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Herbs for Diabetes

Fight sugar cravings and lower blood glucose levels with a little help from nature.

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Type 2 diabetes is a major crisis in the 21st century. Recent research confirms that 12 percent of deaths in the U.S. are due to diabetes or its complications, marking it as the third leading cause of death after heart disease and cancer, a wake-up call if there ever was one. This information pegs the disease higher than previous estimates, which put it at 2.8 percent in 2010, and the seventh leading cause of death in 2013, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. New cases are increasingly common, with 1.4 million Americans diagnosed with diabetes every year.

More than 29 million people have diabetes, defined by abnormally high blood sugar levels. When blood sugar builds up in the blood, it damages nerves and blood vessels. Chronically high blood sugar levels can lead to heart disease; stroke; blindness; kidney failure; or even amputation of toes, feet, or legs. This chronic disease is most associated with Western lifestyle, and is rarely seen in cultures relying on a more traditional diet. Statistics show that as people around the world have gradually adjusted their diets from native foods to more commercial, processed diets, the rate of diabetes rises.

Bitter Foods and Herbs

Bitter foods and herbs have long been used in traditional healing systems to blast sugar cravings. Chinese medicine especially emphasizes this, and this use has been validated in recent scientific publications. Do we eat a lot of bitter foods in America? Uh, no.

Adding bitter foods such as arugula, dandelion greens, endive, to your diet daily can decrease your overall sugar cravings. For immediate relief, eat a teaspoon of unsweetened cocoa nibs or drink a cup of green tea. According to Tieraona Low Dog, MD, author of Life Is Your Best Medicine, bitter foods counteract your craving for sweets. Low Dog recommends taking bitter herbs in liquid tincture form. Shake a few drops of a bitter-herb tincture into water or club soda to sip when that sweet yearning strikes. “Bitters” tinctures often contain gentian root, dandelion root, or barberry root.

Physician and alternative health expert Andrew Weil, MD, advocates pumping up the bitter in your diet. For what he calls our “sweet-saturated culture,” he recommends bitter melon, dandelion greens, radicchio, and endive. And speaking of bitter melon, this is another great candidate for cravings. Weil points out that bitter melon is one of the main herbs taken to promote health in the Okinawan diet. This vegetable reliably lowers blood sugar. In a 2017 study, scientists stated, “ [Bitter melon] presents excellent antidiabetic and antioxidant activities, and thus has great potential as a new source for diabetes treatment whether it is used for prophylaxis or treatment.”

As a food, treat you can cook bitter melon as you would zucchini, or use the dried powder as a remedy. But whether you’re taking bitter melon as a food or herbal remedy, be prepared. It’s much more bitter than you might expect!


Curcuminoids found in turmeric help block carbohydrate absorption, according to several recent studies. The data show that these turmeric constituents have a potent effect of blocking alpha-glucosidase, an enzyme in your small intestine that converts starches and table sugar to monosaccharides like glucose, the simplest form of sugar. Blocking this enzyme delays sugar absorption and helps keep blood sugar stable, thereby warding off sugar cravings. One research team concluded that natural turmeric constituents showed a remarkable inhibitory effect. A word to the wise: turmeric is also bitter. It’s a common spice, so it’s easy to add it to food every day, or it can be taken in capsule form.

Gymnema Sylvestre (aka Gurmar Leaf)

Gurmar leaf (Gymnema sylvestre), well-known in Ayurveda from India, is just beginning to get serious attention in the United States. This herb has been used in India for the treatment of diabetes for over 2,000 years. This leaf contains gymnemic acid, similar in structure to glucose, which binds glucose transporters and thereby prevents and/or delays sugar absorption. Gurmar leaves raise insulin levels when administered to healthy volunteers. A recent study found that gymnemic acid decreased blood glucose levels by 14% to 60% within 6 hours of administration.

A common dosage 6–12 grams of the powdered leaf per day. Look for an extract that is standardized to contain at least 25% gymnemic acid. Some supplement manufacturers produce an extract standardized to 75%. Clinical studies have used dosages of 200 to 400 mg per day of these extracts.