Diabetes mellitus is a group of chronic diseases where the body cannot properly regulate blood sugar. Type 2 diabetes, which mainly affects adults, is the most common.
Here either the body is insulin resistant or it does not produce enough insulin to maintain the correct blood sugar level.
About 420 million people live with diabetes worldwide. According to the World Health Organization, diabetes is the ninth leading cause of death worldwide. In the United States, it is the seventh leading cause of death.
It is estimated to cost more than $320 billion in medical bills, lost work and wages. Complications of diabetes include eye problems, kidney failure, nervous system diseases, and heart problems, among others.
From making healthy lifestyle choices to having a support team of healthcare professionals, good diabetes management involves a holistic approach. These healthcare professionals must be doctors, nurses, dietitians, licensed acupuncturists and other relevant professionals.
Traditional Chinese Medicine and Diabetes
In Chinese history, diabetes has been recognized and treated for the past 2000 years. Traditional Chinese medicine called diabetes “Xiao-Ke” or wasting and thirst disease. In traditional Chinese medicine, common symptoms of Xiao Ke were frequent urination, thirst, excessive hunger, and weight loss. These symptoms are similar to type 1 diabetes and some type 2 diabetes which does not produce enough insulin. However, wasting symptoms are rare with type 2 diabetes.
According to traditional Chinese medicine, diabetes results from an imbalance in the cyclic flow of Qi (pronounced “chi” and refers to the power of energy or life force that circulates in the body) in the meridians, pathways by which Qi, blood, and other bodily fluids and organ systems flow. This imbalance produces heat which depletes bodily fluids.
Chinese medicine theories classify diabetes into three types according to San Jiao’s concept. San Jiao describes body cavities that can influence other organs primarily through the free flow of Qi.
Patients with upper Jiao diabetes (mainly lungs) are thirsty and drink excessive amounts of water, middle Jiao diabetes (mainly spleen) suffer from hunger and overeating, while lower Jiao diabetes ( kidneys) complains of thirst and urinating a lot or with cloudy urine.
Chinese medicine uniquely addresses each diabetic patient. From acupuncture, herbal medicine, energy exercises, and lifestyle modification, among others, there are various treatments that the practitioner can choose from, depending on the individual.
Treatment focuses on regulating blood circulation and Qi and balancing organ systems to improve pancreatic function and stop fluid depletion resulting from high blood sugar.
Using acupuncture to treat diabetes
The World Health Organization recognizes acupuncture as an effective treatment modality for several medical conditions: chronic pain, migraine, and diabetes.
Acupuncture, an essential aspect of traditional Chinese medicine, involves inserting very small and mostly painless needles into strategic points on your body.
Yishu – a point on the back side of the 8e thoracic vertebrae, has often been used and shown to be very beneficial in the treatment of diabetes. There are several other meridians all over the body also used to treat diabetes through acupuncture.
Acupuncture helps regulate pancreatic function and therefore insulin levels. It is also effective in treating pain resulting from diabetic neuropathy because it stimulates endorphins which are neurotransmitters that block pain sensations.
Additionally, acupuncture reduces cortisol production by boosting liver and kidney function to rapidly flush out the extra stress hormone. Cortisol is known to raise blood sugar levels. Thus, it ultimately helps balance the parts of the body that cannot regulate sugar levels on their own.
In the treatment of diabetes, different forms of acupuncture can be employed, depending on the specific case of the patient. They include traditional acupuncture, electroacupuncture, wrist-ankle acupuncture, and herbal acupuncture.
Traditional acupuncture stimulates specific points on the body to achieve results. The patient’s medical history, age, and severity of the condition influence the use of this form of acupuncture.
Several studies have shown electroacupuncture to be an effective way to control blood sugar and treat pain associated with diabetic neuropathy. It is the most common form of acupuncture used in the treatment of diabetes. The acupuncturist inserts the needles at specific points and connects them to a device that transmits electrical impulses from one needle to the other.
The name wrist-ankle acupuncture stimulates acupuncture points around the wrists and ankles primarily to relieve pain caused by diabetic peripheral neuropathy.
