Posts promote unproven treatments for diabetes

·3-min read

Social media posts promoting nutritional supplements claim they can reverse prediabetes and type 2 diabetes. This is false; health authorities and medical experts say there are no proven treatments for these conditions other than weight loss, dietary changes, exercise and some approved medicines.

"As a diabetic I had no idea this method could work," says a Facebook post from May 19, 2022, which links to a video and web page selling nutritional supplements.

Similar messages claiming supplements can reverse diabetes have been shared on Facebook and Twitter, where one post says a supplement called Glucotrust is "a 30-second blood sugar and diabetes killer."

Screenshot of a Facebook post taken June 14, 2022

But health authorities and experts say there is no evidence nutritional supplements have a significant effect on prediabetes or type 2 diabetes -- and that relying on them while forgoing established treatments could be dangerous.

"For a few dietary supplements, there is weak evidence of a possible benefit," says the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH), part of the US National Institutes of Health (NIH), on its website. "For most supplements, however, there isn’t evidence to support a beneficial effect on diabetes or its complications."

Additionally, the NCCIH points out that "some dietary supplements may have side effects," and that in many cases "these products are marketed illegally" and "are harmful if people use them in place of effective diabetes treatment."

Authorities recommend exercise, healthy diet for diabetics

To reverse high blood sugar levels in people with prediabetes and type 2 diabetes, the American Medical Association recommends increased physical activity, dietary improvements and maintaining a healthy body weight. The American Diabetes Association makes a similar recommendation on a web page linking to research on the topic.

Prediabetes, affecting an estimated one in three Americans, is a condition where someone's blood glucose is high, but below the level of type 2 diabetes, in which the body fails to produce enough insulin to handle blood sugar. This can lead to a range of serious medical complications.

Some 90 percent of the 37 million Americans with diabetes are estimated to have type 2, which generally does not require insulin. There is no cure, but it can be treated with some approved medications, such as metformin.

World map showing the prevalence of diabetes among the population aged 20-79 years, by country, according to International Diabetes Federation data compiled by the World Bank ( AFP / Kenan AUGEARD, Sabrina BLANCHARD)

The social media posts promote supplements with ingredients such as yarrow flowers, gymnema, bitter melon, licorice, chromium and cinnamon for treating type 2 diabetes. But none of those substances have been shown to be effective in a rigorous, large-scale test, according to Elizabeth Mayer-Davis, chair of the Department of Nutrition at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill and a longtime diabetes researcher.

"It would be so much easier for public health if there were a magic bullet," Mayer-Davis told AFP, while adding that "these supplements are not ever going to have the impact that you get from diet and physical activity."

The NIH maintains a database that links to research on dietary supplements, including many of those mentioned in the posts.

For example, the NIH says studies examining whether chromium could improve blood sugar levels found "mixed" results and that more research is needed. Gymnema "might" lower blood sugar levels, according to the National Library of Medicine, but there "isn't enough reliable information" to suggest a dosage. And the NCCIH says that, while cinnamon is often promoted for diabetes, "studies done in people don’t clearly support using cinnamon for any health condition."

Mayer-Davis said most of the ingredients in the promoted supplements are not likely to be harmful -- and they could potentially have some benefit.

But on the broader issue raised in the social media posts, she added: "The harm comes from ignoring treatments that we know work."

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