Mulberry Leaf: Traditional Diabetes Aid Validated By Research

In 1211 AD, a health-oriented Japanese Buddhist monk named Eisai wrote that mulberry leaves are beneficial for those suffering from thirst.

Traditionally, many cultures have used mulberry leaf to treat excessive thirst, a symptom of what we now call diabetes. Mulberry aids diabetes because among its many active compounds there is one called 1-deoxinojirimycine, or DNJ.

Mulberry and Simple Sugars

We know that as the carbs we eat travel our digestive canal, they are broken down into the simple sugars glucose, and fructose. These sugars are small enough to pass through intestinal walls and into the bloodstream. If the body’s insulin mechanism is not functioning well enough to shuttle this sugar into our cells for fuel, the sugar stays in circulation too long.

It was discovered that the compound DNJ - which is only found in mulberry leaves - binds to the digestive enzyme that helps ferry sugar through the intestinal wall. With this enzyme out of commission many simple sugar molecules pass through us without being absorbed.

This discovery suggests that mulberry leaf ingested before meals can help people needing to lower glucose levels, or those attempting to lose weight—and other research confirms this possibility.

Mulberry and Glucose Levels

In a study approved by the Minneapolis VA Medical Center Human Studies Committee, research participants - half with type 2 diabetes - were given sucrose (sugar) and either mulberry extract or a placebo. Blood glucose measurements were taken before, and at intervals after the ingestion.

The study’s data revealed those taking the mulberry had significant reductions in blood glucose for two hours following ingestion, when compared to those given the placebo. This indicates that mulberry does block the absorption of sugar into the bloodstream, reducing postprandial (after meal) blood sugar levels.

Because the effects of mulberry diminish within a couple hours, taking it has only a minor influence on A1C readings. None the less, researchers point out that reducing post-meal blood sugar fluctuations with mulberry may prevent or retard the damage to small blood vessels associated with elevated glucose.

An Option

These and other research results put the use of mulberry in the same functional category as two diabetes drugs, acarbose and miglitol, giving those who prefer herbal aids over pharmaceuticals a possible treatment option:

  • Acarbose slows digestion by inhibiting the action of specific substances that break down food.
  • Miglitol slows the breakdown and absorption of sugars in the small intestine.
  • Mulberry extract inhibits the absorption of simple sugars into the blood stream.

All three remedies work in the digestive tract to reduce blood sugar levels after meals, so which a person decides to use is part personal preference, part doctor recommendation, and part trial and error—seeing what works best.

Notable nutrient pluses for mulberry are its beneficial antioxidants, and a compound called fagomine that facilitates insulin secretion. Mulberry users may also avoid the bloating, gas, and diarrhea side effects associated with arcabose and miglitol, though three of the VA study participants - receiving mulberry or placebo - reported mild digestive discomfort.

Cautions

Despite the medicinal effects of herbs, any of them may interact poorly with certain medications or be ill-advised for use with specific medical conditions. Always consult a doctor or pharmacist before taking herbal aids if you are using pharmaceuticals, are pregnant, or ill.

If you are already following an established diabetes treatment regimen, do not use mulberry leaf until you consult with your diabetes care team about its possible effects on your blood sugar.

Sources: Diabetes Journal; Medline; Doctor Schar; Medline
Photo credit: Kate Fries

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