Chinese herbal medicines for diabetes show promise


Date: 09/10/2009

A review of clinical trials of Chinese herbal medicines, widely used in Asia to treat the early stages of diabetes, has found some may help prevent the development of the disease but more research is needed to establish their efficacy.

Researchers from the Centre for Complementary Medicine (CompleMED) at the University of Western Sydney, and colleagues, focused on treatments for 'pre-diabetes' which is characterised by raised blood sugar levels not yet high enough to cause overt symptoms.

"There is ample anecdotal evidence for the safety and effectiveness of many Chinese herbal treatments for pre-diabetes. However, we really need more scientific research before we can confidently say that these treatments work," says Suzanne Grant, from CompleMED and the lead author on the study.

Ms Grant's study of 16 clinical trials, including 1391 people who received 15 different herbal formulations, has been published in the latest Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews.

In China, Korea and Japan, herbal pills, teas and powders have been used for a long time to treat pre-diabetes and diabetes. They are thought to work in a number of different ways to help normalise blood sugar levels, including by improving pancreatic function and increasing the availability of insulin, a hormone that regulates blood sugar levels.

"People with impaired glucose tolerance are more likely to develop full blown diabetes and it may be possible to prevent or delay the onset of the disease through lifestyle changes and medication," says Ms Grant.

The study found combining some herbal medicines with lifestyle changes is twice as effective as lifestyle changes alone at normalising patients' blood sugar levels.

However, the real value of the study will be through guiding future clinical trials.

"We need to see more trials that make comparisons with placebos and other types of drugs, and better reporting on the outcomes of these trials," says Ms Grant.

Pre-diabetes afflicts approximately 1.3 million Australians. The current best practice to prevent diabetes remains lifestyle changes including improved diet and more exercise.

The full journal article is available here:
http://www.mrw.interscience.wiley.com/cochrane/clsysrev/articles/CD006690/frame.html

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