Complimentary And Alternative Medical Therapies

There are different options that individuals diagnosed with type 1, type 2 diabetes, prediabetes or gestational diabetes may want to discuss with their health care providers. Women that are pregnant or nursing should not start any herbal, complimentary or alternative therapies without consulting with their doctor. These complimentary and alternative options can be very helpful to some individuals in managing their diabetes as well as minimizing or eliminating the risk of concurrent health conditions that are typically found in patients with diabetes.

Any complimentary or alternative medical therapy should only be used after discussing the issue with your physician. Some herbal remedies and treatment options may not be advisable with some patients and may cause complications with current medications or treatments. In addition it is important not to stop any complimentary or alternative treatments without having a discussion with your doctor. Generally these treatments have very low risk associated with their implementation or cessation but working with a health care provider that is aware of all aspects of your treatment and diabetic management can ensure there are no possible complications.

Dietary Supplements

There are several different dietary supplements that have been linked to providing additional support for insulin sensitivity in the body. These include alpha-lipoic acid or ALA, Omega-3 fatty acids, chromium and polyphenols. These supplements are available at many drug stores as well as in health foods stores and over the internet. Like all supplements they are not regulated as a drug and therefore they are not subject to the same oversight that medications produced by pharmaceuticals.

New research into the supplements mentioned above does show promise in some areas of treating type 2 diabetes, prediabetes and gestational diabetes. Omega-3 fatty acids have been shown to reduce triglycerides in the blood, helping to reduce inflammation and to provide protection for the heart and cardiovascular system. However, other studies have shown the Omega-3 fatty acids cause a slight increase in fasting glucose levels, but no statistically significant effect on the average hemoglobin A1C. The clinical impact of this slight increase in glucose levels is unlikely to outweigh the benefit of lowering triglycerides and raising the good cholesterol (HDL).

The new research on Omega-3 fatty acids tend to support that low to moderate doses of Omega-3 supplements are effective in providing some protection to the cardiovascular system. Large dosages, particularly in women, may actually increase the risk of developing type 2 diabetes. 1  In addition some Omega-3 fatty acid supplements from marine sources may have potential contamination with mercury or pesticides which could be problematic in large doses.

Alpha-lipoic acid or ALA has been researched extensively for use with individuals with diabetes. There is research backing the use of this supplement to help reduce oxidative stress, which is a leading factor in cardiovascular health. In addition it has been shown to increase glycemic control, insulin sensitivity and reduce neuropathy.2   As with Omega-3 fatty acids overuse or over dosage of ALA can pose serious health issues as blood glucose levels can actually drop too low causing medical complications.

Chromium is required by the human body in very small amounts for several metabolic functions. It has been found that for some people, very low dosages of chromium supplements can help in glucose control. However other trace minerals such as copper, manganese and zinc may also be low in people with diabetes and that supplements with these trace minerals may also help with the functioning of the pancreas. How effective these trace minerals are after diagnosis is not clear but some small studies show increased blood glucose regulation. 3

There are many other types of alternative treatments that may be beneficial to blood glucose regulation, increased insulin sensitivity or aiding in cardiovascular, kidney or neurological health and functioning. These include the addition or supplementation of the diet with:

  • Ginkgo biloba
  • Fenugreek
  • Aloe vera
  • Prickly pear cactus
  • Vanadium
  • Ginseng
  • Garlic
  • Green tea

Research is not conclusive on these supplemental dietary products and some can have adverse reactions when combined with blood pressure medicines or other prescription or over the counter treatments.

Lifestyle Changes

Adding different relaxation and exercise programs may also be seen as alternative or complimentary therapies to insulin therapy, diet and traditional types of exercise.

One type of exercise that has been studied with people with type 2 diabetes is yoga. Individuals participating in yoga classes that were determined to be at high risk for the development type 2 diabetes were found to have lower weight, lower blood pressure and triglycerides, higher insulin sensitivity and reported higher self-efficacy scores. 4

Yoga was also demonstrated in earlier studies to reduce Body Mass Index, lower anxiety and increase the individual’s sense of well-being. 5 As a low impact exercise program that requires no special equipment this is seen as an excellent option for patients of all physical ability levels to improve their overall health. In addition to decreasing weight there may be an additional benefit in reducing neuropathy due to increased blood circulation and increased attention to breathing and respiratory control during the exercise and after.

Acupuncture, historically practiced in most Eastern traditional medical practices, is also becoming more popular as an alternative treatment for diabetes. In a study of 80 patients that participated in acupuncture treatments every other day for 12 weeks positive results were found. Other members of the study took medications but did not participate in the acupuncture treatments. At the end of the study the acupuncture group had considerably lower fasting leptin levels, lower insulin resistance and higher insulin sensitivity than the medication only group. 6 However, other studies have not been able to duplicate these results.

Choosing exercise programs of any type is seen as beneficial in the treatment and ongoing maintenance for people with prediabetes, type 1 diabetes or type 2 diabetes. Women of childbearing age can also exercise prior and during pregnancy to help decrease the risk of developing gestational diabetes. As with all complimentary therapies, it is essential to check with your doctor before starting an exercise program and to exercise following intensity and duration guidelines.


1 Djousse, L., Gaziano, M. J., Buring, J. E., & Lee, I.-M. (2011). Dietary omega-3 fatty acids and fish consumption and risk of type 2 diabetes. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition , 143-150.

2 Singh, U., & Jialal, I. (2008). Alpha-lipoic acid supplementation and diabetes. Nutrition Reviews , 646-657.

3 Kazi, T. G., Afridi, H. I., Kazi, N., et al. (2008). Copper, Chromium, Manganese, Iron, Nickel, and Zinc Levels in Biological Samples of Diabetes Mellitus Patients. Biological Trace Element Research , 1-18.

4 Yang, K., Bernardo, L. M., & Sereika, S. M. (2011). Utilization of 3-Month Yoga Program for Adults at High Risk for Type 2 Diabetes: A Pilot Study. Complimentary and Alternative Medicine .

5 Kosuri, M., & Sridhar, G. R. (2009). Yoga Practice in Diabetes Improves Physical and Psychological Outcomes. Metabolic Syndrome and Related Disorders , 515-518.

6 Zhao, C. H., Zhao, Z., & Yuan, A. (2011). Effect of acupuncture on serum leptin level in patients with type II diabetes mellitus. Acupuncture , 288-291.

7 This article was originally published July 12, 2012 and last revision and update of it was 9/10/2015.