Everyone relies on their body’s ability to regulate blood sugar, trusting that their endocrine system will compensate for their level of physical activity, consumption of food, and need for metabolic energy so that they can maintain a state of activity and health. However, even those with healthy endocrine systems can experience chronically high or chronically low blood sugar levels, leading to a host of health complications. Indeed, deviant but asymptomatic blood sugar levels caused by diet, chronic anxiety, or seemingly benign genetic factors can inflict silent damage on the heart and liver, making blood sugar a major contributor to cardiovascular disease and early death. Effective blood sugar regulation is therefore a core concern for the maintenance of good health.
People with disorders of blood sugar regulation are at an even higher risk of significant damage and may face acute health crises as a result of deviations of blood sugar. As such, people with prediabetes, type 2 diabetes, or a metabolic syndrome learn to carefully regulate their dietary glucose intake. Meanwhile, those with type 1 diabetes or advanced type 2 diabetes must provide their endocrine system with pharmaceutical support like insulin infusions to avoid crises. Unfortunately, even when obeying strict diets and employing pharmaceutical aids to reduce blood sugar, keeping blood sugar at a steady and healthy level can be extremely challenging, and patients are often faced with the prospect of over-correcting their deviant blood sugar levels, while may cause symptoms like shakiness, anxiety, or confusion.
In addition to their side-effects, current therapies to regulate blood sugar are fairly crude instruments that cannot always prevent the cardiovascular complications which develop as a result of long-term and minor deviations of blood sugar levels, resulting in shorter lifespans even when major deviations are regularly treated. For these patients and for otherwise healthy people who suspect that their blood sugar is asymptomatically but chronically deviant due to a poor diet or genetics, a new solution is needed. Now, a growing number of experts within the scientific community believe that nutritional strategies that support natural blood sugar regulation, particularly berberine supplementation, may be that solution.
Understanding the Variables That Impact Blood Sugar1 Insulin prompts cells to use glucose and save whatever is left over in storage molecules called glycogen. Insulin is used therapeutically to treat type 1 diabetes, where insulin production is heavily reduced, and as a second-line treatment in type 2 diabetes, where the body is less responsive to insulin than in healthy people.
Unfortunately, spikes in blood sugar that must be corrected via natural insulin secretion also desensitize cells to insulin’s effects. This desensitization is called insulin resistance. In insulin resistance, cells are exposed to high levels of insulin so frequently that they increase the number of insulin receptors expressed on their surface in order to accommodate the magnitude of insulin molecules in their environment. The consequences of this increase are that a large number of insulin molecules are now required to produce the same level of cellular glucose uptake response as before. Long term, insulin resistance is associated with the development of type 2 diabetes, metabolic syndrome, and obesity.
The hormones responsible for increasing blood sugar, such as glucagon, can be similarly dangerous.2 In liver cells, glucagon causes the glucose of fat cells to be secreted into the bloodstream. Excessive glucagon secretion causes hyperglycemia, and, in rare cases, drastically lower blood pH, which may be fatal. Other hormones can also raise blood sugar, including epinephrine, which is secreted when the body detects hypoglycemia. However, epinephrine is also secreted during times of anxiety, which means persistent anxiety may lead to continuous blood sugar elevation, also known as hyperglycemia. Chronic hyperglycemia can cause significant damage to the cardiovascular system and potentially result in the death of patients who would otherwise seem healthy.
Supporting The Endocrine System For Optimal Health
Given the imperfect nature of the body’s blood sugar regulation mechanisms, patients concerned with their blood sugar levels can benefit from supplementing their body’s regulatory systems whether or not they have an endocrine disorder. However, physicians are unlikely to prescribe patients with pharmaceuticals designed for the purpose if the patient is asymptomatic. Furthermore, some patients may be hesitant to reach for pharmaceuticals, given that they often have side effects like anxiety or dizziness. Finally, artificially altering the body’s blood sugar levels may cause the body to overcompensate with an opposing effect.
In the absence of pharmaceutical solutions, patients may want to make lifestyle changes to avoid deviant blood sugar from developing or use a natural therapeutic whose impact is mild enough to provide corrective action without spurring an opposing hormonal reaction. While there is no single food or nutritional supplement which is ideal for all patients, there are a number of potential solutions to address both high and low blood sugar.
