Natural Alternatives to Metformin

Metformin is common medication used to treat type 2 diabetes and has been widely used for decades. But some people may not want to deal with Metformin’s mild side effects or prefer a more natural approach to help with their diabetes. In this article, we explore natural alternatives to Metformin – like Berberine, Gymnema Sylvestre, My-inosotiol, Curcumin and others – that can help control blood sugar levels.

We talk about what these supplements are, how they work, and whether they’re effective for diabetes. But as always, talk to your care provider before taking any supplement and if they may be the right option for you.

What is Metformin?

Metformin Hydrochloride is used to improve blood sugar in people with Type 2 diabetes (diabetes mellitus).  It’s a very common medication for people with diabetes and often the first line of treatment.

woman holding medicine pill and water

How Metformin Works

Metformin lowers both baseline (basal) and after-meal (postprandial) blood sugar. It does this by decreasing the glucose produced by the liver and reducing glucose absorbed in the intestines. 

It also improves insulin sensitivity by increasing glucose uptake and usage within the limbs. 

To put simply, Metformin doesn’t change insulin secretion but makes your body use and store glucose more effectively.

Side effects of Metformin

Like any medication, Metformin does have its side effects. 

More common reactions include diarrhea, gas, nausea or headaches and generally occur at the start of treatment.  These conditions are usually minor but talk to your care provider if they last for several days.  

A more severe side effect is lactic acidosis, which is a build up of lactic acid in your bloodBut according to this review of Metformin-associated lactic acidosis, the incidence of lactic acidosis is very low and is associated with kidney complications or disease. 

Liver inflammation or damage is also a potential side effect but appear to be very rare based on studies on Metformin-induced hepatitis and hepatotoxicity.

Natural Alternatives to Metformin

While Metformin is generally safe, we know some people don’t want to deal its side effects. And other people just prefer more natural alternatives to medications overall.

Fortunately, there are plant-based, natural supplements that help lower blood sugar levels. And these supplements can be just as effective as Metformin (or even more).

Berberine

Berberine is a bitter-tasting, yellow-colored alkaloid (or natural compound) that’s found in roots and stem bark of different plants.

Berberine containing plants include European barberry, goldenseal, goldthread, Oregon grape, phellodendron, tree turmeric, and others.

bright shiny red ripe barberries growing on branches
Barberry plant

It was first isolated in the early 20th century but Berberine containing plants have been used in traditional medicine for hundreds of years.

Throughout history, traditional uses of berberine plants include purifying blood, treat infections, and as an anti-fungal.

How Berberine Lowers Blood Sugar Levels

Several studies have shown that Berberine can help lower blood sugar levels and that’s mostly due to its ability to increase insulin sensitivity.

When diagnosed with type 2 diabetes, a person’s pancreas has been stressed from continually producing insulin and the cells develop insulin resistance. Increasing insulin sensitivity helps reverse this condition and better control blood glucose levels.

This study showed significant reductions in participants’ fasting blood sugar (FBG), fasting plasma glucose (FPG), Hemoglobin A1C (HbA1c).

Other Health Benefits of Berberine

Aside from its antidiabetic effects, Berberine is also known for its antioxidant properties removing free radicals according to this source.

And research has shown that berberine can help with cholesterol levels.

This study looked at berberine effects on diabetes but also showed improved cholesterol levels including total cholesterol, LDL and triglyceride levels.

Common berberine side effects

Berberine is generally safe when taken under instruction from your healthcare provider. But common side effects are mostly digestive issues like constipation, diarrhea, and gas.

This study found that Berberine’s ability to lower blood sugar actually impacts gut bacteria, which could lead to digestive issues.

And because Berberine has been shown effective in lowering blood sugar levels, it could have an adverse impact on other diabetes medications.

Myo-inositol

Inositol is a natural sugar found in cell tissues produced by the body. There’s nine forms of inositol with Myo-inositol the most abundant and D-chiro-inositol also common.

Inositols can also be found in foods with higher levels in fruit, grains, legumes and nuts.

pile of pinto beans
Beans are a good source of inositols

How Myo-inositol Lowers Blood Sugar

Myo-inositol plays a role in cell signaling including regulating glucose entrance into cells. This gives Myo-inositol insulin-like traits and can help with glucose metabolism and insulin resistance.

This pilot study gave participants with type 2 diabetes a combination of Myo- and D-chiro-inositol for three months, in addition to their glucose-lowering drugs. The study found significant lowered FBG and HbA1C levels.

Myo-inositol has also shown to help with gestational diabetes.

This review of different trials on Myo-inositol supplementation found a significant role in preventing gestational diabetes and improving insulin resistance.

Another review out of Italy found that Myo-inositol supplementation in women at-risk of gestational diabetes saw a decrease of more than 60% of it from occurring.

Other Health Benefits of Myo-inositol

Myo-inositol is also used to treat women suffering from polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS).

PCOS is a condition where the ovaries produce too much of the male hormone androgen. This creates a hormone imbalance and leads to irregular menstrual periods and/or cysts in the ovaries.

This review of various studies of Myo-inositol treatment on PCOS patients found beneficial effects of Myo-inositol improving the metabolic profile of women with PCOS, while also reducing their hyperandrogenism.

