Can herbs and spices actually help you prevent and manage diabetes? I used to be skeptical about this idea when I first started my practice, but now have started seeing the true benefits over the years. I have mostly my patients to thank for this who have shared their various recipes, concoctions and corresponding blood glucose levels. Success metrics from patients in addition to supportive research makes the case for anti-diabetic herbs and spices quite convincing.
Herbs and spices are a category of foods that can have a beneficial impact on stabilizing daily blood glucose levels. In my experience with patients over the years, I've noticed that some individuals respond well to the addition of herbs and spices, while some have little to no response.
The one thing I will tell you is that I don't recall anyone having dramatic improvements in their blood sugar control and overall health by simply adding herbs and spices to an unhealthy diet and sedentary lifestyle.
That means sprinkling cinnamon on a bowl of ice cream or adding herbs and spices to a meal composed of excess carbohydrates cooked in unhealthy vegetable oils will not significantly counteract the damaging effects of already unhealthy foods.
Instead think of herbs and spices as an athlete would think of taking natural (and legal!) performance enhancers. The core of optimal performance is still a healthy diet, optimal sleep and stress management, but adding superfoods like herbs and spices can take you to the next level by stabilizing blood glucose and lowering inflammation in the body.
There are countless natural herbs and spices that have medicinal effects, so I've chosen to focus on a few which not only have reasonable studies to support their use, but ones where I've seen enough anecdotal improvements in blood sugar to convince me that there is some potential for adding these to a healthy diet.
Cinnamon is known to effectively reduce high levels of blood sugar. Containing 18 percent polyphenols (micronutrients that support fighting disease), cinnamon intake causes a positive effect on the lipid profile of diabetes mellitus type 2, as well as glycemic control as shown in this meta-analysis.
Cassia is the more common type of cinnamon that you would buy in the store, while Ceylon or “true cinnamon” is more expensive and not as readily available. There are no studies to date comparing cassia vs ceylon in terms of the ability to reduce blood sugar, but there is one important difference.
Precautions: Cassia contains more coumarin, a naturally occurring substance which in excess amounts is linked to liver damage. Cassia contains up to 1% coumarin, while Ceylon has only trace amounts of about 0.004% as reported in this study.
If you are using normal amounts of cassia cinnamon used for everyday cooking and food preparation, it is unlikely you are consuming enough to damage your liver. However, if you are consuming excess amounts, taking high dose capsules, or if you have existing liver damage, then you need to be cautious of your intake. Also keep in mind that many natural and supplemental forms of cinnamon that are labeled as “true” or Ceylon cinnamon are often adulterated with Cassia.
For the common Cassia cinnamon, try not to exceed 6 grams or 1.2 teaspoons daily.
Common Uses: You can add cinnamon to your herbal tea or caffeinated beverage, sprinkle it on sweet potatoes or yogurt, and include it in your daily recipes, as long as you do not exceed the maximum suggested amount of 5-6g per day which is just 1-1.5 teaspoons daily.
Used commonly in Indian recipes, fenugreek (aka “methi” in South Asian cuisine) has multiple studies showing its effect on lowering blood glucose and improvements in insulin resistance and cholesterol levels. This study found that taking a fenugreek supplement lowered the conversion of prediabetes to diabetes, while this study showed improvements in fasting glucose, postprandial glucose (after meals), and A1C control.
Fenugreek slows down the digestion and absorption of carbohydrates in the small intestine, which appears to be a mechanism by which it improves blood sugar control and post-meal glucose spikes in diabetics.
Precautions: Fenugreek should not be used during pregnancy (other than normal amounts used in cooking), since it can trigger uterine contractions. In fact it has been used in India as a natural medicine to induce labor.
Fenugreek can interfere with medications like blood thinners (can increase risk of bleeding), and it can have estrogen-like properties so should be avoided in hormone sensitive cancers like breast cancer. Discuss these issues with your doctor before taking.
Common uses: Fenugreek is often roasted, ground and used in spice blends for Indian curries, pickles and sauces. The seeds can also be used to top salads or is often incorporated into Indian breads, while the powder is often used in teas, soups and curries.
Many of my diabetics make their own fenugreek water concoction by storing 2 tbsp of fenugreek seeds in a covered container with 2 cups of water, stored over night. They then strain the drink and have it first thing in the morning. You'll find lots of variations of fenugreek drinks and teas online.
Cloves are known to have medicinal properties that mainly help with lowering blood sugar. They contain 30% of the antioxidants phenol, anthocyanins, and quercetin in dry weight.
Additionally, they have about 80 mg of vitamin C for every 100 grams, vitamin E, selenium, beta-carotene, phytosterols and essential minerals that fight increasing sugar in the blood.
One study shows that if consumed for more than 30 days, cloves can help lower not only blood glucose, but also triglycerides, LDL and total cholesterol.
Precautions: Like most spices discussed, using the typical amounts of cloves in cooking does not pose health risks. However, taking excessive doses of clove extracts or oils can cause side effects like bleeding and in children has been associated with seizures and liver damage.
Common uses: Many of my relatives chew on raw cloves as a breath freshener (as do I on occasion) and before toothbrushes, chewing on cloves was also a natural method to keep teeth clean. As a spice, cloves can be used in both sweet and savory dishes. Like most spices, it's best to buy them fresh and grind them yourself to add to foods.