Herbal acupuncture is a popular form of acupuncture among acupuncturists. It reduces blood sugar levels. Here, the practitioner injects natural herbal extracts into the acupuncture points. Different herbs are used depending on the symptoms presented and the age.
Chinese herbal medicine for diabetes
The importance of Chinese herbal medicine cannot be overstated in the treatment of diabetes. In diabetes, people with metabolic disorders have blocked meridians, which inadvertently leads to poor circulation of Qi and blood. The result is blood congestion in the meridians. Consequently, the pancreas loses its nutrition and aggravates the disease, leading to complications.
In the treatment of diabetes, practitioners use different formulas that are effective for different patients. Among these formulas are Liu Wei Di Huang and Da Bu Yin Wan. The effects of these formulas are usually noticeable in less than two months.
One such formula, which includes Shan Yao, Huang Qi, Fu Ling, and Cang Zhu, helps lower blood sugar by improving insulin production from the pancreas. It achieves this by helping the body’s Qi to nourish the pancreas with an adequate blood supply from vigorous circulation. As a result, it repairs pancreatic beta cells and restores their function.
Another formula, Yu Quan Wan, works by increasing the Qi in the lungs, making the lungs stronger. With an increased abundance of Qi in the lungs, the resulting lung energy promotes proper utilization of sugar.
As the main organ of fluid metabolism, the kidney plays an important role in diabetes. Therefore, it is essential to strengthen the kidneys. One particular formula, Liu Wei Di Huang Wan, specializes in kidney and liver nutrition. It also helps the adrenal glands regulate blood sugar.
Studies have also shown that American ginseng improves glucose tolerance, which is therefore often added to herbal formulas. Other herbs can be added to a formula to treat diabetes complications such as peripheral neuropathy and blurred vision.
Another prescription formula that includes Dan Shen, San Leng, E Zhu, and Cang Zhu relieves blood stagnation or congestion, improves circulation, nourishes the pancreas, and opens nutrient transport channels.
It is essential to start your treatment by finding a good acupuncturist. The practitioner will discuss your specific symptoms with you during your first appointment and discuss your lifestyle, diet, and health goals. As the treatment involves a holistic approach, the practitioner will want to learn about other aspects of your life that may be causing stress.
Depending on the specifics of your disease, your practitioner will recommend a specialized step-by-step treatment plan which may be daily or bi-weekly treatment as needed.
Studies have shown that there are minimal risks associated with acupuncture and traditional Chinese medicines in the treatment of diabetes. Besides the minor side effects of pain, occasional bruising, or minor bleeding, acupuncture with sterile needles is mostly safe.
However, let’s say you have bleeding disorders such as hemophilia or vitamin k deficiency. You may want to opt out of this form of treatment or be aware of the increased risk of bruising.
Many traditional Chinese acupuncturists are also well trained in modern medicine, and some are licensed physicians. However, you may want to inform the rest of your health care providers before starting this form of treatment.
You should also know that this form of treatment can complement modern medications and result in even better effectiveness. However, you should report any unusual effects or changes you experience to your health care providers.
Loki A. (2021) Diabetes. World Health Organization (WHO). November 2021. https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/diabetes
Liu, Z. (2009). Diabetes (Xiao-Ke). In: Liu, Z. (eds) Essentials of Chinese Medicine. Springer, London. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-1-84882-596-3_27
Lee SW, Nam MH, Lee BC. (2017) Herbal Acupuncture for Type 2 Diabetes: A Meta-Analysis. Exp Ther Med. 2017;13(6):3249-3256. doi:10.3892/etm.2017.4379
Liu JP, Zhang M, Wang WY, Grimsgaard S. (2004) Chinese herbal medicines for type 2 diabetes mellitus. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2004;2002(3):CD003642. DOI: 10.1002/14651858.CD003642.pub2. PMID: 15266492; PMCID: PMC9028977.
Covington MB, (2001): Traditional Chinese medicine in the treatment of diabetes. Diabetes Spectr 2001;14(3):154–159. https://doi.org/10.2337/diaspect.14.3.154
Epoch Health articles are provided for informational purposes and are not a substitute for personalized medical advice. Please consult a trusted professional for personal medical advice, diagnosis and treatment.