My top five herbs for insulin resistance

When taking herbs to ‘balance blood sugar’, care must be taken. Some herbs often touted for this purpose, such as Gymnema sylvestris and Panax ginseng, lower blood sugar levels by promoting insulin production – something we don’t want to do.

Instead, we should look for herbs that show increased insulin sensitivity in the tissues, a decrease in inflammatory markers, a reduction in lipid or triglyceride levels or other specific metabolic benefits such as weight loss and appetite control. Here are my top five.

Trigonella foenum-graecum – Fenugreek
Fenugreek is an ancient medicinal legume – nutritive, warming and mucilaginous in nature. It is used to soothe the gastrointestinal mucosa in inflammatory digestive conditions and promote breastmilk production in lactating mothers. It was also traditionally a lymphatic and metabolic cleanser, indicated in sedentary people with poor dietary habits and increasing blood pressure. Recently several studies have demonstrated fenugreek’s ability to lower blood sugar, insulin levels and serum triglycerides, and increase HDL cholesterol levels. Dosages in successful trials vary from 18-25 grams per day, with preparations in powder form as well as tea and alcoholic extracts all showing benefit.

Foeniculum vulgare – Fennel
Fennel is another nutritive seed given to breastfeeding mothers to promote lactation – it is also a warming antispasmodic carminative herb used in digestive conditions where there is gas or cramping. It is useful in irritable bowel conditions through its ability to calm an anxious mind, which in turn helps relieve digestive spasm. Traditionally it was given for an overactive appetite and weight gain – and one small study testing the effects of fennel and fenugreek tea found that it decreased hunger and food consumption in overweight women, and increased feelings of fullness compared with a placebo tea. This is by no means definitive data, but the availability of fennel and its traditional use to curb food cravings makes it a useful addition to any natural protocol for insulin resistance.

Ocimum sanctum – Holy basil
Basil is a pungent, fiery herb traditionally used to detoxify the blood, liver, lungs and intestines. Various species of Ocimum have been used in traditional medicine to treat diabetes, but it’s the Indian O. sanctum or Holy basil that shows the most potential in terms of research. One clinical study showed a blood sugar lowering effect in patients with non insulin-dependent diabetes (type 2 diabetes) both on fasting and after meals, and another 2009 study showed significant improvement in the symptoms of diabetes – namely thirst, excess urination, excessive appetite and fatigue – after a three-month treatment period. The dosage used in the second study was 2g daily in powder form. Another human study suggests that these effects are due to increased insulin sensitivity at a cellular level.

Holy basil is also an uplifting nervine and circulatory tonic, used for age-related memory loss, menopausal ‘brain fog’ and ‘stagnant depression’ (Winston, 2019) – where a person becomes ‘stuck’ after a traumatic event in their lives. As a mild adaptogenic herb, it could also help to protect the body against the adverse effects of stress – which, after all, is another symptom of poor glucose tolerance.

Cinnamomum spp. – Cinnamon
Cinnamon is another warming, stimulant yet sweet digestive herb – perfect for sluggish digestion in people who tend towards coldness and weakness of the respiratory and immune systems. Many animal studies have demonstrated the blood sugar lowering and insulin sensitising effects of cinnamon, and there are a couple of human studies too. One 2014 study of 50 patients with non-alcoholic fatty liver disease showed a reduction in a specific measure of insulin resistance along with fasting glucose, total cholesterol, triglycerides, liver enzymes and CRP, a general marker of inflammation.

The dosage of cinnamon was two 750mg capsules of powdered cinnamon per day (1500mg in total), combined with appropriate dietary changes and an exercise regime. Another recent study of 80 people with impaired glucose tolerance showed beneficial effects of an extract of Cinnamomum burmanii and Lagerstroemia speciosa at a dosage of 50-100mg once daily over 12 weeks. Compared to placebo, this combination improved insulin sensitivity and preserved pancreatic beta-cell performance.

Vaccinium myrtillus – Bilberry
Both the leaves and the fruit of bilberry are traditionally thought to have anti-diabetic properties. During the Battle of Britain in WW2, RAF pilots used bilberry to enhance night vision, and further research has led to the use of bilberry as a general remedy for eye problems, especially for damage to the retina caused by diabetes. In a clinical study, male volunteers with type 2 diabetes were given an extract of bilberry equating to 50g of fresh bilberries, and their responses to a glucose-rich drink were measured. The extract significantly reduced post-meal glucose and insulin levels compared to placebo. Blueberries, which are botanically very similar to bilberries, also showed enhanced insulin sensitivity in obese, insulin-resistant volunteers after consumption twice daily for six weeks.

Food as medicine
Have you noticed that these ‘herbs’ are all widely available, highly accessible culinary ingredients? I often give them to my patients as tinctures and capsules, but this doesn’t mean you can’t simply incorporate them into your curries, herbal teas and smoothies with great results. Food is medicine and, once again, it’s the basic dietary and lifestyle changes that are most important where diabetes and insulin resistance are concerned.

By Poppy Burr
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Poppy is a UK-trained medical herbalist practising in Praia da Luz. She offers consultations and treatment in Western Herbal Medicine, incorporating Functional Medicine testing and nutritional strategies where appropriate. For more information, visit poppytheherbalist.com.