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October 28, 2009 > Can Dietary Supplements Control Diabetes?

Can Dietary Supplements Control Diabetes?

Washington Hospital Class Looks at Alternative Treatments

If you have diabetes, you know it is a serious chronic disease that can have devastating consequences. Keeping your diabetes under control with medications, diet and exercise reduces your risk of serious complications, including heart attack, stroke and blindness. But what about alternative treatments like dietary supplements?

"Some people are looking for more natural or holistic remedies," said Lorie Roffelsen, a registered dietitian at Washington Hospital. "But natural doesn't necessarily mean harmless or without risk."

She will present an upcoming class titled, "Pros and Cons of Alternative Treatments for Diabetes," part of Washington Hospital's free Diabetes Matters education series. The class is scheduled for Thursday, November 5, from 7 to 9 p.m., at the Conrad E. Anderson, MD Auditorium at Washington West, 2500 Mowry Avenue, in Fremont. To register, call (510) 745-6556.

A dietary supplement is defined by the government as a product that:
* Is intended to supplement the diet;
* Contains one or more dietary ingredients (including vitamins, minerals, herbs or other botanicals, amino acids, or other substances);
* Is intended to be taken by mouth as a pill, capsule, tablet or liquid;
* Is labeled on the front panel as being a dietary supplement.

Roffelsen will talk about some of the dietary supplements on the market that have been touted as beneficial for controlling diabetes. She will cover supplements that have been studied in clinical trials and may provide some benefit, including alpha-lipoic acid, chromium, omega-3 fatty acids, and polyphenols. Roffelsen will explain how they work, what the potential benefits are, and food sources.

"These are also contained in foods," she said. "In most cases, it's much better to get them from food sources."

Roffelsen will also talk about dietary supplements that are still being studied, including prickly pear cactus, garlic, aloe vera, fenugreek, bitter melon, varieties of ginseng and cinnamon.

While dietary supplements may provide some benefit, they shouldn't be used in place of conventional treatments, she added.

"In some cases, dietary supplements may be considered to complement your treatment plan," she said. "There just isn't enough evidence to prove that dietary supplements have substantial benefits for diabetes or can replace conventional treatment options like diet, exercise and prescription medications."

Use Caution

Roffelsen said people with diabetes who want to use dietary supplements should consult with their healthcare provider first.

"There could be some potential for interaction between the supplements and other medications you may be taking," she explained. "Your doctor, and even your pharmacist, should be made aware of what you are taking."

Unlike prescription medications, health claims made by dietary supplements are not evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), according to Roffelsen.

"The FDA only regulates under what type of conditions a supplement must be prepared, packed and stored. People often assume they are safe because they are natural, but natural substances can be very potent and potentially dangerous," she said. "One example of botanicals with a mild action would be chamomile and peppermint, both usually taken as teas to aide digestion. Kava, in contrast, can have an immediate and powerful action affecting anxiety and muscle relaxation, but has also been linked to liver failure."

Quality and effectiveness of supplements can vary from brand to brand, she added. Roffelsen will provide resources that can help consumers evaluate dietary supplements on the market, including the FDA's website at as well as the National Institutes of Health at She will also discuss companies that offer a seal of approval on dietary supplements. While it doesn't ensure effectiveness, the seal of approval confirms that a product is manufactured properly and contains the ingredients it claims.

"It's important to be cautious, get all the facts, and talk to your healthcare provider about dietary supplements you are considering," Roffelsen said. "Unfortunately, there is no magic pill. If there were, we would all know about it. Some supplements show promise for helping with diabetes management, but the fact is there is no dietary supplement that cures diabetes."

Learn more about the pros and cons of dietary supplements by attending the Diabetes Matters class on November 5. To find out about other diabetes education classes, call (510) 745-6556 or visit

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