Ayurveda and Diabetes

Sugar often gets a bad rap as being dangerous and evil. However, sugar is essential for the body to create energy and survive. While a moderate amount of sugar doesn’t seem to be harmful, when eaten in excess, sugar can trigger the accumulation of toxins (ama), which can lead to compromised immunity, weight gain, and sluggishness along with an increased risk of heart disease, stroke, and other serious health issues. Although sugar may produce short term energy, it is quickly followed by lower energy levels and a feeling of lethargy. If the blood sugar becomes too low, it can lead to a loss of function in many organs, including the brain; if the blood sugar is too high, the excess glucose and ketones can be poisonous to many organs. In today’s modern world, the main problem is not sugar itself but the volume of sugar that is found in the Standard American Diet (SAD).  

As many as 29.1 million Americans are diagnosed with diabetes, a disease in which the body’s ability to produce or respond to the hormone insulin is impaired.[1] There are two main forms of diabetes: diabetes mellitus type 1 and diabetes mellitus type 2. In Type 1, the immune system begins attacking the pancreas. This auto-immune reaction leads to cellular destruction. The damage to β-cells of the pancreas begins to inhibit insulin production. Over time, the productive capacity of the pancreas dips to levels where it cannot make adequate insulin to control blood sugar. Therefore, the person becomes susceptible to problems associated with high blood sugar. In Type 2, the excessive production of insulin over many years begins to exhaust the insulin receptors. Eventually, the normal cellular response to insulin is diminished, and the cells are unable to absorb sugar from the blood stream to make energy. In either case, the goal is to avoid the spikes and troughs and maintain a balanced blood sugar level throughout the day. There are several ways to accomplish this goal.

First and foremost, it is essential to change one’s relationship with food. Considering the adverse effect of excessive triglycerides and obesity, healthy weight management is considered the primary intervention.

  • Choosing a healthy diet. Eating a diet that is low in fat, cholesterol, and salt, and increasing the number of fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and fiber can help improve overall health, while helping to maintain healthy blood sugar levels. Eating cooked vegetables and incorporating spices such as cardamom, cumin, coriander, and turmeric may improve digestion and absorption. Certain foods such as eggs, organic lean meat, oysters, pomegranates, avocado, leafy green vegetables, and healthy oils (e.g., olive oil) stabilize blood sugar and foster heart health. In addition, eating an equal amount of proteins-to-carbohydrates can help support glucose load as protein breaks down slower than carbohydrates.[2]
  • Eating small and regular meals. 4-5 small meals spread throughout the day can be helpful to minimize glucose load with each meal. Each meal should be balanced with an equal amount of proteins and carbohydrates.
  • Avoiding alcohol and smoking.
  • Exercising 3-5 days per week. Exercise is an essential way to stimulate vitality, strength, and the natural healing mechanisms of the human body. If you follow the Ayurvedic principle of balaardh, exercising to half your capacity, you can exercise every single day without straining your muscles. Research has demonstrated positive effects of exercise on blood sugar.[3] Physical activity also promotes harmonious relationships between the respiratory system, cardiovascular system, nervous system, and endocrine (hormonal) system. In addition, exercising regularly is important for developing exercise tolerance, as well as improving stamina and endurance. As little as 20 minutes of exercise can stimulate the immune system, reduce stress, and provide blood sugar benefits. Exercises such as yoga cause contraction and relaxation of internal organs, thus improving circulation in and activity of these organs.
  • Deep breathing is a thermo-genic activity, meaning it increases metabolism. This is evident by an enhanced digestive fire on every tissue level. In order to further enhance this effect and optimize metabolism, Ayurveda recommends incorporating fire breath into daily practice.[4]

Ayurvedic herbs are also valuable to keep vata in balance and help reduce sugar cravings. One of the most powerful herbs to help the body combat the desire for sugar is Gymnema sylvestre. Gymnema, or gurmar in Hindi, is a woody climbing shrub that’s native to the tropical forests of India, Africa, and Australia. Its leaves have been used in Ayurveda for thousands of years. Gymnema has been the subject of considerable research since the 1930s, which revealed its effectiveness in supporting healthy blood sugar levels.

