha-lipoic acid (ALA) is an antioxidant made by the body. It is found in every cell, where it helps turn glucose into energy. Several studies suggest ALA helps lower blood sugar levels. Its ability to kill free radicals may also help people with nerve damage, which is a common diabetes complication. For years, ALA has been used to treat diabetes-related nerve damange in Germany. However, most of the studies that found it helps were based on using intravenous ALA. It is not clear whether taking it orally will have the same effect.
Source: University of Maryland Medical Centre
Chromium is an essential mineral that plays a role in how insulin helps the body regulate blood sugar levels. For many years, researchers have studied the effects of chromium supplements on those with Type 2 diabetes. While some clinical studies found no benefit, others reported that chromium supplements may reduce blood sugar levels, as well as the amount of insulin people with diabetes need. Good food sources of chromium include whole grain breads and cereals, lean meats, cheese, some spices (like black pepper and thyme), and brewer’s yeast.
Source: University of Maryland Medical Centre
Fenugreek seeds may be helpful to people with diabetes because they contain fibre and other chemicals that are thought to slow digestion and the body’s absorption of carbohydrates and sugar. The seeds may also improve the way the body uses sugar and increase the amount of insulin released. An Iranian study found that a daily dose of fenugreek seeds soaked in hot water may be helpful in controlling Type 2 diabetes. Another study from the US suggests that eating baked goods, such as bread, made with fenugreek flour may help to reduce insulin resistance in people with Type 2 diabetes.
Several studies have shown that American ginseng lowered blood sugar levels in people with Type 2 diabetes. The effect was seen both on fasting blood sugar and on glucose levels after eating. One study found that people with Type 2 diabetes who took American ginseng before or together with a high sugar drink experienced less of an increase in blood glucose levels.
Source: Penn State Milton S. Hershey Medical Center
Magnesium deficiency has been associated with increased risk of Type 2 diabetes. Some studies suggest that supplementing may be beneficial, but other studies have shown no benefit. A healthy diet should provide all the magnesium you need, so have your doctor check for deficiency before you consider supplementing. Good food sources of magnesium include legumes, whole grains, broccoli, green leafy vegetables, dairy products, seeds and nuts.
Source: Oregan State University and WebMD