Balance Your Blood Sugar Naturally: Prevention and Treatment of Hypoglycemia, Insulin Resistance, Metabolic Syndrome, and DiabetesMichael Vertolli, RH April 1, 2013
There are many chronic health issues that can result from our tendency to overindulge – whether in too much of the same thing or in things that just aren’t good for us. It doesn’t help that our economic system is all about figuring out innovative ways to encourage and exploit this human tendency in order to make a profit.
A regular cycle of indulging in certain kinds of food can have a profound impact on the physiological mechanisms that are designed to maintain our blood sugar at a healthy level. By overindulging, I not only mean overeating in general, but also eating too much of certain kinds of foods. Of particular concern are foods that have a high glycemic load. These are foods that have the capacity to cause a rapid increase in our blood sugar levels when we consume them.
If our blood sugar falls too low, our cells and tissues don’t have access to sufficient energy resources to maintain normal function. However, if our blood sugar is too high, it is actually toxic to our body. As a result, there are a series of mechanisms that kick in to bring blood sugar levels down to an acceptable range.
The process of regulating blood sugar involves a complex interaction between our digestive system, liver, pancreas, adrenals, hypothalamus, pituitary, thyroid, and indirectly other organs as well. Sugar metabolism is also intimately linked to fat and protein metabolism.
Unfortunately, there are aspects of the way we eat and live in North America that negatively impact our capacity to maintain blood sugar at normal levels. The result is a growing number of people who suffer from chronic illnesses related to blood sugar and fat disturbances such as hypoglycemia, diabetes, insulin resistance, metabolic syndrome, and obesity. More recent evidence shows that regular consumption of foods with a high glycemic load can also increase the risk of some kinds of cancer.
There are definite genetic factors that can predispose people to these conditions, but genetic predisposition is no guarantee that someone will actually manifest any of them. It does mean that they are more likely to occur in genetically susceptible individuals if they make dietary and lifestyle choices that have a negative impact on their capacity to maintain blood sugar at healthy levels. It is these dietary and lifestyle factors that are the issue, regardless of a person’s degree of genetic predisposition. The good news is that these factors can be controlled.
Foods at Fault
There are many opinions about what kind of diet is most effective for preventing and controlling blood sugar issues. I will confine my discussion to what is supported by the research. The kinds of foods which, when over-consumed, are strongly correlated with the development of hypoglycemia, insulin resistance, metabolic syndrome, and diabetes include:
- Foods with a high glycemic load, such as sugar and other natural sweeteners; refined flour; finely ground whole grain flour (stone ground is okay because it is more coarse); white rice (especially short grain varieties – long grain and basmati are slightly better); potatoes; puffed grains (both refined and whole grain); sweet fruit and vegetable juices.
- Fructose, particularly from high fructose corn syrup, is commonly used to sweeten soda pop and candy. Not only is it high glycemic, it also is made from GMO corn, which is sprayed with Atrazine – a powerful pesticide. According to Medical News Today (Dec. 2/2012): “A recent study suggested that countries which use large amounts of high fructose corn syrup in their food may be helping to fuel the global epidemic of type 2 diabetes. Researchers from the University of Oxford and the University of Southern California (USC) found a 20% higher proportion of the population have diabetes in countries with high use of the food sweetener compared to countries that do not use it.” (On the other hand, fructose derived from eating small amounts of fresh fruit is okay.);
- Trans fats (hydrogenated, overly refined and significantly heated unsaturated oils), and some saturated fats (especially those of animal origin);
- Animal protein (especially red meats);
Also strongly correlated with blood sugar disorders is overeating in general (eating too much at one time, eating too often, excessive snacking), along with stress, a sedentary lifestyle, and obesity. The issue of obesity is complex because some blood sugar problems can contribute to weight gain, but weight gain itself aggravates these and other conditions.
Do High Protein/Low Carb Diets Work Best to Cure Hypoglycemia and Diabetes?
Overconsumption of carbohydrates is rampant in our society, and is one of the major causes of hypoglycemia, insulin resistance, metabolic syndrome, and diabetes, as well as other chronic conditions. In response to this, many people have been adopting and promoting diets that are high in protein and very low in carbohydrates. Although people who switch to this kind of diet will usually feel better for a while as they rescue their body from the stress of chronic overconsumption of carbohydrates, for most people these kinds of diets are not healthy in the long run. This is because our bodies are designed to use carbohydrates as a major source of fuel. When we burn carbohydrates for energy, it burns clean. The resulting waste products are carbon dioxide and water which are easily eliminated.