G. Frondosa Mushroom
The grifola frondosa fungi, also known as the “hen of the woods” or “maitake mushroom”, is an edible mushroom which has been used for a variety of purposes in traditional Chinese medicine. Now, researchers suspect that it can be used to reduce high blood sugar levels, alleviate insulin resistance, and increase the propensity for the body to liquidate adipocytes for energy. Thus far, studies have been promising; one 2015 study, for example, found that maitake consumption reduced blood glucose concentrations via prompting insulin secretion in rat models of type 2 diabetes.3 Though comparisons between rat models of endocrine disorders and human patients are imprecise in terms of determining the magnitude of insulin secretion, maitake mushrooms added to a person’s diet would likely be beneficial on the basis of these findings. For patients who dislike the flavor of the mushrooms or who would prefer more control over measuring the dose, mushroom extract capsules might be a good alternative. Notably, the insulin secretion prompted by maitake has not been found to contribute to the building of additional insulin resistance.
Despite a long history of human consumption for both nutritional and medicinal purposes, large clinical trials documenting the mushroom’s glucose regulatory effects in healthy patients remain forthcoming. Given an abundance of positive data in animal models, however, subsequent research will likely elucidate the safe use of maitake for the purposes of blood sugar regulation.4
While the evidence for maitake is compelling, clinical research suggests cinnamon is an even more effective regulator of blood sugar. A study published in the European Journal of Clinical Investigation found that patients with early type 2 diabetes who consumed 3 grams of cinnamon powder per day over the course of four months had a 6.9% lower fasting glucose level than patients who consumed a placebo.5 Other studies have had even more promising results; one trial involving type II diabetes patients found that those who consumed 1 gram cinnamon each day for 40 days exhibited at minimum 18% lower fasting glucose levels compared to those who consumed a placebo, and the largest measured reduction in the study was 29% lower than placebo.6
The scientific literature has thus far focused primarily on patients with diabetes, but cinnamon may also lower blood sugar in patients without diabetes, albeit to a lesser extent. This means that daily cinnamon intake could be a way of addressing prediabetic high blood sugar, thereby lowering the chances of subsequently developing diabetes.
It’s important to note that the quantities of cinnamon shown to produce beneficial effects are far larger than what most people would be comfortable with consuming in their typical diets. As a result, encapsulated cinnamon supplements are preferable. Cinnamon scented feces and gas appear to be the only consequences of consuming cinnamon in the quantities necessary to lower blood sugar, and no opposing hormonal reaction has been found.
Cinnamon and maitake may be effective at decreasing blood sugar, but they aren’t the only viable options for natural blood sugar regulation, nor is lowering blood sugar the only concern for patients. Rather, the real health goal is to keep blood sugar within a narrow range at all times. For this purpose, berberine may be the best therapeutic candidate.
Berberine is a compound found in barberries, turmeric, cork, and certain cultivars of poppy. While berberine was originally used in ancient Chinese medicine as a natural anti-inflammatory, recent analyses have focused on berberine’s ability to alter cellular metabolism. By altering cellular metabolism, berberine may be the blood regulation tool which patients have sought.7
Berberine is exceptionally effective as a blood sugar regulator because it can reverse insulin resistance and restore the body’s ability to regulate blood sugar. A seminal 2010 study found that berberine was as effective as first-line pharmaceutical treatments like metformin for lowering blood glucose levels in patients with type 2 diabetes.8 Significantly, berberine retained its effectiveness in patients with hepatitis B or hepatitis C-induced liver damage, who are often more difficult to treat because a compromised liver may not be able to process medications as efficiently as those who are healthy. In these patients, berberine also reduced liver enzymes associated with liver malfunction, indicating that it was beneficial for their livers independently from its beneficial effect on blood sugar.
Researchers have a working model for how berberine can cause these beneficial effects: unlike therapeutics or supplements that prompt insulin secretion, berberine reduces the quantity of excess chemical energy in liver cells.9 In one study on rate models of type 2 diabetes, this led to a decrease in blood glucose levels of over 50%. Meanwhile, non-diabetic rats who were given berberine maintained healthy blood sugar even when fed high-glucose diets.10
The mechanism which berberine utilizes means that berberine may also be useful for raising low blood glucose levels, which could have multiple health benefits for patients. Researchers suspect that this effect may be due to interference with the efficiency of cellular energy generation. When cellular energy generation is highly efficient, excess glucose is more likely to occur because less glucose is needed for a given amount of cellular function. When cellular energy generation is less efficient, however, the reverse is not necessarily true; if energy generation requires more input to accomplish the same amount of work, cells may run at an energy deficit, prompting the liver to liquidate adipocytes into soluble glucose. Thus, berberine has the potential to lower pathologically high blood sugar levels while also raising low blood sugar levels in patients with healthy diets. This means that healthy patients could regulate their weight more effectively.
