Consistent blood sugar levels results in
We hear a lot about the harmful effects
of a poor diet on our health. We hear about how it leads to
obesity, how it can lead to increased risk of cancer and
cardiovascular disease, and how it can mean overall poor
health due to lack of nutrition. Another risk of an unhealthy
diet—especially if it includes large quantities of
carbohydrates and simple sugars—is what it does to our blood
Blood sugar is, simply enough, the amount
of sugar (glucose) we have in our blood. When we eat, our body
breaks down food carbohydrates to produce sugars. The sugar is
absorbed into the bloodstream, which carries it to every cell
in the body. Blood sugar fuels the cells, providing them with
the energy they need to keep us healthy.
It is extremely important that blood
sugar levels remain consistent and not be too high or too low.
The normal amount of sugar in the blood ranges from 60 mg/dL
(milligrams of glucose per deciliter of blood) to 120 mg/dL,
depending on when a person last ate.
How it works
The amount of sugar in the blood is
largely controlled by the hormone insulin. When the body
recognizes that we are eating and turning food into sugars,
the pancreas secretes insulin. Insulin acts like a travel
guide, escorting sugar through the bloodstream and then
“knocking on and unlocking the cells’ doors” to allow glucose
to enter. When the pancreas, insulin, and the cells are not
working in harmony, the result can be diabetes—high levels of
In diabetes, blood sugar levels are too
high. There are two reasons for this.
Insulin-dependent diabetes, which is
known as Type I diabetes or juvenile-onset diabetes,
is caused by damage to the pancreas. Part of the
pancreas, beta cells, manufacture the insulin that escorts
blood sugar to the cells. If beta cells are not working, or
not working well, you do not produce enough insulin—there are
not enough “travel guides” to get the blood sugar to the
cells. The result is that the blood sugar remains in the
bloodstream—high blood sugar levels.
In noninsulin-dependent diabetes, which
is known as Type II diabetes or adult-onset diabetes, insulin
is produced, but the cells remain resistant to it—you might
say they keep changing the “locks” so that the insulin cannot
bring in the blood sugar. This also results in high blood
sugar levels. Type II diabetes is by far the most prevalent,
accounting for 90 to 95 percent of all diabetics.
Diabetes and high blood sugar result in
frequent urination, extreme thirst, increased appetite,
unexplained weight loss, dry skin and frequent skin
infections, recurrent vaginitis, blurred vision, fatigue,
drowsiness, and nausea. Diabetes has the potential for serious
long-term complications that can lead to increased risk for
atherosclerosis and cardiovascular disease, visual problems
and blindness, slow healing of injuries, kidney failure, and
damage to the nervous system.
Diabetes and low blood sugar
Low blood sugar (hypoglycemia) may result
from treatment for diabetes. Taking too much medication,
missing or delaying a meal, eating too little food for the
amount of insulin taken, exercising too strenuously, drinking
too much alcohol, or any combination of these factors may lead
to low blood sugar levels. This can result in weakness,
shakiness, nervousness, anxiety, faintness, and marked
Although hypoglycemia is most prevalent
as a complication of diabetes, other causes include early
pregnancy, prolonged fasting, and long periods of strenuous
Support for blood sugar
Healthy blood sugar levels can be
maintained through diet and lifestyle changes. Of special
interest are the minerals chromium and vanadium and the herbs
bitter melon and Gymnema sylvestre.
Chromium is the major mineral involved in
insulin production, and a deficiency in this mineral can
interfere with the production and utilization of insulin.
Indeed, a chromium deficiency can result in three conditions
directly related to blood sugar: high blood sugar levels, an
inability of the cells to pick up and use blood sugar
(impaired glucose tolerance), and higher insulin levels.
Chromium increases the ability of insulin
to bind to cells and leads to increased insulin sensitivity of
body tissue. This leads to the body being better able to
absorb and use the blood sugar. In other words, chromium helps
the insulin “travel guide” get to more doors and oils the key
that the travel guide uses to unlock our cells to the blood
sugar. Studies have indicated that chromium does lower blood
sugar and insulin levels in those with Type II diabetes.
