Herbal Extract Helps Manage Diabetic Blood Sugar

Healthnotes Newswire (December 14, 2006)—People with type 2 diabetes might get help controlling their blood sugar from milk thistle (Silybum marianum) seeds, a new study suggests.

Type 2 diabetes, sometimes called adult-onset diabetes, affects a growing number of people worldwide as more cultures eat an increasing amount of processed foods and simple sugars and spend more time in sedentary activities such as watching television and using computers. Treatments for type 2 diabetes focus on improving the cells’ response to insulin (the hormone that helps the body use sugar) and in some cases on stimulating insulin output.

Basic diabetes management steps include cutting simple carbohydrates and developing a regular exercise routine. In addition, some herbal and nutritional supplements strengthen the response to insulin and bring blood glucose levels down. Some studies have found that antioxidants such as vitamin C and vitamin E can reduce insulin resistance, and two controlled trials have found that an extract from milk thistle seeds has a similar effect.

In the current study, published in Phytotherapy Research, 51 adults with type 2 diabetes were given either silymarin (a milk thistle extract), 200 mg three times per day, or placebo for four months. The average fasting blood glucose level fell 15% in the silymarin group, compared with an increase of 13% in the placebo group.

Other markers of diabetes management, including hemoglobin A1c, cholesterol, LDL (“bad”) cholesterol, and triglyceride levels, improved in the silymarin group during the trial but did not change or worsen in the placebo group.

Milk thistle seeds are well known for their ability to promote detoxification and prevent damage to the liver from toxins and viruses, and its constituent, silymarin, is rich in flavonoid antioxidants. High blood sugar levels in people with diabetes increase the oxidative damage to cells, leading to diabetes complications such as kidney and blood vessel damage, and increasing insulin resistance. Although the exact mechanism of silymarin’s beneficial effect in diabetic people is not known, there is speculation that both its antioxidant properties and protective effects on the liver play a role.

“I have been recommending milk thistle extract to my diabetic patients knowing that its effects on the liver will be helpful in preventing the many health problems that they are at risk for,” commented Julianne Forbes, a naturopathic doctor in Maine who uses herbal and nutritional medicines. “This study provides evidence that it also might have a direct positive effect on blood glucose and insulin resistance. Given its low cost and high safety profile, milk thistle is a good addition to a treatment regimen for diabetes.”

People being treated for diabetes should consult with a doctor before making changes to their treatment.

(Phytother Res 2006;20:1036–9)

Maureen Williams, ND, received her bachelor’s degree from the University of Pennsylvania and her Doctorate of Naturopathic Medicine from Bastyr University in Seattle, WA. She has a private practice in Quechee, VT, and does extensive work with traditional herbal medicine in Guatemala and Honduras. Dr. Williams is a regular contributor to Healthnotes Newswire.

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