June 28, 2014 at 1:00 am

To Your Health

Ginseng, cinnamon may help in diabetes

Dear Dr. Roach: My wife is 76 and diabetic. She has been taking meds for a long time, and has a hard time managing her blood sugars. I saw an ad recently for a natural formula that, according to the ad, will help lower blood levels substantially, without injections, and apparently is free of other side effects. The claim also mentions a very substantial reduction in cholesterol and triglycerides, as well.

Her general practitioner claims to know nothing about it. Can you enlighten us, please?

R.G.

Dear R.G.: I looked up the supplement, and the manufacturer states that the product contains a proprietary blend of Panax ginseng and cinnamon. The good news is that both of these products have been reported to improve blood sugar in diabetics. The data on ginseng is equivocal; however, the most recent study showed no benefit to ginseng on blood sugar. On the other hand, the most recent data on cinnamon shows that a teaspoon a day does reduce blood sugar by a few percent. This isn’t enough to bring a poorly controlled diabetic under good control, but it does help a little bit. The data on cinnamon’s effect on cholesterol is not convincing.

The bad news is any medication can cause side effects. Most won’t have side effects, but if something sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Ginseng can cause sleep troubles, headache and diarrhea. Cinnamon contains a chemical that can cause liver problems. Ceylon cinnamon has less of the potentially toxic chemical.

Since supplements are unregulated, you are always at the mercy of the manufacturer that it has put in the correct ingredients. There are many studies showing that, for a variety of supplements, there often is not as much as, or even any of, the active ingredient claimed. Finally, the product’s website clearly says:

“These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration or Health Canada. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.”

Rather than their “proprietary blend,” I’d recommend a half-teaspoon of cinnamon tw­ice a day for people who want to use a supplement, but tell your wife’s doctor that she is taking it, because if it really works for her, her doctor may need to adjust any other diabetes medicine she might be taking.

Email questions to ToYourGoodHealth@med.cornell.edu.