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In my experience, diabetes as a disease has great potential to completely reverse itself—if it’s caught early enough. Even in late stages, many can reduce their dependence on insulin by activating the right physiological pathways.

The way in which the body lowers blood sugar is with the help of a hormone called insulin. As I like to say, hormones help to harmonize the body’s function. The disease of diabetes is initiated when the body loses sensitivity to insulin or loses the ability to produce insulin.

Insulin helps the sugar to be picked up by the cells of the body and used for energy. The biggest consumers of sugar are the skeletal muscles, especially quadriceps, hamstring, arm muscles, abdominals, and back muscles—all which are the biggest skeletal muscles in our body. Insulin also helps the liver to package extra sugar into glycogen for storage. As you see, without insulin, we can neither use the sugar for energy nor store the sugar. So, sugar stays in our blood, resulting in high blood sugar.

Treatment Strategies

Ayurveda approaches treatment by helping to maximize the natural healing capacity of the body. This involves innate understanding of the daily rhythms and physiological function of the body that need to be corrected to achieve health goals through diet, lifestyle, herbal, or spiritual methods. In Part 1 of our series on diabetes, we touched on the five principles of treatment that help restore healthy physiology. Let’s look at them in more depth.

1. Reduce Simple Sugar and Carbohydrates

Ayurveda recommends a constitutional-based individualized diet. The specifics of this diet might change from person-to-person, but here are some general ideas.

Reduce carbohydrate intake. The simplest things are to reduce the intake of rice; cut back on certain grains, like wheat and barley; and eat less sugary snacks, breads, and desserts. Replace these with extra servings of vegetables, fruits, beans/lentils, nuts/seeds, and oils. Alternative grains that have low impact on blood sugar include amaranth, quinoa, millet, and buckwheat. These grains provide high protein or high fiber to reduce impact the carbohydrate.

Preventing and Treating Diabetes at Natural Rhythms Integrative Medicine

Raw oils help balance blood sugar.

Add raw oils. Putting raw oil on your food is a fairly unique Ayurvedic recommendation. But oils help to balance blood sugar in a few ways several ways:

  • Oils are 6–9 times more calorie efficient than sugar;
  • When they make energy, oils don’t become sugar;
  • Oils have a smoother, more stable structure, so they prevent damage to blood vessels that might be caused by sugar crystals in the blood stream;
  • Fatty acids are also the main components of the all the structural membrane in the body—this makes it very useful regenerative support for the body;
  • Because of the caloric efficiency, oil is also more filling; it can replace some of our carbohydrate intake and also reduce cravings in between meals.

Increase antioxidants. Antioxidants are rich in certain root vegetables, like beets, carrots, and celery; in squashes, like delicata, butternut, and acorn; in mustard-family veggies, like broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, and Brussels sprouts; and in berries, like blueberries, cherries, and raspberries. Each group offers a different spectrum of antioxidant. Adding antioxidants directly has a reversal effect on the formation of oxidized sugar (Advanced glycation end-products) in the body.

2. Improve Insulin Production from the Pancreas

You can improve your insulin production in three specific ways. First, stimulate the physiological production of insulin by eating a small sweet at the beginning of a meal. It sounds counter-intuitive, but a one-inch cube of banana or a small, sweet fruit (pear, peach, or apricot) stimulates the sweet taste buds and activates the nervous system to activate production of insulin. But please remember: as managing blood sugar is the concern, it is essential that diabetics minimize the intake of sweets in general.

Second, slow down, sit down, calm down, and eat your food. As much as hunger is a function of daily cycle of hormones, it is equally stimulated with the involvement of other senses, like smell, touch, and sight. Taking time to sit down and enjoy your food helps the autonomic nervous system to shift from “fight-flight” into a “rest-digest” mode, which promotes optimal digestive function.

And third, herbal medicines can help stimulate the pancreas. For example, Gymnema sylvestre (also called Gurmar) helps to regenerate β-cells in the pancreas, which secrete insulin into the body.1K. Shimizu, M. Ozeki, et al. “Suppression of glucose absorption by extracts from the leaves of Gymnema inodorum.” Jpn J Pharmacol. 2001 Jun; Vol. 86(2), Pg. 223-9. Increased insulin contributes to blood sugar control from using Gurmar. Among insulin-dependent patients, Gymnema has been shown to reduce insulin requirement while reducing overall blood sugar, compared to insulin-dependent controls.2Shanmugasundaram ER, et al. “Use of Gymnema sylvestre leaf extract in the control of blood glucose in insulin-dependent diabetes mellitus.” J Ethnopharmacol. 1990 Oct; 30(3): 281-94.