Myo-inositol Side Effects

It seems like Myo-inositol is generally well tolerated by people. This review found that only the highest doses caused GI issues like nausea, gas and diarrhea.

Curcumin

Curcumin (or turmeric) is a spice in the ginger family and commonly used in cuisines all over the world.

And it’s also been used for hundreds of years for its medicinal and health benefits for its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects.

turmeric root and powder
Turmeric root and powder

How Curcumin Lowers Blood Sugar

Curcumin affects the body in many ways including helping control blood sugar levels.

This review showed that curcumin’s anti-diabetic activity is due to its ability to suppress oxidative stress from harmful free radicals and inflammation, which play a role type 2 diabetes.

Also, this study looked at curcumin supplementation on overweight people with Type 2 diabetes for three months. It found significant decreases in FBG, HbA1c, and insulin resistance.     

Curcumin Side Effects

Curcumin is considered generally safe but common side effects associated with high doses are upset stomach or nausea.

Also, the blood thinning and blood pressure lowering qualities of curcumin could have negative interaction with some medications.

Gymnema Sylvestre

Gymnema Sylvestre is a vine found in India, as well as Africa and Australia. It has a long history as an herbal medicine used in Ayurveda, which is an old holistic medicine originating in India.

Today Gymnema Sylvestra is taken as an herbal supplement and available as a pill, liquid extract, or powder.

gymnema sylvestre leaves and powder
Gymnema Sylvestra leaves and powder

How Gymnema Sylvestre Lowers Blood Sugar

The Gymnema Sylvestra plant include gymnema acid, which delays glucose absorption in the blood.

Gymnema acids are similar to sugar molecules and blocks the sugar receptors on your taste bud, curbing sugar cravings.

Gymnemic acid also prevents glucose molecule absorption by the intestine, which results in lower blood sugar levels.

This review on various studies of Gymnema Sylvestre supplementation found significant reductions in fasting blood sugar, post-meal blood sugar and HgA1c. They also showed reductions in triglycerides and total cholesterol.

Side Effects of Gymnema Sylvestre

It’s generally considered safe but can lead to nausea, dizziness or headaches if blood sugar levels get too low.

Promising Natural Alternatives to Metformin

The supplements below show promising effects of lowering blood sugar or improving insulin sensitivity. But the the studies available tend to show inconsistent results and/or call for more data.

Cinnamon

The cinnamon we all know and use from the inner bark from Cinnamomum trees.

Cinnamon extract has been sold as supplements to help with different conditions including diabetes, arthritis, and high cholesterol.

But because there’s 250 species of cinnamon trees, the antidiabetic effects of cinnamon can vary.

pile of cinnamon sticks
Cinnamon sticks

This study on one type of cinnamon found it reduced fasting plasma blood glucose (FPG) more than Metformin. It also found the cinnamon helps release proteins involved in glucose transport and insulin signaling.

This review saw improvement to FPG but no significant effect on HgA1c.

Yet this clinical trial found improvement in all glycemic markers (post-meal and FBG, HbA1c, insulin resistance) as well as cholesterol levels.

Bitter Melon

Bitter Melon or bitter gourd (Momordica charantia) is vine plant found common in Asia, East Africa and other tropical areas.

bitter melon fruit hanging from plant
Bitter melon plant

While the bitter melon plant is used in many cuisines, it’s also reported to have anti-oxidant, anti-inflammatory, anti-cancer and anti-diabetic effects.

This review found that the bitter melon compounds act like insulin and helps with glucose absorption, consumption, and utilization. It also found that certain proteins in bitter melon slows glucose absorption.

But we should note that they were on experiments on cells and animals so more info is needed on its effectiveness on people. For instance, this clinical trial involving 90 participants treated with bitter melon found some improvement in FBG but significant no change in HbA1c.

Chromium Picolinate

Chromium picolinate is a type of chromium, which is a mineral essential for carbohydrate metabolism. It’s commonly sold as a supplement in pill form.

It’s important to note that chromium picolinate comes from trivalent chromium, which is safe. But hexavalent chromium is another form used in different industrial processes, which is toxic and known carcinogen.

This review of two dozen clinical trials found it helped with overall glycemic control, including improved HbA1c and FPG.

However this study gave chromium picolinate to participants with prediabetes or at-risk of diabetes for six months and didn’t appear to improve conditions of insulin resistance or impaired glucose metabolism.

Summary

Metformin has a strong record of lower blood sugar levels and is often the first line of treatment for diabetes management. But it comes with some mild side effects and there’s many people that prefer more holistic, natural approaches.

While you won’t find an exact natural alternative to metformin, there are several herbal supplements and natural compounds that can help with blood sugar control.

  • Many studies supporting that Berberine and Myo-inositol can improve insulin sensitivity.
  • Curcumin helps with the oxidative stress and inflammation associated with type 2 diabetes.
  • Gymnema sylvestre has been used for hundreds of years to help curb sugar cravings.
  • Cinnamon, bitter melon and chromium picolinate are promising alternatives that can help diabetes management but results are inconsistent and/or are from limited studies.

Of course always talk to your doctor before taking any supplements. These natural alternatives are meant to lower sugars levels, which can go too low if you’re already on medication to treat diabetes.

And remember that these are just supplements. They can’t replace diet and fitness, which play a big role in your diabetes self care.

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