Can Chinese Herbs Stall Diabetes?

By:    Medically Reviewed: Tom Iarocci, MD   Published: March 19, 2014

Researchers are looking into the possible effects of Chinese herbs for stalling diabetes.

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Patients with prediabetes, a blood sugar level that's abnormally high but not high enough to earn an official diagnosis of diabetes, are advised to lose weight and increase exercise to delay or prevent the condition’s progression into diabetes. But what about Chinese herbs?

Many people simply do not heed the warnings, and 30 percent of those individuals will develop diabetes within five years, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Soon, researchers may have something additional to offer.

 

"Chinese herbal medicine possibly can reduce the incidence of diabetes in people with prediabetes," says physician Chun-Su Yuan, MD, PhD, the director of the Tang Center for Herbal Medicine Research at the University of Chicago.

 

The mixture of 10 herbs he studied, collectively called Tianqi, is already used to treat diabetes in China. He has found it helpful in delaying disease progression in those showing signs of prediabetes. The study is published internationally in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism.

 

These Chinese herbs won't be a cure-all or a magic pill, but might someday complement and supplement lifestyle changes and other strategies, Yuan affirms.

 

Chinese Herbal Medicine Stalls Diabetes?

 

Yuan's study was small, but with positive effects. He evaluated 389 people with high blood sugar from 11 research sites in China. He assigned them randomly either to take a capsule of Tianqi, the 10 Chinese herbs, or to take a placebo capsule.

 

Neither group of participants knew which they were taking. Everyone received lifestyle education, learning how weight loss and physical activity can also stall or prevent diabetes.

 

After a year, those in the herbal group had a 32 percent reduced risk of progressing to diabetes compared with the placebo group. While 29 percent of the placebo group developed diabetes, only 18 percent of the Tianqi group did.

 

"It showed a very good result to reduce the incidence of converting from prediabetes to diabetes," Yuan says of the herbs. That 32 percent risk reduction, Yuan says, is about equal to the results achieved with metformin (i.e., Glucophage or Glumetza), an oral medication that is often given to those with prediabetes.

 

No severe adverse effects were reported in the trial, though some who took the Tianqi reported cases of nausea, gas, diarrhea or constipation.

 

The herb mixture includes:

  • Astragali radix
  • Coptidis rhizoma
  • Trichosanthis radix
  • Ligustri lucidi fructus
  • Dendrobii caulis
  • Ginseng radix
  • Lycii cortex
  • Ecliptae herba
  • Galla chinensis
  • Corni fructus

 

The herbs can be bought online, but Yuan says those in the U.S. should hold off. More research is needed, and buying herbs online can be risky without standardized formulations.

 

The herbs may work, he says, by making the body more sensitive to insulin (i.e., the hormone that helps the body store or use blood sugar). The increased sensitivity helps blood sugar levels return to normal.

 

 

Stalling Diabetes with Weight Loss and Exercise

 

While Yuan and his team conduct more research to sort out the role of herbs and diabetes prevention, you can try these other strategies, which are still the most effective at stalling diabetes:

  • Lose weight. Even modest weight loss of 5 to 7 percent of body weight (10 to 14 pounds if you weigh 200) can reduce diabetes risk, according to experts. In a recent study by the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, researchers tracked the weight of individuals with prediabetes for two years. They found that the group that lost just 7 percent of their body weight had greater decreases in their blood sugar levels two years later, in comparison to the group without weight loss.
  • Start moving, or keep moving. Getting 150 minutes of physical activity weekly can make a difference toward a healthier overall lifestyle.

 

Next Steps

 

Know how the risks stack up, whether you are the one with prediabetes or you are caring for someone with the condition.

  • Age alone increases the risk of prediabetes or diabetes, beginning at age 45.
  • Being overweight, having a family member (e.g., parent, brother or sister) with diabetes and being physically active fewer than three times a week all boost your risk, too.
  • Discuss lifestyle changes with your doctor, Yuan says. Your doctor can give you specific advice about how much weight you may aim to lose; how much and when you should exercise; and other ways to reduce the risk of hearing a diabetes diagnosis in your future.
  • Stay tuned. In the future, your doctor may suggest other remedies — perhaps Chinese herbs — in addition to exercise and weight loss recommendations as more research sorts out what works. 
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sources
  • Yuan C., MD, PhD, director of the Tang Center for Herbal Medicine Research, University of Chicago. http://tangcenter.uchicago.edu/about/director.shtml. Interviewed January 2014.
  • Lian F., PhD, et. al. "Chinese Herbal Medicine Tianqi Reduces Progression From Impaired Glucose Tolerance to Diabetes: A Double-Blind, Randomized, Placebo-Controlled, Multicenter Trial." Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism. January 2014 online. http://press.endocrine.org/doi/full/10.1210/jc.2013-3276. Accessed January 2014.
  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "Prediabetes Facts." Diabetes 2013. http://www.cdc.gov/diabetes/prevention/factsheet.htm. Accessed February 2014.
  • Katula JA, PhD., "The Healthy Living Partnerships to Prevent Diabetes Study: 2-year outcomes of a randomized controlled trial." American Journal of Preventive Medicine. 2013 (44); pages S324-32. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23498294. Accessed February 2014.
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