3. Improve Insulin-Sensitivity in Muscles and Other Tissues

Insulin sensitivity can be improved by stimulating the largest muscles in our body to use energy. This can be done by a good mix of cardiovascular aerobic exercise and strength training. Weight lifting or other forms of resistance training, such as calisthenics, helps grow the size of the muscle that can consume or store the sugar.3Chibalin AV, et al. “Exercise-induced changes in expression and activity of proteins involved in insulin signal transduction in skeletal muscle: Differential effects on insulin-receptor substrates 1 and 2.” PNAS. 2000 Jan; 97(1): 38-43. Cardiovascular aerobic exercise stimulates the swift and efficient use of sugar in the body.

Additionally, aerobic exercise causes increased breathing and improves intake of oxygen. Oxygen has a thermogenic effect that stimulates the conversion of sugar into energy.

4. Promote Overall Metabolic Activity of the Body to Consume or Store Sugar Safely

Preventing and Treating Diabetes at Natural Rhythms Integrative Medicine

Will a walk or jog be part of your morning routine?

To stay in tuned with the rhythms of your body, you can do a short exercise routine to stimulate the biggest muscles of the body in the morning. In fact, exercising in the morning takes advantage of the thyroid hormone that is surging at that time. The thyroid hormone is the master metabolizer of the body; it promotes energy production in every cell. Stimulation in this way carries the effect of elevated metabolism throughout the day.

In addition, a stimulating breathing exercise called Kapalbhati can be used to stimulate appetite and advance the blood sugar management system. This exercise must be learned with aid of a practitioner to understand the mechanics and perform it correctly. In brief, it is like doing fast diaphragmatic breathing, at a rate as high as 120 breaths per minute.

Remember, correct diaphragmatic breath ensures that you do not become hypoventilated or faint, so please consult a professional. Also, I like to practice caution with this exercise, if an individual is prone to anxiety and/or has a tendency to hyperventilate. My naturopathic mentor, Dr. Virender Sodhi, offers a great explanation of “fire breath.”

5. Balance Blood Sugar through Adjustment of Daily Routines and Meal Schedules

Eating an equal ratio of protein to carbohydrates can help to blunt the surge of blood glucose after every meal because protein breaks down slower than carbs.4Gannon MC and Nuttall FQ. “Effect of a High-Protein, Low-Carbohydrate Diet on Blood Glucose Control in People with Type 2 Diabetes.” Diabetes. 2004 Sep. 53(9): 2375-2382. For example, for every one ounce of protein (light meat or beans), combine one ounce of vegetables (a healthy source of carbs). Another way to reduce carbs is to replace grains like white rice, wheat, and barley with high-protein grains, like quinoa, millet, amaranth, or buckwheat.

Eat small and regular meals. Having 4–5 small meals spread throughout the day can be helpful to minimize glucose load with each meal and control blood sugar spikes. Add in two snacks between breakfast and lunch as well as between lunch and dinner. One snack could be 1–2 servings of fruits. The second snack can be protein-rich, like 1–2 handfuls of raw tree nuts, 1–2 tablespoons of hummus, or a tablespoon of deli meat or cheese.

Eat a variety of snack foods in between smaller meals. Here are some suggestions:

  • Handful of tree nuts: almonds, cashews, walnuts, pistachio, pecans, and Brazil nuts
  • Handful of seeds: flax seeds, sunflower seeds, hemp seeds, and pumpkin seeds
  • Fresh vegetables like carrots, celery, or cucumber with a side of hummus or another bean dip
  • One to two servings of seasonal fruits.

Herbal Medicines

Three herbal medicines have shown incredible results for diabetic patients.

Azadiratcha indica (aka Neem): The anti-diabetic effects of this versatile herb have proven in animal and human studies alike. Neem is a bitter herb that has the capacity to stimulate the pancreas, improving its digestive and insulin-producing activity. In addition, Neem has proven effective in individuals with insulin-dependent diabetes to reduce dosage by 30%–50%.5Shukla R, Singh S, and  Bhandari CR. “Preliminary clinical trials on anti-diabetic actions of Azadirachta indica.” Medicine, Surgery. 1973; 13:11–12 This herb also is quite safe and effective when combined with oral hypoglycemic drugs.6Waheed A, Miana GA, and Ahmad SI. “Clinical investigation of hypoglycemic effect of seeds of Azadirachta indica in type-2 (NIDDM) diabetes mellitus.” Pak J Pharm Sci. 2006 Oct. 19(4):322–325 Therefore, it is useful to provide more effective glucose control without the need to prescribe addition drugs.