The Future Of Natural Blood Sugar Regulation
Depending on how healthy a patient’s liver is, berberine’s beneficial effects can persist for as long as 20 hours, meaning that a once-per-day dosing schedule is sufficient for most patients. When taken once per day, berberine is safe to take for at least 12 months. There aren’t any documented reports of berberine overdoses, but patients should stick to less than 5 grams per day consumed orally because it hasn’t been tested for long-term use beyond that amount.
However, some patients, including those with endocrine disorders, metabolic disorders, liver disorders, blood disorders, and cardiovascular conditions should be aware of potential side effects, including low blood pressure and inhibition of red blood cell recycling. For patients with metabolic disorders, these side effects are of less concern than berberine’s primary effect of regulating blood sugar, which may or may not contradict medications they are taking for the same purpose. As such, patients seeking to use berberine supplementation to help their body regulate its blood sugar levels should only do so while in consultation with their doctor.
As more critical questions regarding berberine are answered by clinical trials and other scientific research, its promise as a natural blood sugar regulator becomes more clear. Indeed, for some patients, berberine might become a replacement for the current crop of pharmaceuticals used for blood sugar regulation. Given berberine’s mild side effect profile and high efficacy as a blood sugar-regulating agent, it seems inevitable that larger clinical trials will only spur its popularization.
- Sonksen P and Sonksen J. 2000. Insulin: understanding its action in health and disease. British Journal of Anaesthesia. 85(1):69-79. https://bjanaesthesia.org/article/S0007-0912(17)37337-3/fulltext
- Jones BJ, Tan T, and Bloom SR. 2012. Minireview: glucagon in stress and energy homeostasis. Endocrinology. 153(3):1049-1054. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3281544/
- Lei H, Zhang M, Wang Q, Guo S, Han J, et al. 2013. MT-α-glucan from the fruit body of the maitake medicinal mushroom grifola frondosa (higher basidiomyetes) shows protective effects for hypoglycemic pancreatic β-cells. International Journal of Medicinal Mushrooms. 15(4):373-381. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23796219
- Ulbricht C, Weissner W, Basch E, Giese N, Hammerness P, et al. 2009. Maitake mushroom (grifola frondosa): systematic review by the natural standard research collaboration. Journal of the Society of Integrative Oncology. 7(2):66-72. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19476741
- Mang B, Wolters M, Schmitt B, Kelb K, Lichtinghagen R, et al. 2006. Effects of a cinnamon extract on plasma glucose, HbA1c, and serum lipids in diabetes mellitus type 2. European Journal of Clinical Investigation. 36(5):340-344. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/j.1365-2362.2006.01629.x
- Blevins SM, Leyva MJ, Brown J, Wright J, Scofield RH, et al. 2007. Effect of cinnamon on glucose and lipid levels in non-insulin-dependent type 2 diabetes. Diabetes Journal. 30(9):2236-2237. http://care.diabetesjournals.org/content/30/9/2236.short
- Wu M, Wang J, and Liu LT. 2010. Advance of studies on anti-atherosclerosis mechanism of berberine. Chinese Journal of Integrative Medicine. 16(2):188-192. https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11655-010-0188-7
- Zhang H, Wei J, Xue R, Wu JD, Zhao W, et al. 2010. Berberine lowers blood glucose in type 2 diabetes mellitus patients through increasing insulin receptor expression. Metabolism. 59(2):285-292. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0026049509003163
- Yin J, Gao Z, Liu D, Liu Z, and Ye J. 2008. Berberine improves glucose metabolism through induction of glycolysis. American Journal Of Endocrinology And Metabolism. 294(1):E148-E156. https://www.physiology.org/doi/abs/10.1152/ajpendo.00211.2007
- Xia X, Yan J, Shen Y, Tang K, Yin J, et al. 2011. Berberine improves glucose metabolism in diabetic rats by inhibition of hepatic gluconeogenesis. Plos One. https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0016556