BotanicalsHealthy Aging

An Ayurvedic Approach to Managing Blood Sugar

Dr. Aditya Sharma, PhD discusses a classic combination of Indian herbs that improves blood sugar

Biography: Dr. Aditya Sharma, PhD, has over 33 years of experience in the realm of Ayurvedic medicine, which includes not only working with patients and managing an Ayurvedic practice, but also all aspects of nutraceutical development. In addition to his certifications as an Ayurvedic Specialist and health professional, he has a master’s degree in physical chemistry.

Below is an interview with Dr. Sharma on Ayurvedic medicine, and some of his strategies for addressing insulin resistant diabetes and the surrounding issues of metabolic syndrome.

NutritionInFocus: Tell me a bit about your background – how did you come to work in the healing realm, in particular that of Ayurvedic medicine?

Dr. Sharma: I am a second generation Ayurvedic Practitioner. My father was also an Ayurvedic doctor and my mentor. I studied and began learning about Ayurvedic medicine under his supervision when I was fifteen years old. Even in my younger years, I was being taught how to formulate, and was experimenting with new combinations of herbs under his direction. When I became older, I went on to complete further education, and learn more on an academic and personal level of how the concepts of Ayurvedic medicine could be applied to a variety of conditions. Through this, I also developed a continued interest in formulating blends of traditional Ayurvedic herbs and new botanicals that I learned about.

NutritionInFocus: How is the Ayurvedic approach to healing different or similar to other holistic approaches to medicine such as traditional Chinese medicine?

Dr. Sharma: Ayurveda, the traditional Indian medicine, and traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) remain the most ancient yet living medical traditions. There has been increased global interest in traditional medicine as we observe its success and see some of the pitfalls associated with more modern practices such as drug resistance or an array of harmful side effects.

Ayurveda and TCM have many commonalities. The focus of both systems is on the patient rather than disease. Both systems fundamentally aim to promote health and enhance the quality of life, with therapeutic strategies for treatment of specific diseases or symptoms in a holistic fashion. Almost half of the botanicals used as medicines have similarities; moreover, both systems have similar philosophies used in classifying individuals, therapeutic substances, and diseases, and look at the connections of both the individual and supplemental substances to the universe.

Ayurveda considers that the universe is made up of combinations of the five elements (pancha mahabhutas). These are akasha (ether), vayu (air), teja (fire), aap (water) and prithvi (earth). The five elements can be seen to exist in the material universe, at all scales of life, and in both organic and inorganic things.

In biological system, such as humans, elements are coded into three forces, which govern all life processes. These three forces (kapha, pitta and vata) are known as the three doshas or simply the tridosha. Each of the doshas is composed of one or two elements.

  • Vata is composed of space and air.
  • Pitta has the metabolic qualities of fire and small amount of water.
  • Kapha is the stability and solidity of water and earth.

The tridosha regulate every physiological and psychological process in the living organism. The interplay among them determines the qualities and conditions of the individual. A harmonious state of the three doshas creates balance and health; an imbalance, which can exist as an excess (vriddhi) or deficiency (kshaya), manifests as a sign or symptom of disease.

Many individuals with metabolic syndrome and type 2 diabetes have excess of Kapha. Kapha is the watery element, characterized by heaviness, cold, tenderness, softness, slowness, and lubrication.

Many individuals with metabolic syndrome and type 2 diabetes have excess of Kapha. Kapha is the watery element, characterized by heaviness, cold, tenderness, softness, slowness, and lubrication. Kapha types have strong frames and are naturally athletic as long they are exercising regularly to manage their tendency to gain weight. Their metabolism tends to be slow and their appetite for both food and stimulation is less intense than vata or pitta types. They benefit from exposing themselves to new environments, people, and occasionally fasting.

NutritionInFocus: Tell me more about the combination of Ayurvedic herbs you might use to support patients with insulin resistant diabetes? 

Dr. Sharma: There are many herbs that can be helpful in supporting the diabetic patient. Some herbs that we commonly use in the Ayurvedic practice include gymnema leaf, bitter melon, cinnamon twigs and bark, fenugreek, neem bark and Banaba (Lagerstroemia speciosa; known as the Pride of India). In addition to these herbs that are used more specifically with diabetes, other detoxification and colon cleansing herbs, such as triphala (a classic Ayurvedic combination of three fruits), gum arabic, cascara sagrada, senna leaf, fennel seeds, and psyllium husk also play a role. I also may bring in herbs that support weight loss and digestion, increasing both metabolism and the digestive agni (fire) that is needed to digest food properly. This includes cayenne, black pepper, ginger, fenugreek, and guggul.  As these individuals often may have excess of Kapha, which manifests with cold, this can be helpful to balance the doshas. Also, stress support and liver cleansing herbs are important, as needed.

