This 14th of November marks World Diabetes Day. Most of us are familiar with diabetes – you likely know someone who has been affected by it.

This is not surprising as in New Zealand, over 240,000 people have diabetes – mostly Type 2. It is estimated that another 100,000 people have it but don't yet know it or haven't been diagnosed.

What is Diabetes?

Diabetes is a condition in which the body cannot properly metabolise sugar and carbohydrates due to impaired production or response to the hormone insulin.

There are two main types of diabetes. Type 1 is when the body doesn't produce enough insulin to begin with. In Type 2 Diabetes, the cells don't respond properly to insulin – they have become "insulin resistant". While Type 2 does have a genetic link, is thought to be triggered by epigenetic (environmental) factors such as diet and lifestyle.

A Holistic Approach to a Complex Condition

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Diabetes is a condition that absolutely needs to be managed holistically – through diet, movement, and support. I believe that plant medicine also has an important role to play, especially in Type 2 Diabetes. If you have diabetes and wish to incorporate natural blood sugar management through plant medicine, it is very important that you work closely with a registered medical herbalist and your healthcare practitioner.

Plant medicine has been used to help manage and treat diabetes long before we had synthetic drugs to help. In fact, one of the most commonly used diabetes medications, Metformin, was synthesised based on the plant Goat's Rue (Galega officinalis), due to its effectiveness.

There are several other plant medicines which have both a long history of successful use in diabetes management, as well as recent research to help us understand why they work so well.

Yerba mate (Ilex paraguariensis) has been shown in clinical trials to have significant effects on blood sugar levels in both diabetic and pre-diabetic groups, as well as improving LDL ("bad") cholesterol levels. The active constituents of Yerba mate are water soluble and this effect happened with just three cups of medicinal-grade tea each day over a two month period.

Recent research into Nettle (Urtica dioica) has highlighted this medicinal plants' traditional role in insulin resistance, metabolic syndrome, and Type 2 diabetes. Studies have shown that this plant, which is also high in vitamins and minerals, works in a number of different ways to support healthy blood sugars when taken as a medicinal tea. It has been shown to improve insulin secretion as well as improved cell response to insulin. It has even been used alongside insulin in Type 2 Diabetic patients, and was shown to improve glycaemic control in this group.

Cinnamon (Cinnamomum zeylanicum) is a plant medicine which we are all familiar with – and it also has been shown to have a beneficial effect on blood sugar levels and diabetes. A 2013 systematic review and meta-analysis done by Allen et al. concluded that "the consumption of cinnamon is associated with a statistically significant decrease in levels of fasting plasma glucose, total cholesterol, LDL-C, and triglyceride levels, and an increase in HDL-C levels."

It is important to note that cinnamon which you buy at the supermarket is not medicinal grade and is often a cheaper variety called Cassia, which does not have the same medicinal benefits. Diabetes is a complex condition which requires a holistic approach and likely the support of several healthcare practitioners.

If you suspect that you could have diabetes, or need extra help managing your condition, contact a registered medical herbalist or see your leading health care professional.