Dietary Supplements for Diabetes: Talking With Your Doctor

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Women doctor talking with female patient

Most health experts agree that you should get vitamins and minerals from the food you eat. Even so, more and more people are trying dietary and herbal supplements. In fact, people with diabetes are more likely to use them than those who don’t have the disease. Chromium, fenugreek, magnesium, and alpha-lipoic acid are four that have become popular among people with diabetes.

The question is: Are supplements for diabetes right for you? That's something to talk about with your doctor. Here's why.

What You Need to Know About Supplements

People often think supplements are healthy and harmless because you can buy them in lots of stores. You don't need a doctor's prescription to get them. In fact, many supplements are safe and helpful. However, not all of them are. Any supplement or vitamin you take comes with risks.

For instance:

  • Supplements are not regulated the same way as drugs. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) must approve all drugs before doctors can prescribe them in the United States. This makes sure the drugs are as safe as possible and that they do what they're supposed to do. That is not the case with supplements. They do not need FDA approval. Instead, the company that makes them is supposed to make sure they're safe. The FDA can order that a supplement be taken off the market, but first the FDA has to prove it is not safe. All of this affects people who use supplements.

  • Supplements can vary by brand. What's in a supplement can vary from brand to brand. It even can vary from one batch to the next. There could be more of an ingredient, or less, than the label says. Or the supplement might not be pure. It could contain harmful substances. There's no way for you to tell for sure.

  • Supplements might not be as "natural" as you think. Many supplements say “all natural” on the label. Even so, they could contain what are called “active ingredients.” These are substances used in medicines. Tests on some supplements for diabetes have shown that they contain some of the same active ingredients as type 2 diabetes drugs. These ingredients can interfere with prescription drugs you are taking. Natural substances can keep some medicines from working like they should. This can be dangerous. It can even be life threatening.

  • There's not much research on supplements. Some studies suggest that certain supplements might help manage diabetes. They could help lower blood sugar or improve cholesterol levels. Or they could help your body use insulin more effectively. However, not all supplements have been studied. Plus, most supplements have not been the focus of many big studies. So, if scientists haven't studied a supplement, no one knows for sure whether it will help someone with diabetes. The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine notes that there's just not enough proof that dietary supplements can prevent or manage type 2 diabetes.

Talking With Your Doctor About Diabetes Supplements

If you're thinking about taking a supplement, talk with your doctor. That's the first and most important thing to do.

Be open and honest with your doctor. Tell your doctor about everything you already take. That includes prescription medicines and all over-the-counter medicines and supplements. Include what you take for diabetes as well as everything else.

Talk about:

  • All medicines and supplements you take
  • Why you take them
  • How often you take them
  • How much you take
  • How long you've been taking them

It's important for your doctor to know everything you take. That's the only way to tell whether one drug or supplement might be affecting another one.
Talk with your doctor about any particular supplement for diabetes that interests you. Ask whether your doctor thinks it could help you. Exactly what could it do? Ask whether that supplement has any special risks for you. Does it have side effects? It’s important to know what to expect.

If you and your doctor decide that a supplement would be good for you, keep one thing in mind: A supplement does not replace your diabetes medicine. Never take supplements instead of the drugs prescribed by your doctor.

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2018 May 14

  1. Types of Dietary Supplements. American Diabetes Association. Feb 20, 2014. http://www.diabetes.org/living-with-diabetes/treatment-and-care/medication/other-treatments/herbs-su....

  2. Diabetes and Dietary Supplements. U.S. National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine. Nov 2013. http://nccam.nih.gov/health/diabetes/supplements.

  3. Herbs, Supplements and Alternative Medicines. American Diabetes Association. Feb 20, 2014. http://www.diabetes.org/living-with-diabetes/treatment-and-care/medication/other-treatments/herbs-su...,

  4. Beware of Illegally Sold Diabetes Treatments. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Jul 29, 2013. http://www.fda.gov/ForConsumers/ConsumerUpdates/ucm361487.htm.

  5. Food Facts: Dietary Supplements. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. May 2006. http://www.fda.gov/downloads/Food/DietarySupplements/UCM240978.pdf.

  6. Multivitamin/mineral Supplements. U.S. National Institutes of Health. Jan 7, 2013. http://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/MVMS-HealthProfessional/.

  7. Q&A on Dietary Supplements, U.S. Food and Drug Administration. http://www.fda.gov/Food/DietarySupplements/QADietarySupplements/default.htm#FDA_role.

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