NutritionInFocus: How do these herbs act synergistically to support healthy blood sugar levels?

Dr. Sharma: These herbal extracts and compounds of plant origin have been demonstrated to prevent and treat type 2 diabetes via mechanisms which include the regulation of insulin production, incretin pathways, and cellular glucose absorption and utilization. Many new mechanisms via which they may interact with the immune system and other cells and tissues including adipose are constantly being found.

Gymnema leaf (Gymnema sylvestre) – Studies of the effects of gymnema leaf have demonstrated its ability to support healthy insulin levels. In Hinduism, gymnema is called gurmar, which means “destroyer of sugar.” Research shows that this plant contains substances which decrease the absorption of sugar in the intestine.[1] Gymnema may also increase the amount of insulin in the body and enhance pancreatic cell growth, further benefiting insulin production, as insulin is made in the pancreas.[2] Incidentally, gymnema when taken on the tongue temporarily blocks the body’s ability to taste sweet, which for some may reduce intake of such foods in the setting of cravings.

In Hinduism, gymnema is called gurmar, which means “destroyer of sugar.” Research shows that this plant contains substances which decrease the absorption of sugar in the intestine.

Bitter Melon (Momordica charantia) – Both animal and clinical studies have shown the reduction in fasting blood sugar and post-prandial glucose rise with the use of bitter melon.[3] Bitter melon acts to inhibit glucose uptake in the digestive tract, whilst increasing glucose utilization in the cell and inhibiting gluconeogenesis.[4] It also helps to preserve the function of islet beta-cells in the pancreas. In many cultures including India and other tropical and sub-tropical regions of the world, the bitter melon is used as a food, not just as a supplement.

Cassia or Cinnamon (Cinnamomum cassia) – Traditional Chinese and Ayurvedic health systems have used Cassia cinnamon, or Chinese cinnamon, for thousands of years. Recent research indicates that cinnamon may reduce fasting blood sugar levels in part by increasing glucose uptake in the cell, with polyphenols that help maintain insulin sensitivity.[5],[6]

Neem (Azadirachta indica) bark – Neem, a tree that is native to India, has a long history of traditional use in Ayurveda. Although it is commonly thought of for conditions of the skin and digestive tract, animal studies have shown positive impacts on blood sugar and cholesterol.[7]

Fenugreek seed (Trigonella foenum-graecum– Fenugreek appears to increase the cell sensitivity to insulin, also stimulating insulin secretion from the pancreas.[8] Several human intervention trials have also shown that fenugreek seeds positively affect metabolic health, reducing fasting blood glucose and insulin resistance as well as improving cholesterol balance.[9],[10]

Lagerstroemia speciosa leaf – This tree is also native to India and is known as the Pride of India or banabá plant. It increases glucose uptake in the cells and inhibits digestion of starch in the gut, collectively reducing blood sugar levels.[11]

In addition to these beneficial herbs, the classic formula I use when I work with this patient population includes jambolan fruit, turmeric root, bilberry fruit, and essential vitamins and minerals, which work synergistically to balance not only blood glucose levels, but also support other aspects of metabolism that are often also challenged in individuals with type 2 diabetes.

The numerous beneficial compounds found within these botanicals offer strong antioxidant, antibacterial, antiviral, adaptogenic, and immune-enhancing properties, which effectively promote overall health and support the body’s natural defenses.

Each of these herbs has a long tradition of use in Ayurveda and help to heal the body and harmonize the mind and spirit. The numerous beneficial compounds found within these botanicals offer strong antioxidant, antibacterial, antiviral, adaptogenic, and immune-enhancing properties, which effectively promote overall health and support the body’s natural defenses.

NutritionInFocus: Is there anything else you would like to share about how you support patients with metabolic challenges like diabetes?

Dr. Sharma: In Ayurveda we believe that one needs to live healthy to feel content, hence, a change from the sedentary lifestyle to a more active one can help in preventing and curing diabetes. Ayurvedic supplement therapies for diabetes alone are not sufficient for a complete cure. Ayurvedic treatment for diabetes includes strict diet and lifestyle changes, along with supplementation of botanicals and nutrients. A healthy diet that is low in sugar and includes essential nutrients, along with herbs and other lifestyle changes really is the best way to get this disease under control.

Classic Ayurvedic Herbs and Other Minerals for Supporting Metabolic Syndrome

  • Gymnema leaf
  • Bitter Melon
  • Cinnamon twig and bark
  • Fenugreek seed
  • Gum Arabic
  • Jambolan fruit
  • Neem bark
  • Turmeric root
  • White kidney bean seed
  • Cayenne
  • Bilberry
  • Green tea leaf
  • Guggul tree resin
  • Black Pepper
  • Banaba (Lagerstroemia speciosa) leaf
  • Chromium
  • Vanadium

 

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