If we do not eat enough carbohydrates to meet our daily energy needs, most of our energy will be obtained by burning fat and protein. This results in the production of large amounts of ammonia and ketones, which are toxic to our cells and tissues and acidify our body. These waste products are also more difficult to eliminate, and in the long run this puts a significant amount of stress on our liver and kidneys. It’s like the difference between burning natural gas and diesel fuel. The former burns clean and the latter produces lots of toxic by-products.
Research has demonstrated that ideally we should obtain approximately 2/3 of our daily calories from carbohydrates and 1/3 from fats. The important thing is that we need to eat primarily whole, natural, unprocessed foods. The issue with carbohydrates is that we have a tendency to eat a lot of processed carbs that have a high glycemic load. What we should be eating is complex carbohydrates from foods such as whole grains and beans (but not in the form of finely ground flour or puffed grains). When we eat complex carbohydrates accompanied by some source of fat, it slows down the absorption of carbohydrates even further. Of course if we are sensitive to particular grains, such as those that contain gluten, they should be avoided. In fact, regular consumption of foods to which we have some kind of sensitivity or allergy can aggravate these conditions because it tends to ramp up the inflammatory and auto-immune reactions in our body.
Foods and Herbs to Improve Blood Sugar Balance
On the positive side, the dietary factors that can be increased to help prevent, treat, and control blood sugar disorders include the following:
- Fruits and vegetables;
- Fibre (especially soluble fibres such as pectin in fruits, oat bran, flax seeds, psyllium seeds);
- Whole grains and beans;
- Omega-3 oils (flax seed oil, fish, fish oil) and monounsaturated oils (olive oil);
- Some spices, particularly cinnamon, turmeric, ginger, and rosemary.
Some of these recommendations are necessary components of a healthy diet and lifestyle. Others represent simple ways that we can use herbs to help stabilize our blood sugar levels without having to get into more complicated herbal formulas. For instance, adding more non-starchy vegetables and some fat to a meal will help slow down absorption of carbohydrates. Spicing up a meal that contains carbohydrates with one or more of cinnamon, turmeric, ginger, or rosemary can also be helpful. So can adding one or two teaspoons of whole flax seeds to a cooked or dry cereal. Adding some cinnamon and a bit of flax seed oil as well is even better. All of these things add up and are healthier for us in the long run.
Although fruits and vegetables have many positive benefits, sweet fruit and vegetable juices are not recommended for those with blood sugar disorders. Even very sweet fruits like bananas, mangos, and grapes can be problematic. They should be consumed in small quantities and not on a regular basis. Drinking water after eating them also helps to slow down the absorption of their sugar.
Exercise and Stress Reduction for Blood Sugar Balance
It is also important that we reduce stress in our lives as much as possible, because chronically elevated levels of cortisol (a stress hormone) can lead to insulin resistance. Regular aerobic exercise helps with this. Practising yoga, tai chi, meditation, and other techniques that help us relax and develop a healthier attitude to life are also very important. As always, in order for any exercise or stress reduction regimen to be sustainable in the long run, it must be something we enjoy. It is important to experiment a bit until you find what calls you rather than force yourself to do something that you know you won’t be able to continue long term.
Herbal Formulas for Treating Blood Sugar Imbalances
Herbs have a lot to offer those who suffer from blood sugar disturbances. However, it is important to keep in mind that the primary causes are due to our dietary and lifestyle choices. The real healing comes from bringing them back into balance. Herbs are very powerful tools that can help facilitate this process, but their benefits will be much less if we don’t do the work. Collectively they are two sides of the same coin.
The herbal treatment of blood sugar and other related metabolic imbalances requires two distinct types of formulations.
First Stage of Treatment: The first stage formulation requires five components
1. The first component is one of the root herbs from the Aster family that contains a milky white latex, such as elecampane root (Inula helenium), dandelion root (Taraxacum officinale), burdock root (Arctium spp.) and chicory root (Cichorium intybus). Although elecampane is the best for this and the one I recommend the most, we don’t want to keep someone on any particular herb for long periods of time. It’s good to switch to one of the others periodically and then back to elecampane. These herbs should be included as a 20-30% proportion of our formula. Even if we take one of these herbs on its own (particularly elecampane), it will still produce positive results without having to get into the complexities of putting together a balanced formulation.
2. The second component needed is a bitter herb. If we are using elecampane, this part is already covered. However, whenever we switch to one of the other herbs in the first category we will need to add one bitter herb as well. Some good options and their ideal proportions are wormwood herb (Artemisia absinthium) 5-10%; boneset herb (Eupatorium perfoliatum) 10-20%; yellow gentian root (Gentiana lutea) 10-20%; yarrow herb (Achillea millefolium) 10-20%; and white horehound herb (Marrubium vulgare) 10-20%.
