6 of the Best Dietary Supplements for a Diabetic Diet—and 3 You Should Avoid

Should I take supplements?

From cinnamon and magnesium to herbal formulas claiming to smack down high blood sugar, “diabetes-friendly” supplements are popping up in health food stores and drugstores and in the medicine cabinets of more and more people with diabetes. More than 50 percent of people with diabetes say they’ve used dietary supplements, according to one 2011 study—and at least one in four has given herbal remedies a try. The big question: Should you?

As recently as January of 2012, the FDA told makers of one weight-loss supplement to stop touting it as a diabetes remedy. However, used safely, certain supplements might help you step up your blood sugar control a notch or two or help control risk for heart disease, the most common and life-threatening diabetes complication. Here, the supplements you should consider adding to (and dropping from) your diabetes treatment plan. Try these healthy habits to prevent diabetes.

Consider this: Vitamin D. Is there a link between D and blood sugar control? Getting more than 500 international units (IU) of D daily could cut the risk of developing diabetes by 13 percent, Tufts Medical Center researchers report. But benefits haven’t yet been proved for people who already have diabetes, says Oluwaranti Akiyode, PharmD, an associate professor in the department of pharmacy practice at Howard University, who studies the effects of vitamin D in people with diabetes.

Consider this: Omega-3s. The good fats found in fish oil capsules (as well as in algal oil, supplements made from algae) and fish like salmon, trout, herring, and sardines have long been touted as heart-healthy. That’s important for people with diabetes, who are at high risk for heart disease. Omega-3s may reduce inflammation, decrease off-rhythm heartbeats, and discourage artery clogging.

Consider this: Magnesium. One in four people with diabetes may be low in magnesium. High blood sugar and diuretic drugs (which many with diabetes take for high blood pressure) can make your body excrete too much; low levels may affect your ability to use insulin. However, there’s little evidence that getting more than the recommended amounts has extra blood sugar benefits. And too much magnesium can be harmful.

Consider this: Psyllium. Aim for about ten grams of soluble fiber a day—the amount in three teaspoons of powdered psyllium. This dose lowered after-meal blood sugar levels 13 points in the one University of California–San Diego study.

Consider this: Cinnamon. Cinnamon might be worth a try. Aim for 500 mg of cinnamon extract twice daily in capsule form, or one-half to about one teaspoon of ground cinnamon daily. Cinnamon alone may not help you reach a healthy A1C goal of less than 7 percent but could help along with other diabetes medications, says Evan Sisson, PharmD, MHA, CDE, associate professor in the department of pharmacotherapy and outcomes science at Virginia Commonwealth University. Steer clear of cinnamon if you have liver damage.

Consider this: Alpha-Lipoic Acid. If you’re coping with pain in fingers, toes, or feet due to diabetes-related nerve damage, an antioxidant supplement called alpha-lipoic acid (ALA) might help by making nerves less sensitive to pain. It’s possible that ALA may neutralize elevated levels of cell-damaging free radicals that accompany high blood sugar.

Skip this: Fenugreek. If fenugreek helps, benefits are small, and side effects—like gas, diarrhea, and interactions with blood-thinning drugs—may outweigh them. “Most of the benefit comes from its dietary fiber,” Shane-McWhorter says, which you can get from foods like these or psyllium.

Skip this: Chromium. High levels can harm the kidneys and liver and cause mood disturbances. (A safe daily intake is 50 to 200 micrograms.) Also, chromium can interfere with medications, including antacids, beta-blockers, and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs.

Skip this: Bitter Melon. A popular fruit in the cuisines of Africa, East Asia, India, and South America, bitter melon is also sold in capsules claiming to maintain healthy blood sugar levels. Despite showing promise in test-tube studies, there is limited evidence for real blood sugar benefits in people, according to the National Institutes of Health’s National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine.

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