Role of Ayurveda in Diabetes Treatment

Originating in ancient India, Ayurveda is a traditional medicinal practice with roots tracing back to 1000 BC. The primary goal of Ayurveda is to maintain equilibrium between the 5 basic elements (Panchamahabhutas) of earth, water, fire, air, and ether or vacuum within oneself through the theory of the 3 life forces or doshas. The doshas consist of vata, which correlates to ether and air, pitta, which represents fire, and kapha, which equates to the elements of earth and water. Vata, pitta, and kapha are the doshas of the body, while rajas, tamas, and satva are the doshas of the mind. According to Ayurveda, striking an equilibrium between the doshas corresponds to good health. Ayurvedic practitioners make use of individualized diet, exercise, and lifestyle as well as procedural, medicinal, and herbal prescriptions in order to bring their patient’s doshas into optimal balance. 

The primary medicines used in Ayurveda are derived from plants; however, metal, mineral, as well as marine- and animal-derived materials are also used.  Integrative medicine, which combines Eastern and Western practices, is on the rise with the hope of rebalancing health and wellness.  Many case reports have shown the use of traditional medicine such as Ayurveda as being beneficial and even curative to a number of chronic illnesses. The use of Ayurveda in type 2 diabetes, a chronic, yet treatable disease, has shown marked improvement on patient outcomes in numerous case reports.  Type 2 diabetes involves a lack of sensitivity to insulin and the subsequent inability of the body to regulate blood glucose levels. Type 2 diabetes is the most common form of diabetes and primarily results from unhealthy lifestyle choices. According to the American Diabetes Association, when possible, type 2 diabetes should be treated with exercise, diet, and lifestyle modifications. However, progression to oral hypoglycemic agents and insulin will likely be necessary at some point during the course of a patient’s disease process as their pancreas is unable to keep up with amount of insulin necessary to compensate for the body’s resistance to insulin. 

Overtime, high blood glucose has major complications, including damage to the heart, blood vessels, kidneys, eyes, peripheral nerves, digestive system, wound healing ability, and sexual response and leads to complications during pregnancy. A small reduction in hemoglobin A1c (HbA1c) of less than 1% has been shown to have a clear association with improved patient outcomes.  Because both the cause and treatment of type 2 diabetes are related to diet and lifestyle, the ancient medicinal practice of Ayurveda, which is rooted in diet and lifestyle, is a promising traditional approach to the type 2 diabetes treatment. Due to the large portion of the population suffering from type 2 diabetes and the serious complications that result from the disease, health-care costs resulting from this illness are astronomical. Thus, the use of Ayurveda in treating type 2 diabetes should benefit more than just those who are suffering from diabetes.

The top 10 plants used in Ayurvedic type 2 diabetes treatment are bitter melon (M. charantia), Fenugreek, Indian Kino Tree, Gymnema, Turmeric, Tinospora, Margosa Tree, Holy Fruit Tree, Ivy Guard, and Pomegranate.  Each plant helps treat diabetes in different ways. For example, studies have shown bitter melon reduces polyuria, which partially prevents renal hypertrophy, while also reducing urinary albumin excretion. Water extract of the Indian Kino Tree has been used in treating diabetes since ancient times. Each of the plants has been studied in groups of human or animal controls and has recommended uses. With each plant having vastly different properties and each person having a different manifestation of the doshas, their utilization is different for each patient.

Chromium is an element responsible for maintaining normal glucose metabolism and is found in the same area of the pancreas where insulin is produced. Plants and herbs contain elements which maintain glucose metabolism in similar fashion to the way in which insulin regulates blood glucose levels. As such, these natural resources have the ability to assist in type 2 diabetes treatment

Practitioners of Ayurveda do not recommend only 1 course of action for their patients. Each patient comes into the clinic with different symptoms, diets, lifestyles, medical complications, support systems, and spiritual beliefs. Thus, the treatment plan is often tailored toward these individualized aspects surrounding a patient’s life in order to bring their doshas into a more perfect harmony.   Ayurvedic medications may act through potential pancreatic as well as extrapancreatic effects, with probable mechanism of action including delaying gastric emptying, slowing carbohydrate absorption, inhibition of glucose transport, increasing the erythrocyte insulin receptors and peripheral glucose utilization, increasing glycogen synthesis, modulating insulin secretion, decreasing blood glucose synthesis through depression of the enzymes glucose-6-phosphatase, fructose-1, and 6-bisphosphatase, and enhanced glucose oxidation by the enzyme glucose-6-phosphatase-dehydrogenase pathway.

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