3. The third component is either maidenhair tree leaf (Ginkgo biloba) or purple loosestrife herb (Lythrum salicaria) at 20-25%. We can alternate between these over the course of the treatment.
4. The fourth component we need is one or two aromatic herbs that are neither bitter nor warming. Good choices include peppermint, spearmint or wild mint herb (Mentha spp.), ground ivy herb (Glechoma hederacea), German chamomile flower (Matricaria recutita), and valerian root (Valeriana officinalis).
5. Our final component is the warming component. Our formulation needs a certain amount of heat and this can be accomplished by using a single herb or a pair of herbs. Our best choices are cinnamon bark (Cinnamomum verum) at 10%; rosemary leaf (Rosmarinus officinalis) at 10-15% combined with 1% cayenne fruit (Capsicum annuum); cayenne on its own at 2%, turmeric rhizome (Curcuma longa) at 15% combined with 5% ginger rhizome (Zingiber officinale), or ginger at 10% on its own. Elecampane is also warming. If our formulation contains elecampane, then we need to add less additional heat. In this case I recommend 5% cinnamon, 10-15% rosemary, 10-15% turmeric, or 5% ginger.
The best way to use this formulation is in the form of tinctures, preferably made from fresh herbs. The dosage of your formulation should be a bit higher than the dosage of the individual herbs you are using. In other words, if the recommended dosage for most of the herbs in your formulation is 3 ml, the dosage of your formulation should be 3.5-4 ml. The amount will vary depending on the concentration of the tinctures that you are using.
This formulation should be taken 3 times per day on an empty stomach in a very small amount of water, 10-15 minutes before meals. It is very important that you get the correct dosage, so if you forget a dose, it’s better to take it when you remember than to miss the dose completely (even if you’ve just eaten). It is also a good idea to swish the tincture around in your mouth for a bit before swallowing because some constituents absorb better in one’s mouth.
This formulation will need to be taken for a long time. It can be anywhere from 6 months to a couple of years, depending on the person. It is important not to take exactly the same formulation for more than one to two months at a time. We therefore make it in one- to two-month batches and change one or two herbs each time. It’s okay to reintroduce an herb from a previous version of the formulation, but every herb should be cycled out of the formula at some point.
Second Stage of Treatment
Once we have seen significant improvement in whatever markers we are using (e.g. blood sugar), we can switch to the second stage of treatment. Our second type of formula has three components:
1. The first component is a warming component. For this we can use exactly the same herbs that I recommended for stage one in the same proportions.
2. The second component is maidenhair tree leaf again, still at 20-25%. There is no particular herb to alternate it with at this stage, so we use it most of the time and occasionally remove it for short periods.
3. The third component consists of two or three (usually three) adaptogenic herbs at 20-25%. Good choices include reishi mushroom and other related polypores (Ganoderma spp.), Siberian ginseng rhizome and root (Eleutherococcus senticosus), North American ginseng root (Panax quinquefolius), chaga mushroom (Inonotus obliquus), and Chinese milkvetch root (Astragalus membranaceus).
During the second stage of treatment our formulation is used exactly the same way we used our first stage formulation. This formula will need to be taken for 6 months to a year, depending on the person. As before, we will also want to make it up in one- to two-month month batches and change one or two herbs each time.
You can simplify this by taking only one of these kinds of formulations, but taking both of them in the order prescribed will get the best results. Another option could be making a hybrid formulation by adding elecampane to the adaptogenic formulation. This will work because elecampane is a secondary adaptogen itself. Ultimately, it depends on how committed we are to learning about herbs. As with most things, personal experience is often the best teacher.
As always when attempting to self-treat, if it doesn’t work, you have any unusual reactions, or if you are taking any medications, you should consult with a qualified herbalist or other natural health practitioner who is experienced with Western herbs. Anyone who is monitoring their own blood sugar levels will need to make adjustments to their dose of insulin or other blood sugar medications as the herbs bring about improvements.
These formulations can be used as a tonic by those of us who are relatively healthy as well. To use them as a tonic we do each stage for two to three months. The first type of formulation can also be used as an excellent spring-cleansing formulation regardless of whether or not you are suffering from a blood sugar or related metabolic disorder. Of course, it is also necessary to exercise some restraint in your life. But we also need to enjoy ourselves. In the long run the key is to find the balance between the two.
Michael Vertolli is a Registered Herbalist practising in Vaughan (just north of Toronto). He is the Director of Living Earth School of Herbalism, which offers in-class and online general interest courses, certificate, and diploma programs. For more information: 905-303-8723, ext. 1. Visit his website: http://www.livingearthschool.ca/index.html Blog: http://michaelvertolli.blogspot.com/