To manage diabetes, you're probably already monitoring your diet and blood sugar. You may also be wondering whether you should take supplements like holy basil, an herbal medicine that has been used for thousands of years in India. Could holy basil for the treatment of diabetes be a good idea?
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Read more: Warnings for Holy Basil
Holy Basil and Diabetes
According to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH), there is no reliable evidence that herbal supplements can treat or control diabetes. In particular, holy basil benefits for diabetes need more research.
A review of 24 human studies on holy basil, published in March 2017 in the journal Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine, says that holy basil — which is also called tulsi — is an aromatic herb that has been used in Indian (Ayurvedic) medicine for over 3,000 years.
The review found 10 studies that looked at the effectiveness and safety of holy basil in people with type 2 diabetes. Although the studies were small and not long-term, they all found some benefits for reducing blood sugar.
The authors of the review concluded that despite the lack of any large-scale, long-term studies, holy basil seems to be safe and may help control blood sugar in people with type 2 diabetes. The largest study had 90 men with type 2 diabetes and lasted 12 weeks. The review reported that the leaves of holy basil were the source of extracts used for these studies. Even at high doses, there were very few side effects, except for occasional nausea.
It would take much stronger evidence to recommend holy basil or any other herbal supplement as a treatment for diabetes, according to Meghan McLarney, RDN, nutrition therapist and certified diabetes educator at University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha. "No supplements except for a daily multivitamin for people with type 2 diabetes over age 50 have been proven to help blood sugar control," she says.
And as NCCIH points out, studies have not supported the use of herbs like ginseng, milk thistle, bitter lemon, cinnamon, fenugreek or various Chinese herbs.
With supplements, safety is a major concern, because they are not regulated as strictly and some may even be harmful. In fact, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has warned people with diabetes about supplements that claim to treat diabetes.
"Many supplements are not tested for purity and some have been found to be contaminated with sugar and other contaminants, as well as interfere with absorption and dose of medications taken," McLarney says.
Better Options for Diabetes
The best way to manage diabetes is to take medications prescribed by your doctor and make healthy lifestyle changes like losing weight, increasing exercise and sticking to a healthy and balanced diet.
If you are interested in talking to your doctor about a dietary supplement, the NCCIH says there are a few non-herbal supplements that have some evidence of possible benefits:
- Alpha-Lipoic Acid. Some studies found that this dietary supplement may have benefits for diabetic complications like vision loss and nerve damage. High doses may cause stomach problems.
- Chromium. This mineral may help reduce blood sugar in type 2 diabetes when added to traditional care. Side effects include stomach pain and bloating, and there have been a few reports of kidney damage.
- Vitamin C. It may help reduce blood sugar in people with type 2 diabetes if taken for over 30 days, although the evidence across 22 studies was weak.
Talk to your diabetes care provider before trying any herb or diet supplement for diabetes. It is very important not to replace a proven medical treatment with an unproven herbal or diet supplement, the NCCIH says.
Is This an Emergency?
- National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health: “Diabetes and Dietary Supplements”
- Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine: “The Clinical Efficacy and Safety of Tulsi in Humans: A Systematic Review of the Literature”
- Meghan McLarney, RDN, LMNT, CDCES, nutrition therapist specialist, certified diabetes educator, University of Nebraska Medical Center, Omaha