Like fenugreek water, another suggested remedy used by some of my patients with diabetes is a mixture of 60 grams of cloves and four sticks of cinnamon in a liter of water which you let sit for four to five days. Drain the liquid, refrigerate, and sip half a cup daily. There are endless combinations of these spice waters for blood sugar control and overall health. You can consider adding fenugreek to this mixture as well.
The famous ingredient in an Indian curry can help lower blood sugar as well. With its anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, and anti-bacterial properties, it can help boost your immune system and prevent infections, both of which are common issues with diabetic patients.
Curcumin, the active ingredient in turmeric, is known to effectively reduce plasma glucose level as well as HbA1C.
Turmeric also promotes the improvement of lipids and this study shows it can be effective in preventing prediabetics from becoming diabetics.
Common uses: Turmeric beverages have become really popular, like turmeric tea, golden milk or turmeric water. You can add the spice to curries, stir-fries and soups.
To increase bioavailability, combine turmeric with black pepper and a healthy fat like virgin coconut oil, avocado oil, extra virgin olive oil or ghee.
Holy Basil (aka “Tulsi”)
Holy basil (tulsi) is an aromatic herbal plant that is revered in India and used in many religious rituals. It has been used for centuries as an Ayurvedic remedy. Tulsi is different than the more common Mediterranean basil used in Italian cooking, although both appear to have originated in Asia.
This review of the literature shows that tulsi can be effective at lowering blood glucose and A1C in type 2 diabetics. It contains antioxidant phytonutrients like orientin and vicenin that protect DNA against damage and appear to lower blood sugar through cellular mechanisms.
This study showed 2.5 grams of dried basil powder significantly lowered fasting and after meal blood sugar when taken in the morning on an empty stomach.
Common Uses: Holy basil leaves can be added to salads, stir-fries and sandwiches. It can be crushed into a pesto for Italian dishes. Tulsi tea is a popular healing beverage which you can make by adding fresh basil leaves, ginger, cardamom and a little honey to hot water. Basil also comes in dried leaf, powder and oil forms.
Rosemary is a potent antioxidant that has been used by traditional healers to not only treat diabetes, but also arthritis, ulcers, depression and even memory loss. In fact, this study showed that smelling rosemary essential oil while performing mental tasks improved memory.
This study shows that rosemary intake in the form of an extract helped reduce fasting blood sugar, A1C levels and even improved vitamin B12 levels.
Likewise, it helps with weight loss and seems to be as effective as the rest of the herbs mentioned.
According to the Agricultural and Food Chemistry Journal, it is suggested that you incorporate fresh rosemary in your recipes. However, dried spices in your local supermarket will be just as effective as the fresh ones.
Common Uses: Add to your herbal tea list by making some delicious rosemary tea or add some sprigs to soups, sauces, meat/fish rubs, or vegetable dishes.
Other Herbs and Spices
There are multiple other herbs and spices I left out, not because I didn't think they were effective, but because I didn't have as much direct experience with them. This includes garlic, sage, onion, cocoa, parsley, mustard seeds and cumin to name a few.
Bottom line is that many of my busy patients eat very bland main dishes and sides where their boldest spices are salt, pepper and maybe a sprinkle of turmeric since it has become so fashionable.
There is an entire windowsill and kitchen cabinet full of herbs and spices that not only add incredible flavors to food, but provide potent medicinal properties that can help with blood sugar, inflammation and a long list of other illnesses.
I don't know about you, but I'd rather try combining turmeric and cinnamon in a healthy diet than add combination drugs like statins and blood pressure pills, unless these are truly indicated. Do not underestimate the power of food in preventing and reversing disease.
How About Supplement Pills?
I know popping pills is far easier than cooking foods and using these herbs and spices naturally, but do keep in mind that it does not take huge amounts of natural herbs and spices to provide health benefits.
This study shows that just using the normal amounts of spices used to flavor foods is sufficient to lower blood markers for inflammation. For example, the spices studied that showed the most anti-inflammatory effect and their respective doses are listed below:
- Ginger 2.8g
- Rosemary 2.8g
- Clove 0.3g
- Turmeric 0.3g
If you are considering taking supplement pills, please consult your doctor first since supplements can have side effects and interact with other medications.
Also be sure to take the highest quality supplements available since often there can be contaminants or the stated amounts on the package label may not be accurate.
Few key points to take away when considering using spices for diabetes and overall health benefit:
- Add diverse flavors and therapeutic benefit to your foods by using various herbs and spices
- Normal cooking amounts are safe for most herbs and spices.
- Opt for buying fresh whole spices and grinding yourself, but when you're in a pinch it's ok to use dried powders
- Incorporate spice waters and herbal teas as mentioned above. Create your own version and consider monitoring your blood sugar over 30 days to monitor effects
- Beware of side effects, drug interactions and purity/effectiveness of herb/spice supplements
- Once again, don't think a few magical spices will counteract the impact of an unhealthy lifestyle (diet, exercise, sleep and stress management).
Some additional resources listed below if you want to learn more about spices
- The book Healing Spices by renown spice expert and scientist, Bharat B. Aggarwal, PhD
- Join our upcoming wilderness retreat on 5/18 where I'll have my dietitian partner and expert on herbs and spices, Prerna Uppal, join me and teach you practical ways to incorporate these superfoods into your daily routine.