Ocimum sanctum (aka Holy Basil): This plant is central to many ceremonial and religious activities in Indian culture. In additional to the spiritual significance, the value of holy basil comes from its versatile medicinal activities. For the diabetic patient, holy basil has been shown to contribute toward blood glucose control. It also has an antioxidant effect that protects all organs of the body from gluco-toxic oxidative damage.7Bhattacharya SK, et al. “Effect of Ocimum sanctum, ascorbic acid, and verapamil on macrophage function and oxidative stress in mice exposed to cocaine.” Indian J Pharmacol. 2009 June 2009. 41(3):134–139 Holy basil helps to replenish antioxidant enzymes in the body while putting a cap on inflammation.8Singh S and Majumdar DK. “Evaluation of anti-inflammatory activity of fatty acids of Ocimum sanctum fixed oil.” Indian J Experimental Biology. 1997. 35(4):380 In this way, holy basil helps in preventing complications related to diabetes.

Mormordica charantia (aka Bitter Melon): Research has shown that this herb is effective for promoting insulin release as well as insulin sensitivity. Thus, it is helpful for both type 1 and type 2 diabetes patients. Bitter melon carries insulin-like peptides that mimic the activity of physiological insulin to promote additional blood sugar control.9Baldwa VS, et al. “Clinical trial in patients with diabetes mellitus of an insulin like compound obtained from plant source.” Upsala J Med Sci. 1977. 82:39–41 Bitter melon was also found to be as much or more effective than oral anti-diabetic drug Rosiglitazone (Avandia), while having none of the side effects.10Inayat-ur-Rahman, et al. “Serum sialic acid changes in non-insulin-dependent diabetes mellitus (NIDDM) patients following bitter melon (Momordica charantia) and rosiglitazone (Avandia) treatment.” Phytomedicine. 2009 May. 16(5):401–405

References   [ + ]

1. K. Shimizu, M. Ozeki, et al. “Suppression of glucose absorption by extracts from the leaves of Gymnema inodorum.” Jpn J Pharmacol. 2001 Jun; Vol. 86(2), Pg. 223-9.
2. Shanmugasundaram ER, et al. “Use of Gymnema sylvestre leaf extract in the control of blood glucose in insulin-dependent diabetes mellitus.” J Ethnopharmacol. 1990 Oct; 30(3): 281-94.
3. Chibalin AV, et al. “Exercise-induced changes in expression and activity of proteins involved in insulin signal transduction in skeletal muscle: Differential effects on insulin-receptor substrates 1 and 2.” PNAS. 2000 Jan; 97(1): 38-43.
4. Gannon MC and Nuttall FQ. “Effect of a High-Protein, Low-Carbohydrate Diet on Blood Glucose Control in People with Type 2 Diabetes.” Diabetes. 2004 Sep. 53(9): 2375-2382.
5. Shukla R, Singh S, and  Bhandari CR. “Preliminary clinical trials on anti-diabetic actions of Azadirachta indica.” Medicine, Surgery. 1973; 13:11–12
6. Waheed A, Miana GA, and Ahmad SI. “Clinical investigation of hypoglycemic effect of seeds of Azadirachta indica in type-2 (NIDDM) diabetes mellitus.” Pak J Pharm Sci. 2006 Oct. 19(4):322–325
7. Bhattacharya SK, et al. “Effect of Ocimum sanctum, ascorbic acid, and verapamil on macrophage function and oxidative stress in mice exposed to cocaine.” Indian J Pharmacol. 2009 June 2009. 41(3):134–139
8. Singh S and Majumdar DK. “Evaluation of anti-inflammatory activity of fatty acids of Ocimum sanctum fixed oil.” Indian J Experimental Biology. 1997. 35(4):380
9. Baldwa VS, et al. “Clinical trial in patients with diabetes mellitus of an insulin like compound obtained from plant source.” Upsala J Med Sci. 1977. 82:39–41
10. Inayat-ur-Rahman, et al. “Serum sialic acid changes in non-insulin-dependent diabetes mellitus (NIDDM) patients following bitter melon (Momordica charantia) and rosiglitazone (Avandia) treatment.” Phytomedicine. 2009 May. 16(5):401–405