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Diabetes Part 2: Medicinal Herbs and Spices
by Sheila Patel, MD
The Chopra Center
Editor's Note from Julie Cerrato: Diabetes and obesity is a growing global epidemic. Ayurveda offers an understanding of the progression of different types of diabetes according to doshic imbalances. The Chopra Center has recently provided some excellent articles on diabetes, our diet, herbs to treat diabetes and yogic exercises to increase metabolism and aid the rebalancing of our bodies. Please read our three part series on diabetes and see how Ayurveda can shed some light on this difficult, but often manageable disease. Read Part 1. Namaste.
Medicinal Herbs and Spices
Ayurveda identifies many herbs and spices that can be used to treat diabetes. We are beginning to identify some of the beneficial actions of these natural medicinals from a scientific perspective. There are currently over 1,200 species of plants that have known glucose-lowering effects. Here are a few:
This plant hass been used to treat diabetes for more than 2,000 years. It is a woody, climbing vine common in central and southern India. Ayurvedic practitioners referred to this plant as gurmar, or “sugar destroyer.” Gymnema sylvestre was traditionally used in many forms, either by chewing the leaves, taking it as a powder, or preparing it with water as a beverage.
There has been extensive research on gymnema sylvestre in studies using animals, and it has been found to stimulate insulin secretion, increase the effects of circulating insulin, and decrease blood glucose levels. It has also been shown to have a protective effect on the pancreas, which is the organ that produces and secretes insulin. Gymnema sylvestre seems to increase the sensitivity of the tissue to insulin, which helps the body use glucose for energy.
Trigonella Foenum-graecum (Fenugreek)
Commonly known as fenugreek, this herb is cultivated throughout the world as a spice. In Sanskrit it is also called methi. In Ayurveda, the seed is used to treat diabetes by preparing it as a drink or mixing the powder or seed into curry or bread. Fenugreek seeds have a high fiber content, and several components of the seed have been identified as having direct glucose-lowering effects. Studies have shown that daily use of fenugreek seeds can decrease insulin resistance and improve blood sugar control.
This fragrant spice has received much attention recently as a sugar-lowering substance. Cinnamon has been shown to improve the body’s ability to use insulin in multiple ways. It stimulates insulin receptors on the cells, as well as acting directly on our DNA to “turn off” genes that are responsible for deactivating insulin receptors on our cells. These actions make it much easier for cells to take up glucose, thus reducing blood sugar levels. Including cinnamon in a meal that is high in carbohydrates also reduces the rise of glucose in the blood after eating. For example, you could add just one teaspoon of cinnamon to a cup of rice pudding. From an Ayurvedic perspective, cinnamon contains the pungent taste, which is recommended in a Kapha-pacifying diet.
This popular Indian spice has a long history of use as an anti-inflammatory, and due to the connection between inflammation and diabetes, is being studied in the prevention and treatment of diabetes.
A 2011 study of animal subjects published in Food and Chemical Toxicology found that the effects of turmeric were similar to a commonly prescribed diabetes medication, increasing insulin sensitivity and reducing blood sugar levels. The ingestion of turmeric resulted in a significant decline in body weight and fat content. Further research is needed to confirm these effects in humans. Current research reveals no significant side effects of using turmeric and supports using this spice to complement other therapies for diabetes.
Several foods have been also used traditionally as a remedy for diabetes and have been shown to decrease blood glucose levels. For example, bitter goard, or karela, is widely used to treat diabetes in many traditional healing systems. It is thought to work by decreasing absorption of glucose from the intestine, stimulating insulin secretion and increasing uptake of glucose into muscle cells. Used as a food in the Indian diet, there have been no reported toxicities.
Another gourd that has been shown to have glucose-lowering effects is ivy goard, or kanduri. The juice of this food contains an enzyme that humans naturally produce that breaks down sugars. Extracts of the root and leaf have been shown to lower blood sugar levels in animals.
Several studies show that eating almonds with a carbohydrate significantly lowered the release of sugar into the blood, similar to the addition of cinnamon to a meal. Try adding a handful of almonds to a salad, oatmeal, or cereal. At the Chopra Center, we have seen patients experience significant reductions in blood sugar when they make these dietary changes.
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About the Author
Dr. Sheila Patel is a board-certified family physician, Ayurvedic expert, and the Director of Health Programming at the Chopra Center for Wellbeing in Carlsbad, California. At the Chopra Center’s weekly Perfect Health program, she offers mind-body medical consultations and leads classes in meditation, Ayurveda, and mind-body. To learn more, please visit www.chopra.com/perfecthealth or call 760.494.1639.
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