8 Helpful Supplements for People with Diabetes or at Risk

Diabetes is one of the leading causes of death worldwide (1).  Because of this, it’s important that you take prevention and treatment of this chronic condition seriously.

There are two types of diabetes that will help determine the proper course of treatment.

Type 1 diabetes is usually diagnosed in children and young adults and occurs when the body does not produce insulin (2). On the other hand, type 2 diabetes can be developed at any age and occurs when the body does not make or use insulin well.

Diabetes is typically treated with certain medications as well as diet and exercise. Those with diabetes are encouraged to limit or avoid high fat, high sodium, and sugary foods and drinks (3).

Also, it is recommended that those with diabetes or at risk for the condition consume plenty of fiber-rich fruits and vegetables, lean proteins, and healthy fats like plant-based oils, nuts, and seeds. Not to mention that staying active most days of the week can help lower insulin resistance, regulate blood glucose levels, as well as reduce heart disease risk (4). It can also help reduce HgA1C levels, which is the average of about three months of blood glucose levels.

Medication like insulin or metformin are common medical treatments for either form of diabetes (5). However, type 1 diabetes will require insulin, while type 2 diabetes will likely involve a healthy eating and exercise component.

In those at risk for diabetes or those with prediabetes, along with healthy eating and exercise, it may be useful to add a supplement to support healthy blood glucose levels.

Those with diabetes may also benefit from supplements as long as they do not interfere with their current regimen (6).

Here is a list of supplements that show promise for those at risk or with diabetes in supporting healthy blood glucose levels and overall metabolic health.

8 Useful Supplements for People with Diabetes

Vitamin D

The sunshine vitamin, vitamin D, is known for its impact on bone health. However, it can also help support diabetes health.

Vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin that is naturally present in very few foods and fortified in some others (7). The recommended daily intake of vitamin D for most adults is 600 IU, which is equal to about 3 ounces swordfish, ½ tablespoon cod liver oil, or 4-5 cups of fortified orange juice or milk.

The easier way for most adults to meet their daily intake of vitamin D is to soak up the sun for 5 to 30 minutes in the late morning or afternoon twice a week to skin not covered with sunscreen. However, if a person is unable to go outdoors because of a disability, or lives in a climate that is cloudy a lot, then vitamin D supplementation would be ideal for such people.

A level of vitamin D at or above 50 nmol/L is recommended for optimal health (7). A level of vitamin D below 30 nmol/L would be considered a vitamin D deficiency. About 1 billion people worldwide are deficient in vitamin D (8). Such a deficiency can pose serious health risks. This is because, as mentioned before, vitamin D plays an important role in bone health. Vitamin D helps the body to absorb calcium, so without it, bones can become weakened and a person can be at risk for developing osteoporosis (7).

It has also been found that vitamin D helps oppose oxidative stress and related inflammation, which can decrease risk of chronic diseases like diabetes or heart disease (8,9).

Although more studies need to be done before vitamin D supplementation is recommended as part of a type 2 diabetes treatment plan, it does show promise. Vitamin D supplementation has shown the ability to slightly lower fasting plasma glucose and improve insulin resistance (10). However, these study results were mainly seen in those with vitamin D deficiency and impaired glucose tolerance at baseline.

Another study analysis found that those who were vitamin D deficient had reduced HgA1C levels and fasting blood glucose after vitamin D supplementation (11). Also, those non-obese type 2 diabetes patients had significantly reduced HgA1c levels after vitamin D supplementation.

Omega-3 Fatty Acids

You may have heard about healthy fats like omega-3 fatty acids when it comes to heart health. However, since diabetes and heart health are both inflammatory conditions, it is no surprise that omega-3 has shown to be an effective diabetes health support supplement.

Omega-3 fatty acids are a type of polyunsaturated fatty acid present in flaxseed, chia seed, walnuts, and fish like salmon as well as in fish oil supplements (12).  The major forms of omega-3 fatty acids that have been researched include alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA).

Research shows that the appropriate dosage and composition of omega-3 fatty acids supplementation might be beneficial for type 2 diabetes prevention (13). The adequate intake for omega-3 fatty acids is about 1.1 to 1.6 grams a day for most adults (12). In patients with type 2 diabetes and high triglycerides, 4 grams of omega-3 fatty acid supplementation a day helped to maintain renal function better than lower doses (14).

Another study using a similar population of patients shows that a daily combination treatment of metformin and two grams of omega-3 fatty acid supplementation can lower triglyceride levels better than those taking one gram of omega-3 and metformin daily (15). These study results suggest that omega-3 fatty acid supplementation significantly reduces triglyceride levels as compared to placebo in those with diabetes.

A meta-analysis of studies confirmed such findings that omega-3 fatty acids can provide hypolipidemic effects that are favorable to health outcomes (16). Also, this same study showed that this supplement can reduce levels of pro-inflammatory immune health markers as well as lower blood glucose levels.

These findings show promise of omega-3 fatty acids as a diabetes health support supplement. However, until further studies confirm such findings, such supplements should only be used in conjunction with current type 2 diabetes treatment options prescribed by your healthcare provider.