The U.S. National Center for
Complementary and Alternative Medicine has noted that current
data suggests that chromium supplementation can be useful for
people with glucose intolerance, Type II diabetes, gestational
diabetes, and steroid-induced diabetes.
Although as early as 1899 it was found
that a form of vanadium resulted in a decrease in blood sugar
levels, it was not until the late 1970s that vanadium’s
insulin-like action was first described. Vanadium may activate
insulin receptors—making the cell more receptive to the
insulin’s “key”—and through this exert insulin-like action.
This has been supported in two small
clinical trials. In one, eight patients with Type II diabetes
received 50 mg of vanadium sulfate two times per day for four
weeks. The abstract of this study notes that the vanadium was
well-tolerated and resulted in modest reductions of blood
sugar and hepatic insulin resistance. Metabolism 45,
no. 9 (September 1996): 1,130-5.
In another small trial, six patients with
Type II diabetes were given vanadium. The authors note that
after three weeks, insulin sensitivity was improved (J
Clin Invest 95, no. 6 (June 1995): 2,501-9). In another
trial, the effects of vanadium were compared in moderately
obese Type II diabetic and nondiabetic subjects. The authors
note in their abstract that “In conclusion, small oral doses
of vanadyl sulfate do not alter insulin sensitivity in
nondiabetic subjects, but it does improve both hepatic and
skeletal muscle insulin sensitivity in NIDDM [Type II]
subjects in part by enhancing insulin’s inhibitory effect on
the breaking down of fats. These data suggest that vanadyl
sulfate may improve a defect in insulin signaling specific to
NIDDM.” Diabetes 45, no. 5 (May 1996): 659-66.
Bitter melon grows in tropical areas,
including parts of the Amazon, East Africa, Asia, the
Caribbean, and throughout South America. It is used as a food
as well as a medicine.
Bitter melon does much the same as
chromium: it improves the body’s ability to use blood sugar
and improves glucose tolerance—that is, the body’s ability to
get the blood sugar into the cells.
In one small study, using 100 ml of
bitter melon juice was found to improve glucose tolerance by
73 percent in a standard glucose tolerance test (J
Ethnopharmacology 17 (1986) 277-282.) In another small
study, an aqueous extract of bitter melon fruit was found to
decrease blood sugar levels by 54 percent. Phytotherapy Res
7, no. 4 (1993): 285-289.
It also has an important additional
benefit: at least one animal study has noted that bitter melon
fruit juice results in an increase in the number of beta
cells—the cells that produce insulin—in the pancreas of
diabetic rats when compared with untreated diabetic rats. The
authors of the study suggest that bitter melon may cause a
renewal and recovery of the insulin-producing beta cells of
the pancreas. Diabetes Res Clin Pract 40, no. 3 (June
Like chromium and vanadium, Gymnema
sylvestre works to help increase glucose tolerance. Like
bitter melon, it may help the pancreas produce insulin.
Gymnema has been used with patients
suffering from both Type I and Type II diabetes. In one study
with 27 Type I diabetes patients, the gymnema extract reduced
the insulin requirements and lowered the fasting blood glucose
levels. The abstract notes that Gymnema extract enhances the
ability of the pancreas to produce insulin, possibly by
regeneration/revitalization of the residual beta cells in Type
I diabetes. J Ethnopharmacol 30 (1990): 281-294.
An animal study supports this. In
diabetic rat pancreas, extracts of Gymnema were able to double
the islet number (clumps of pancreatic cells) and beta cell
number (insulin-producing cells). These results show that
Gymnema may improve the health of the pancreas. J
Ethnopharmacol 30 (1990): 265-279.
As far as Type II diabetes goes, in one
study, Gymnema extract was administered for 18 to 20 months to
22 Type II patients taking conventional medication. All the
patients showed a significant reduction in blood sugar levels,
and five of the 22 diabetic patients were able to maintain
their blood sugar levels without conventional drugs. Similar
to the above studies, the results also showed higher levels of
insulin in the blood, indicating that the insulin-producing
beta cells of the pancreas may be regenerated/repaired in Type
II diabetes patients on Gymnema supplementation. J
Ethnopharmacol 30 (1990): 295-300.
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