Before the invention of insulin in the early 1900s, treatments for diabetes included a range of dietary changes. Everything from eating only meat to eating piles of sugar to eating lots of oats has been suggested as a treatment.
“Spices and herbs were often part of these recommendations and have come back into the spotlight recently with the popularity of alternative medicine.”
People are looking to foods like cinnamon, bitter gourd, fenugreek, crepe ginger, and ivy gourd as potential treatments for conditions like diabetes.
Modern medicine, however, has had a mixed relationship with these traditional cures. Some studies have demonstrated some promising effects of these herbs and spices, but other investigations have shown them to be essentially ineffective. Here’s an overview of what the science says for some of the most popular herbs and spices for diabetes treatment:
Cinnamon is one of the most common spices, flavoring everything from curries to cookies to pumpkin spice lattes. It is also commonly thought to have some positive effects on health, including antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and antibacterial properties. A often-cited study in 2003 also showed some promising results for individuals with diabetes. Participants were given 1, 3, or 6 grams of cinnamon per day and, at the end of 40 days, each person showed a drop in fasting blood glucose levels. Other studies have backed this up, showing a drop in FBG or A1c levels.
Even with all this promising data, however, other studies haven’t been able to show a positive effect of cinnamon on markers of diabetes. And even the studies that have hinted at cinnamon being a potential treatment option haven’t really identified the reason behind it. If you decide to give it a try, take care–there is some evidence that too much cinnamon can harm your kidneys. Even with the split opinion on how effective cinnamon is on treating diabetes, the medical community is still aiming to continue testing and see if there is a possibility it could be a useful treatment option someday.
Bitter gourd/Bitter melon
Bitter melon isn’t pretty. It’s a cucumber-like vegetable covered in bumps that closely resemble warts. It also doesn’t taste great to most people. The flavor is extremely bitter – in fact it’s one of the most bitter vegetables around. But, it has a place within traditional medicine and is thought to help fight diabetes, cancer, viruses, and bacteria. Much like their recent interest in cinnamon, researchers have started taking bitter melon seriously as a potential treatment for conditions like diabetes. Over the past few years, a number of studies have been done to look at bitter melon’s potential as an anti-diabetic food.
The evidence of bitter melon’s ability to help manage diabetes has an even wider range than the evidence around cinnamon. The less-promising studies have shown that bitter melon doesn’t change blood glucose or that some markers may decrease but the really important fasting plasma glucose (FPG) and post-prandial glucose (PPG) numbers don’t change much. As a recent meta analysis pointed out, however, two studies that used fresh bitter melon juice actually did show a lowering of FPG and PPG. The wide variety of results doesn’t confirm bitter melon as a treatment, but the promising results of using fresh juice don’t let us throw it out either. If anything, more studies need to be conducted to see if a certain variety of this fruit or a certain type of preparation could be beneficial.
Indian, Turkish, Egyptian, Eritrean, and Ethiopian food are just a few types of cuisine that use fenugreek. Many traditional medicines from around the world also use the spice for its reported antioxidant, digestive, and anti-diabetic properties. Several studies have shown some promising results where fenugreek uses the same processes as cinnamon to reduce FBG, PPG, and/or A1c levels. But even though these results were significant and showed signs that fenugreek may be effective at helping to manage blood sugar levels in people with diabetes, they were also extremely small-scale and short. That means that more testing is needed before any definitive conclusions can be drawn. If you take too much fenugreek, it has some uncomfortable side effects like stomach sickness, hypoglycemia, dizziness, increased frequency of urination, and other not-so-pleasant reactions.
Long used in Ayurvedic medicine, crepe ginger is a medicinal plant that purportedly treats everything from rashes to bronchitis. People with diabetes in Sri Lanka often mix it with condiments and coconut, then eat it as a side dish to a rice-based meal. Crepe ginger hasn’t caught on as much in the US, with very few (if any) attempts to treat diabetes through the plant’s leaves. A few studies, however, have shown crepe ginger extract to lower blood sugar levels in rats. Results like these in animal studies make a good argument for continuing tests on humans – so stay tuned to see if crepe ginger gets the medical seal of approval for treating diabetes.
Another slightly bitter fruit with medicinal properties, ivy gourd is a popular ingredient in many Indian and Indonesian dishes. It’s also been used in traditional medicine to treat leprosy, bronchitis, asthma, and jaundice. The few human trials that have been done using ivy gourd as a treatment for diabetes have shown some positive results. In several instances, FBG or A1c levels decreased, and ivy gourd seems to work very much like insulin. As with many of the other studies involving alternative medicines, however, there is a large variety on what form of ivy gourd was tested and the types of people it was tested on. Until the studies have been replicated and expanded, it’s a good potential treatment but definitely not a validated one.
So, should you go out and stock your kitchen with cinnamon, bitter melon, fenugreek, crepe ginger, and ivy gourd? Well, cooking with ginger and cinnamon won’t hurt and could help. And you can give bitter melon, fenugreek, and ivy gourd a try. But don’t use them as the only way to control blood sugar levels. Keep an eye on these alternative care methods as researchers continue to look into them.
Molly Maloof, MD
Physician, technologist, and entrepreneur
Head of Medical Science at Sano Intelligence
Medical advisor/strategy consultant to over 20 companies in biotechnology, digital health, nutrition, and food industries