Magnesium

This mineral is found in large amounts in the body as well as in many foods. Magnesium is a co-factor in the body, which means that it helps activate enzymes that regulate different bodily processes (17).  Such processes include protein synthesis, blood pressure control, muscle and nerve function, and blood glucose control. It is the latter function that makes magnesium an effective supplement for diabetes health support.

Research shows that low magnesium levels in the body have been linked to the development of type 2 diabetes and metabolic syndrome (18). Also, a meta-analysis of research regarding magnesium’s impact on diabetes found that magnesium supplementation can reduce fasting blood glucose levels in those with diabetes (19). This study also found that parameters of insulin-sensitivity were improved in those at risk for developing diabetes.

Further research looked at the impact of magnesium supplementation on children with type 1 diabetes. Study results show that these children, who had hypomagnesemia, or low magnesium, saw improvements in glycemic control as well as reductions in triglycerides, total cholesterol, and LDL, or “bad” cholesterol, after magnesium supplementation (20). A 2017 study analysis further confirmed the impact of magnesium supplementation on improving blood glucose levels and reducing LDL cholesterol and triglycerides (21). It also revealed that such supplementation could also improve blood pressure levels and HDL, or “good” cholesterol levels.

Most adults should consume between 320 and 420 milligrams of magnesium a day for optimal health (17).

Rich sources of magnesium include nuts like almonds, cashews, and peanuts, vegetables like spinach and black beans, and whole grains like shredded wheat, whole wheat bread, and brown rice. However, if you feel you don’t consume enough of these foods, or if your labs show decreased levels of magnesium, then you may benefit from magnesium supplementation.

Alpha-lipoic acid

Alpha-lipoic acid, also known as thioctic acid, is a compound well-known for its antioxidant properties (22). It is these properties that have shown its effectiveness as a diabetes health support supplement.

Animal studies have found that alpha-lipoic acid supplementation increased HDL cholesterol and prevented weight gain in rats fed a high-fat diet (23). The supplement also improved insulin sensitivity and lowered risk of heart disease.

Perhaps the strongest finding when it comes to alpha-lipoic acid and diabetes is the compound’s impact in patients with diabetic neuropathy, or nerve damage (24). One such study treated patients with diabetic neuropathy for 40 days with daily doses of 600 milligrams alpha-lipoic acid. Study results show that compared to baseline, those who were treated with the alpha-lipoic acid had reduced triglyceride levels, reported neuropathy symptom improvement, and reported improved quality of life (25).

Finally, a study analysis found a link between alpha-lipoic acid supplementation and reduction of inflammation markers (26). Since diabetes is an inflammatory chronic disease, this finding shows a positive association between the compound and improvement of diabetes risk factors. In particular, this study revealed a link between alpha-lipoic acid supplementation and lower levels of the inflammatory markers C-reactive protein, interleukin-5, and tumor necrosis factor- alpha.

Alpha-lipoic acid is found in foods like animal organs and leafy green vegetables (22). However, the lipoic acid found in supplements is not bound to protein like it is in foods. Therefore, the alpha-lipoic acid in supplements are more bioavailable.

Alpha lipoic acid is generally safe in moderate doses up to 1800 milligrams a day for six months. However, those women that are pregnant or lactating should avoid taking this supplement since side effects have not been established.

Also, those at risk for hypoglycemia should be closely monitored while taking the supplement since this compound has been found to improve blood glucose levels.

Thiamine

This water-soluble vitamin, also known as vitamin B1, is known for its function in energy production (27). Although it’s easy to equate this energy with staying power, this function of thiamine is also important in diabetes health. This is because thiamine helps the body to use carbohydrates for energy in a process known as glucose metabolism. The process of glucose metabolism depends on thiamine as an enzyme co-factor (28).

In other words, thiamine helps enzymes accelerate such reactions. This function suggests that thiamine supplementation could potentially improve the glucose regulation processes in those with diabetes.

Also, research shows that thiamine can prevent the activation of biochemical pathways that are caused by high blood glucose levels in diabetes mellitus (29). To explore this, researchers have looked at the link between diabetes and thiamine deficiency. Studies show that thiamine deficiency is common in those with diabetes complications like diabetic ketoacidosis (30,31). These complications can worsen after insulin therapy (30). Research suggests that thiamine supplementation may help prevent metabolic complications of type 1 diabetes (31).

Also, recent research reveals that there may also be a link between thiamine deficiency and heart disease (32). Since diabetes is a risk factor for heart disease, this link may reveal another way thiamine can improve the health of those with diabetes.

One study in particular looked at the effect of thiamine deficiency on the metabolic health of mice. Study results show that mice on thiamine deficient diets exhibited impaired glucose metabolism and that thiamine is vital for maintaining metabolic balance in the body (33).

Most adults should consume between 1.1 and 1.2 milligrams of thiamine each day (27). It can be found in foods like fortified breakfast cereals, enriched rice or pasta, as well as in smaller amounts in proteins like pork, trout, black beans, blue mussels, and blue fin tuna. If you don’t consume these foods each day, then it may be helpful to add a thiamine supplement to your daily routine.

