There are plants or plant extracts that could be used as a complement to the usual treatment of type 2 diabetes.
Let us remember what type 2 diabetes is
Type 2 diabetes is the most prevalent type of diabetes, accounting for 90-95% of the world’s cases of this pathology. It has a genetic basis, but is strongly modulated by environmental factors: poor diet, sedentary lifestyle, poor rest, among others. These factors are closely related to weight gain, body fat and especially visceral fat (fat located in the upper trunk and surrounding the organs, affecting them). This, together with this genetic predisposition, causes alterations in the action and/or production of insulin.
How is type 2 diabetes treated?
In most cases and in early stages of the disease, it is enough to lose weight (if necessary) and improve our lifestyle (diet and physical activity). In fact, with these, we can achieve remission of the disease.
However, with the passage of time, or even from early stages, the pancreas may function less and this makes this basis of treatment insufficient. This is when hypoglycemic drugs are added.
Among the hypoglycemic drugs currently used in the treatment of this disease there are: drugs that improve the action of insulin, others that favor the production and secretion of this hormone, others that reduce the absorption of carbohydrates (metformin, thiazolidinediones, alpha-glucosidase inhibitors, GLP-1 analogs, DPP4 enzyme inhibitors, SGLT2 inhibitors, sulfonylureas, glinides), or insulin itself, when we would be talking about a replacement treatment.
However, these drugs are not free of side effects. This, together with the growing interest of the population in nutritional supplements, and the sad view that current cases of diabetes continue to grow and many of them are poorly controlled, raises the question of the efficacy that food supplements can have in the treatment of type 2 diabetes, and it is hypothesized that they could be associated with fewer adverse effects, which is an aspect that needs to be studied.
Hypoglycemic supplements studied
There are several plants or extracts thereof that have been studied, with quite promising results in the treatment of this pathology.
As we shall see, the effects of these are generally mediated by phytochemicals. These are biologically active components in the plant kingdom that have beneficial effects on health, but are not essential nutrients for the body. Specifically, in the examples we will see, the phytochemicals that exert these functions are flavonoids, phenolic compounds and alkaloids.
It comes from turmeric, a species widely used gastronomically, but also therapeutically. Curcumin has been attributed anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, antiviral and anticarcinogenic properties and is being studied.
Some human studies show that curcumin supplementation can reduce HbA1c (summary of glycemic control over the last 3 months) and improve blood lipid levels. This effect, they suggest, is due to a stimulation of the oxidation of free fatty acids, which are usually excessive in the blood in people with type 2 diabetes, and are the cause of insulin resistance.
However, the dosage and form of administration of this drug still need to be studied to ensure its feasibility, safety and greater effect.
It is an extract from the seeds of milk thistle.
Scientific evidence shows that silymarin is able to improve glycemic control in people with type 2 diabetes, as well as blood lipid levels or liver function parameters. However, it also exerts beneficial, protective effects in people without diabetes. The latter fact demonstrates that it is capable of reducing glucose levels, but without causing hypoglycemia.
It is suggested that the mechanism by which silymarin exerts these beneficial effects is an increase in the production and activity of insulin produced by the pancreas, thanks to the antioxidant, and therefore protective, effect on cells.
Extract from the cortex of the French maritime pine. Similar to the previous ones, there is a lack of evidence to clarify what would be the best dose for it to exert its effects demonstrated in some studies. Besides, it is suggested that its effects on the improvement of glycemic control in type 2 diabetes will depend on the control that the affected person has prior to treatment.
However, unlike those discussed so far, and due to its mechanism of action, it may cause some side effects such as digestive discomfort. Its function would be to reduce the absorption of carbohydrates at intestinal level (alpha-glucosidase inhibitor).
It is perhaps one of the supplements about which we have heard more in diabetes, and it is not for less, since the results are very favorable. There is even a study comparing the effects of supplementation with this versus taking metformin, showing similar efficacy.
Also like the previous one, it may cause some digestive discomfort as it is thought to reduce the absorption of carbohydrates. However, it seems that the dose that produces the least side effects is known. Other mechanisms of action that may be associated with it: improving insulin sensitivity (increasing the expression of the insulin receptor in the cells), reducing blood lipid levels, and modifying the intestinal flora.
Apart from the effects described above, it has also been reported that it may be able to reduce weight gain (interesting for overweight or obese people), improve the lipid profile and exert an anti-inflammatory effect.
Although not very well known in our territory, it is a supplement elaborated with the mixture of an extract containing silymarin and another one containing berberine.
If we have already seen what these are capable of separately, we can already deduce that together they will have a beneficial effect. In fact, it is suggested that the effect is enhanced because the presence of silymarin increases the availability, and therefore the function, of berberine.
These are substances with known antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and anticarcinogenic functions that are present in green tea and black tea.
The existing studies do not seem to be as favorable as for the substances discussed so far, but they are also favorable. Although there are studies in which glycemic control does not improve significantly, others show that in people who are overweight it does. This may be because it seems that catechins contribute to the reduction of body fat, which improves insulin synthesis.
This is a phytochemical that is usually extracted from the seed and skin of grapes. And like some of the above, it has long been attributed with anti-cancer, anti-inflammatory, antioxidant and anti-aging functions.
The results of studies in people with diabetes are controversial, some positive, others neutral, and it seems to be due to the design of the study: both the dose and the number of people in which this component has been tested.
Drawing conclusions …
It seems that the substances for which there is the most scientific evidence of safety and efficacy are silymarin, berberine and berberol. For the others, more studies are needed to draw conclusions since the existing ones do not meet sufficient quality criteria.
It is important to note that since the hypoglycemic effects are due to the antioxidant properties of these products, they are more effective the earlier they are used from the diagnosis of diabetes.
However, it must be said that these products are not intended to replace the usual diabetes therapy, especially physical activity and healthy eating, but as a complement when these are not sufficient.