Considering Dietary Supplement? Read This First!

As a patient with diabetes, you may have considered dietary supplements as part of your healthy eating program. Conventional medical treatments and following a healthy lifestyle, including watching your weight, can help you prevent, manage, and control many complications of diabetes. Researchers are studying several complementary health approaches, including dietary supplements, to see if they can help people manage type 2 diabetes or lower their risk of developing the disease.The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM), a part of the National Institute of Health, has provided patients with these facts about commonly used dietary supplements.Dietary Supplements

Key Facts

A healthy diet, physical activity, and blood glucose testing are the basic tools for managing type 2 diabetes. Your health care providers will help you learn to manage your diabetes and track how well you are controlling it. It is very important not to replace proven conventional medical treatment for diabetes with an unproven health product or practice.

Are dietary supplements for diabetes safe? According to NCCAM, some dietary supplements may have side effects. There are multiple case reports linking dietary supplement use to kidney disease, which is of particular concern because diabetes is the leading cause of chronic kidney disease and kidney failure in the United States. Supplement use should be monitored closely in patients who have or are at risk for kidney disease.

Are any dietary supplements for diabetes effective?  Overall, there is not enough scientific evidence to show that any dietary supplement can help manage or prevent type 2 diabetes, notes the NCCAM. This article addresses some of the many supplements studied for diabetes, with a focus on those that have undergone clinical trials (studies in people).

Safety of Supplement

Alpha-Lipoic Acid

Alpha-lipoic acid is an antioxidant (a substance that may protect against cell damage). Studies have examined the effects of alpha-lipoic acid supplements on complications of diabetes.
For example:

  • A 2011 clinical trial of 467 participants with type 2 diabetes found that supplements of 600 milligrams of alpha-lipoic acid daily did not prevent diabetic macular edema, an eye condition that causes blurred vision.
  • Alpha-lipoic acid and vitamin E supplements taken separately or in combination did not improve cholesterol levels or the body’s response to insulin in a 2011 clinical trial of 102 people with type 2 diabetes.

Safety: High doses of alpha-lipoic acid supplements can cause gastrointestinal problems.


Found in many foods, chromium is an essential trace mineral. If you have too little chromium in your diet, your body can’t use glucose efficiently. Studies, including a 2007 systematic review, have found few or no benefits of chromium supplements for controlling diabetes or reducing the risk of developing it. Many of the studies used for the review were small or not high quality.

Safety: Chromium supplements may cause stomach pain and bloating, and there have been a few reports of kidney damage, muscular problems, and skin reactions following large doses.

Herbal Supplements

There is no strong evidence that herbal supplements can help to control diabetes or its complications.

  • Researchers have found some risks but no clear benefits of cinnamon for people with diabetes.

o When researchers tested samples of the common spice cassia cinnamon for sale at grocery stores in Europe, they found many samples contained coumarin, a substance that may cause or worsen liver disease in people who are sensitive. Also, eating large amounts of cinnamon containing coumarin may be especially risky for people taking blood-thinning drugs; the interaction of coumarin and blood thinners can increase the likelihood of bleeding.

o A trial of 59 people with type 2 diabetes found that a combination of cinnamon, calcium, and zinc didn’t improve their blood pressure.

A 2012 systematic review of 10 randomized controlled trials did not support using cinnamon for type 1 or type 2 diabetes.

  • Researchers are studying whether Asian ginseng and American ginseng may help control glucose levels. Currently, research reviews and clinical trials show that there is not enough evidence to support their use.
  • Other herbal supplements studied for diabetes include aloe vera, bitter melon, Chinese herbal medicines, fenugreek, garlic, Gymnema sylvestre, milk thistle, nettle, prickly pear cactus, and sweet potato. None have been proven to be effective.

Safety: Information on the safety of herbal supplements for people with diabetes is generally inconclusive or unavailable. Interactions between herbs and conventional diabetes drugs have not been well studied and could be a health risk. For example, in some people cinnamon might worsen liver disease and interact with blood thinners.