Cinnamon

This savory and sweet spice is well-known for its presence in many fall-themed recipes. However, the power of cinnamon goes well beyond its delicious flavor. In fact, research shows that cinnamon may help improve glucose tolerance (34).

Cinnamon, which comes from the dried inner bark of the True or Ceylon Cinnamon evergreen tree, is found in many inflammatory treatments such as for hyperlipidemia, arthritis, and of course, diabetes.

Although it should not be taken alone as the sole treatment for diabetes, cinnamon has been found to be an effective supplement to other treatments. One study shows that cinnamon supplements added to hypoglycemic medications and other diabetes lifestyle changes helped improve fasting plasma glucose and HgA1C levels (35).

Another study looked at the impact of cinnamon supplements on those with metabolic syndrome. Study results show that a single supplement of 3 grams of cinnamon for 16 weeks helped significantly improve blood pressure, cholesterol levels, and blood fats (36). This shows that cinnamon supplementation may help improve the metabolic health of those at risk for or with metabolic syndrome.

Furthermore, a placebo-controlled double-blind trial looked at the impact of dried water extract of cinnamon on those with impaired metabolic health. Study results show that supplementation with 500 milligrams of this extract for two months helped reduce levels of fasting insulin, glucose, total cholesterol, and LDL cholesterol (37).

This extract treatment also helped improve insulin sensitivity of those with high blood glucose levels. Findings such as this shows that cinnamon, after further study could become a standard supplement to treatment of metabolic conditions.

Green tea

Green tea is well-known for its potent antioxidant and heart health benefits (38). And since heart disease and diabetes are both inflammatory conditions, the anti-inflammatory properties of the antioxidant-rich tea may also help improve diabetes health. The active ingredients in green tea, called catechins, are thought to hold the health benefits of this beverage. Epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG) is the most abundant catechin found in green tea and is thought to be the most beneficial green tea component to health.

Although more research needs to be done to confirm the health benefits of green tea on diabetes health, some research is already showing promise. One study looked at the impact of tea or tea extract on metabolic health. Study results show that tea consumption helped maintain fasting blood insulin levels and reduce waist circumference in those with type 2 diabetes (39). And since green tea and other teas, like white and black teas, all stem from the same Camellia sinesis plant, these benefits could potentially be obtained from drinking any of these teas or consuming extracts of such teas (38).

Probiotics

Research is starting to show that gut health may be the key to overall well-being. Probiotics, or living microorganisms like bacteria that intend to benefit health, may help contribute to such outcomes (40). Probiotics can be found in fermented foods like yogurt, kimchi, or sauerkraut, or can be consumed in supplement form.

The good bacteria in probiotics help to balance the gut microbiome, which in turn helps to reduce inflammation and related health issues (41).

Since diabetes is considered an inflammatory condition, it is no surprise that probiotics can help improve diabetes health. Research shows that probiotics supplementation can significantly improve HgA1C and fasting insulin levels in those with type 2 diabetes (42). And although more studies need to be done to confirm it, probiotics may help control dyslipidemia and hypertension in type 2 diabetes patients (43).

Certain probiotic strains will be more effective than others in providing such diabetes health benefits.

One study looked at the impact of probiotic supplements containing Bifidobacterium and Lactobacillus strains on the health of those with gestational diabetes mellitus (GDM). Study results show that four weeks of probiotic supplementation helped women with diet-controlled GDM in the late second and early third trimester lower fasting glucose levels and improve insulin sensitivity (44).

Therefore, adding certain probiotics to your healthy lifestyle routine could help balance your gut and blood glucose levels to improve your diabetes health.  However, be sure to use probiotics as a secondary treatment along with your prescribed medication, and let your doctor know you are taking them.

Summary

Sometimes when trying to prevent or treat diabetes, current treatment options like diet, exercise, and certain medications may not be enough on their own. That is why alternative treatments, like certain supplements, may be the key to further supporting diabetes health.

Although not enough studies have been done to make such supplements a primary source of treatment, they can, along with diet and exercise provide secondary support in promoting healthy blood glucose levels while primary medications and other treatments do their job.

Therefore, if you are feeling like your current diabetes treatment is not working well enough, it may be time to talk to your doctor about alternative treatment options. It will be important to talk with a qualified healthcare provider about all current medications and supplements you are taking, diet changes you are making, as well as your health background to make the best and healthiest decisions for you. You will want to make sure that none of the supplements interact with your current medications since this could cause further health complications.

Also, if you are already living with diabetes, be sure to visit your healthcare provider more than once a year to have your numbers, such as fasting blood glucose, HgA1C, blood pressure, cholesterol, and triglycerides checked. Keeping up with the progress of your numbers will help you stay on top of your health and lower risk of diabetes-related health issues.

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References
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About the Author

Staci Gulbin, MS, MEd, RD.

Staci Gulbin, MS, MEd, RD.

Staci Gulbin, MS, MEd, RD is a registered dietitian, freelance writer, health editor, and founder of LighttrackNutrition.com. Through her writing, she hopes to provide others with an unbiased and evidence-based view of health and wellness topics so they can make educated decisions when building their healthy lifestyle. Email Staci.