Managing Diabetes

Complementary Medicine and Diabetes


Diabetes is a chronic disease which is known to be associated with long term complications. It is to be expected that many people with this condition will seek alternative treatments in the hope of achieving a cure or alleviating the risk of complications. This leaflet attempts to evaluate the current evidence relating to alternative treatments. At the time of publication, there is no proven treatment which offers a cure for diabetes.

What is complementary medicine?

Complementary or alternative medicine may be defined as medical and healthcare practices which are not a part of mainstream or conventional medicine.

Studies in the US have shown that individuals with diabetes are 1.6 times more likely to use complementary medicine than those without diabetes. People over the age of 65 years were found to be more likely to use alternative therapies.

Why do doctors often have reservations about complementary medicines?

Modern drugs and insulin go through a rigorous process of evaluation. A new drug may take five years before approval is granted for its use.

For example inhaled insulin has taken nearly a decade to come to market.

Doctors are unable to recommend alternative treatments mainly due to a lack of evidence with regard to efficacy and safety. Certain products which have been examined by regulatory agencies have been found to contain toxic substances associated with kidney failure and cancer which could be harmful if taken over a period of time.

What types of complementary treatment is available?

As yet there is no form of alternative treatment for diabetes which has been rigorously validated by means of controlled clinical trials.

Acupuncture has been used to treat chronic pain associated with diabetic neuropathy.

Is there evidence that these treatments work?

There is ongoing research into many aspects of complementary medicine for diabetes. Some of these such as cinnamon and the vegetable Bitter Gourd (aka Karela) undoubtedly have blood sugar lowering properties. However, capsules containing ‘extracts’ of these herbs may not actually contain the medicinal substances in adequate amounts. You need to be sure that a preparation you take truly does what it says on the label!

How are these products tested?

Diabetes researchers often test alternative treatments. For example Xiaoke tea, is a traditional Chinese treatment for diabetes mellitus which was found to also lower blood sugar in diabetic mice. To investigate Xiaoke clinically, a double-blind crossover study was undertaken in 12 non-insulin-treated diabetic patients.

Xiaoke tea and ordinary tea (infusion of 2.72 g, 4 times daily) were consumed in random order for 4 weeks. A standard breakfast meal was taken before and after each treatment period. Xiaoke did not significantly affect glycosylated haemoglobin, basal or post-breakfast serum glucose and insulin concentrations, intermediary metabolite concentrations, triglyceride and cholesterol. No adverse side-effects of Xiaoke were evident.

I would like to try alternative therapy, how should I proceed?

  • Gather as much information as you can with regard to the treatment you wish to try
  • What are the benefits ? Is it safe - what are the side effects ? Are there any interactions with your current medications ? Who is the provider ? Is the source reliable ?
  • Discuss this information with your diabetes team
  • It is particularly important that you check with your doctor or diabetes nurse before you contemplate stopping any of your existing treatment.

What to look out for!

The internet is awash with sites offering various dubious treatments for a range of conditions ranging from diabetes and hypertension to erectile dysfunction. Many of these are unregulated and unlicensed and should be avoided at all costs. Ask your diabetes nurse, pharmacist or doctor if you are not sure.

What risks are associated with Complementary Medicine?

The main risk to your health is likely to be due to discontinuation of conventional or proven treatment such as insulin. If the alternative remedy you opt for is not effective, you will have all the consequences associated with poorly controlled diabetes.

Where can I get more information?

The Medicines and Healthcare Regulatory Agency
Information Centre
10-2, Market Towers
1 Nine Elms Lane
London SW8 5NQ

Website: Medicines and Healthcare Regulatory Agency (MHRA)

email -


Dr Nishan Wijenaike
Consultant Diabetologist
West Suffolk Hospitals NHS Trust
Bury St Edmunds
July 2006