Millions of Americans suffer from the chronic condition of diabetes, and many of them seek natural or alternative treatments, including supplements. The National Institutes of Health's National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine says that it's important to let your doctor know if you plan to use complementary or alternative practices to control your diabetes, because while any prescribed medication should be continued, doses may need to be adjusted depending on which supplements you choose.
Herbal and botanical treatments have a long folk-medicine history, and the Reader's Digest book, “759 Secrets for Beating Diabetes,” lists several that are used to lower blood sugar. Gymnema Sylvestre, a Hindi plant that means “sugar destroyer,” is considered to be a powerful herb to control blood sugar. Bitter melon has a similar effect, which is achieved by blocking the absorption of sugar in the intestine. Prickly pear cactus comes as a juice, powder or the whole fruit, and contains properties that are similar to insulin. Fenugreek increases insulin sensitivity and reduces cholesterol, which helps to control blood sugar after eating. Ginseng slows the absorption of carbs and increases the secretion of insulin; according to Reader's Digest, a team of researchers from the University of Toronto has tested it repeatedly against a placebo, and the ginseng capsules have been proven to lower blood glucose levels by 15 to 20 percent.
American Diabetes Services, a large provider of diabetic testing supplies, says that diabetics can benefit from adding a few vitamins to their diets: vitamin A or its derivative, beta-carotene; vitamin B6, which is especially low in the diets of women; vitamin B9, also known as folic acid, an important nutrient for cell growth; vitamin C, which the NIH says is vital for blood plasma; vitamin D, which is naturally produced by exposure to sunlight; and the antioxidant vitamin E.
Magnesium and chromium are recommended for lowering blood sugar by both Reader's Digest and American Diabetes Services. Chromium is an essential trace mineral which the body requires to function properly, but if not properly monitored, it could cause blood sugar to drop too low, and while the National Research Council says low doses of 50 to 200 mcg are safe, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) cautions that high doses could cause kidney problems. It adds that study results have been mixed with these minerals, “although researchers have found that eating a diet high in magnesium may lower the risk of diabetes.” American Diabetes Services says that calcium, copper, iron and zinc can also be beneficial to diabetics.
Omega-3 fatty acids are found in foods like fish, vegetable oil, wheat germ and walnuts, and are important to bodily functions like digestion, muscle movement and blood clotting. While they haven't been shown to affect the body's control of blood glucose or levels of total cholesterol, they do lower triglyceride levels, according to the NIH. One omega-3 fatty acid, alpha-lipoic acid (ALA), is an antioxidant that has been proven to improve insulin sensitivity, according to Reader's Digest. The NIH cautions, though, that “Because ALA might lower blood sugar too much, people with diabetes who take it must monitor their blood sugar levels very carefully.” Another group of antioxidants called polyphenols, which are found in dark chocolate and tea, may positively affect the body's ability to control glucose and effectively use insulin; polyphenols are currently being studied further.