Complementary and Integrative Health Practices for Diabetes

Reviewed by: HU Medical Review Board | Last reviewed: November 2023 | Last updated: November 2023

Many people with type 2 diabetes (T2D) use therapies outside of mainstream medicine. These treatments are called complementary and integrative health practices. They may help manage T2D complications and improve quality of life.1,2

Complementary health practices should not replace standard treatment with medications, diet, and exercise. These therapies work best when combined with traditional medicine. This can create a more integrated or holistic approach to managing T2D. Talk to your doctor before starting any complementary health practices. Some common approaches include:1,2

  • Yoga
  • Meditation
  • Massage Therapy
  • Acupuncture
  • Qigong and Tai chi
  • Dietary and herbal supplements

Yoga

Yoga is a spiritual, physical, and mental practice developed more than 5,000 years ago. It involves exercise, relaxation, and breath control. Yoga has origins in Indian philosophy.3

Several studies have assessed the effects of regular yoga in T2D. These studies compare people who do yoga with standard care to people who only use standard care. Some studies have found that yoga improves blood sugar and body weight. Yoga may also improve quality of life and social functioning.3,4

We need more research to confirm the benefits of yoga for T2D. Further research should explore what type or frequency of yoga practice is most helpful. It should also focus on understanding how yoga improves blood sugar control. Some evidence suggests that it helps improve diet and eating habits. Other research suggests it may directly increase insulin production.3,4

Meditation

People have practiced meditation for thousands of years. Many techniques have been developed within religious traditions. Meditation is now used widely in healthcare settings. It aims to balance awareness, reduce stress, and improve mood.5

Several studies have assessed meditation and other mind-body practices in T2D. Using these practices for any length of time can lower your blood sugar. The effect seems to be similar to the effect of taking metformin.5,6

Experts believe meditation works by causing a relaxation response. Relaxation can lower levels of stress hormones. This can improve how your body uses insulin to control blood sugar. It can also improve blood flow and lower blood pressure. More research is needed to understand how to use meditation for T2D.5,6

Massage therapy

There is no evidence that massage therapy is an effective treatment for T2D. But certain types of massage may have some benefits. For example, foot massage and traditional Chinese massage seem to be most beneficial.7,8

These types of massage may reduce pain caused by diabetic neuropathy. This is nerve damage caused by high blood sugar. These massage types may also lower blood sugar levels when combined with metformin. However, we need more research to understand how to use massage therapy in T2D.7,8

Acupuncture

Acupuncture is part of traditional Chinese medicine. The theory is that your body contains a network of energy pathways controlled at certain points (acupoints). In acupuncture, tiny needles are placed at acupoints to improve energy flow.9

There is no evidence that acupuncture is an effective treatment for T2D. But some studies have shown that it may have benefits. When combined with metformin, it may improve blood sugar control. Electroacupuncture may reduce pain from diabetic neuropathy. This type of acupuncture passes an electrical impulse between needles.9-11

We need more research to understand how to use acupuncture in T2D. Talk to your doctor about possible risks. Make sure the acupuncturist is practicing sanitary guidelines. This can help reduce the risk of infection.9

Qigong and Tai chi

Qigong is another part of traditional Chinese therapy. It combines body movement, meditation, and breathing regulation. Managing breathing may improve energy flow and maintain good health. Tai chi is a Chinese martial art practiced for self-defense and health benefits. It involves movements and postures designed to approach the mind and body as an integrated system. It may improve strength and flexibility, reduce stress and anxiety, and improve memory.12,13

There is no evidence that qigong and tai chi are effective treatments for T2D. But they are good exercise options for many people with T2D. These practices may reduce blood sugar and body weight. We need more research to understand how they compare to other types of exercise.12,13

Dietary and herbal supplements

A balanced diet is an important part of managing T2D. Certain diets may be more helpful than others. For example, a Mediterranean diet may improve blood sugar and reduce the risk of heart problems. This diet focuses on fruits, vegetables, nuts, and fish over dairy products and red meat.14

Some dietary and herbal supplements may help manage T2D. These are called natural treatments. There is not much evidence to support their use as a treatment. Studies are often conflicting. Some supplements with potential benefits include:9,15,16

  • Chromium – may help control blood sugar
  • Alpha-lipoic acid – might help diabetic neuropathy
  • Polyphenols (antioxidant chemicals in certain foods) – may reduce long-term problems
  • Cinnamon and fenugreek – may help manage blood sugar

There is no best diet for everyone with T2D. Talk to your doctor before changing your diet or taking dietary supplements.

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