Searching for ways to prevent diabetes, scientists have studied exotic botanicals ranging from annatto to zizyphus. One of the most promising is Momordica charantia, or bitter melon, a vegetable-like fruit native to Africa, Asia, and South America.
Animal studies have found that compounds in bitter melon reduce blood sugar and may slow fat gain. In one investigation, done at India's University of Mumbai, extract of bitter melon decreased blood sugar levels by 48 percent in diabetic rats; the effects were comparable to the drug glibenclamide. (For more on bitter melon, see "Herbal Insulin" in the June issue.)
You may be surprised to learn that a potent insulin booster is nestled right in your spice rack. In a 2003 study, USDA nutritionist and biochemist Richard Anderson, Ph.D., asked diabetic subjects to take daily doses of cinnamon. After 40 days, glucose levels had dropped by as much as 29 percent; unhealthy blood fats like LDL cholesterol and triglycerides also showed marked reductions. Anderson recommends taking up to 1 teaspoon of cinnamon a day, divided in two doses. However, saliva may inactivate important components in the spice, so a daily capsule of water-soluble cinnamon extract might be more effective.
Many diabetics have low levels of chromium, a mineral that helps cells utilize glucose. Would supplementation fight diabetes? Study results have been mixed. A 2005 study at Joslin found that giving patients with prediabetes 800 micrograms a day had no effect on blood glucose.
At Bastyr University in Kenmore, Wash., Ryan Bradley, N.D., is studying whether chromium improves the action of metformin in patients with type 2 diabetes. "There is good rationale for the use of chromium," notes Bradley, who advises his prediabetes patients to get chromium from whole grains, green beans, and broccoli; another option is 1,000 mcg daily of chromium picolinate.