Found in many foods, including whole grains, nuts, and green leafy vegetables, magnesium is essential to the body’s ability to process glucose. Magnesium deficiency may increase the risk of developing diabetes.

  • There is no evidence from clinical trials that magnesium helps to manage diabetes.
  • A 2011 meta-analysis reviewed the results of 13 studies that looked at how much magnesium people got in their diets, either through supplements or food, and their risk of diabetes. The review found that people who had lower magnesium intake had a greater risk of developing diabetes.
  • One of the studies in the 2011 research review mentioned above, a large 2007 clinical trial, found that people who ate more cereal fiber and magnesium-rich food had a lower risk of developing type 2 diabetes.
  • People who had a diet rich in magnesium had a 15 percent reduced risk of developing type 2 diabetes, according to a 2007 meta-analysis of studies that looked at magnesium from foods or supplements.

Safety: No serious side effects were reported in studies where people with diabetes were given magnesium supplements for up to 16 weeks. However, the long-term safety of magnesium supplements for people with diabetes has not been established. Large doses of magnesium in supplements can cause diarrhea and abdominal cramping. Very large doses—more than 5,000 mg/day per day—can be deadly.


Omega-3 fatty acids supplements don’t help people with diabetes control their blood sugar levels, a 2008 systematic review found. A 2012 study that combined a meta-analysis and a systematic review looked at the possible link between eating seafood or plants with omega-3s and the risk of developing type 2 diabetes. The study found little evidence that these dietary sources of omega-3s affected the risk of developing diabetes.


  • Omega-3 supplements usually do not have negative side effects. When side effects do occur, they typically consist of minor gastrointestinal symptoms, such as belching, indigestion, or diarrhea.
  • Omega-3 supplements may extend bleeding time (the time it takes for a cut to stop bleeding). People who take drugs that affect bleeding time, such as anticoagulants (“blood thinners”) or nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), should discuss the use of omega-3 fatty acid supplements with a health care provider.


According to NCCAM, studies (including a 2010 research review and 2009 clinical trial) have found no evidence that taking vitamin C supplements is helpful for diabetes.

The research on diabetes and vitamin D and calcium supplements is not conclusive.

  • Supplementing with vitamin D combined with calcium appears to lower the risk of developing type 2 diabetes, according to a 2007 systematic review and meta-analysis.
  • In a 2008 clinical trial studying 33,951 post-menopausal women over 7 years, calcium plus vitamin D supplements did no better than a placebo at reducing the risk of developing diabetes.
  • The lower risk seen in some studies in people who consume more calcium may be because those individuals are also getting more magnesium, a 2012 meta-analysis reported.
  • Safety

Getting too much calcium may interfere with the body’s ability to absorb iron and zinc. Also, calcium supplements can interact with certain medicines.

Other Supplements

According to NCCAM, there is no strong evidence that supplements of the trace mineral vanadium improve blood sugar control in people with type 2 diabetes.  The evidence is still preliminary on the effects on diabetes of supplements and foods rich in polyphenols—antioxidants found in fruits, grains, and vegetables, a 2010 research review concluded.

Keep in Mind

If You Have Diabetes and Are Thinking About Using a Dietary Supplement:

  • Talk to a health care provider before considering any dietary supplement for yourself, particularly if you are pregnant or nursing, or for a child. Many supplements have not been tested in pregnant women, nursing mothers, or children.
  • Do not replace scientifically proven treatments for diabetes with unproven health products or practices. The consequences of not following your prescribed medical regimen for diabetes can be very serious.
  • Keep in mind that dietary supplements may interact with medications or other dietary supplements and may contain ingredients not listed on the label. 
  • Tell all your health care providers about any complementary health approaches you use. Give them a full picture of what you do to manage your health. This will help ensure coordinated and safe care. 
  • N-acetylcysteine and milk thistle, nutritional supplements with antioxidant properties, for kidney damage that results from diabetes.


Updated on: July 26, 2017