The Hindi name, gurmar, means "destroyer of sugar." When consumed prior to a sugary food or beverage, Gymnema leaf extract, notably the peptide ‘gurmarin’, has been found to interfere with the ability of the taste buds on the tongue to taste sweet and bitter.[5] It is believed that by inhibiting the sweet taste sensation, people taking it will limit their intake of sweet foods. The gymnemic acid components are also believed to block the absorption of glucose in the small intestine.[6] In addition, studies show that gurmarin and gymnemic acids boost the natural production of insulin in the pancreas, which helps the body naturally support blood sugar, reduce sugar cravings, and manage weight.[7] Moreover, in a study of 60 moderately-obese people, those who used a Gymnema extract had a 5–6% decrease in body weight, as well as reduced food intake.[8]

Neem (Azadiratcha indica) is a bitter herb that has the capacity to stimulate the pancreas, improving its digestive and insulin-producing activity. Holy basil (Ocimum sanctum) is central to many ceremonial and religious activities in Indian culture. In additional to the Spiritual significance, holy basil has been shown to support blood glucose, has a protective anti-oxidant effect, and helps to replenish anti-oxidant enzymes in the body.[9] An unusual-looking fruit, bitter melon (Mormordica charantia) resembles a cucumber covered with hard bumps. Bitter melon carries insulin-like peptides that mimic the activity of physiological insulin to promote additional blood sugar support.[10]

As it is true with most chronic conditions, the holistic approach provides the greatest chance of restoring normal function. It is important to work with your doctor to find the best treatment options, and check in with your doctor on a regular basis.

 

[1] CDC.gov “National Diabetes Statistic Report, 2014” Center for Disease Control and Prevention online article.

[2] Gannon MC and Nuttall FQ. Effect of a High-Protein, Low-Carbohydrate Diet on Blood Glucose Control in People With Type 2 Diabetes. Diabetes, Sept. 2004 vol. 53 no. 9, 2375-2382.

[3] Williams PT. Reduced total and cause-specific mortality from walking and running in diabetes. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2014 May; Vol. 46(5), Pg. 933-9.

[4] Balaji PA, et al. Effects of yoga – pranayama practices on metabolic parameters and anthropometry in type 2 diabetes. International Multidisciplinary Research Journal 2011, 1(10): Pg. 01-04.

[5] Kanetkar P, Singhal R, Kamat M. Gymnema sylvestre: A Memoir. J Clin Biochem Nutr. 2007;41(2):77–81.

[6] Nakamura Y., Tsumura Y., Tonogai Y., Shibata T. Fecal steroid excretion is increased in rats by oral administration of gymnemic acids contained in Gymnema sylvestre leaves. J. Nutr. 1999; 129:1214–1222.

[7] Pothuraju, R. , Sharma, R. K., Chagalamarri, J. , Jangra, S. and Kumar Kavadi, P. (2014), A systematic review of Gymnema sylvestre in obesity and diabetes management. J. Sci. Food Agric., 94: 834-840.

[8] Preuss, H. G., Bagchi, D. , Bagchi, M. , Rao, C. V., Dey, D. K. and Satyanarayana, S. (2004), Effects of a natural extract of (–)‐hydroxycitric acid (HCA‐SX) and a combination of HCA‐SX plus niacin‐bound chromium and Gymnema sylvestre extract on weight loss. Diabetes, Obesity and Metabolism, 6: 171-180.

[9] Sodhi V. Ayurvedic Herbs: The Comprehensive Resource for Ayurvedic Healing Solutions. Book Publishers Network, Bothell, WA; 2014.

[10] V.S Baldwa, et al., “Clinical trial in patients with diabetes mellitus of an insulin like compound obtained from plant source,” Upsala Journal of Medical Science, 1977, 82:39–41.