Complementary Medicine Use Common in Patients With Diabetes

Jim Kling

April 01, 2021

An updated worldwide estimate of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) use among individuals with diabetes found widespread use, though it varied greatly by region and is sometimes hard to define.

The report is the first literature review of the subject since 2007. The researchers looked at CAM use by region, as well as by patient categories such as those with advanced diabetes and by length of time since diagnosis. The most commonly reported CAMs in use were herbal medicine, acupuncture, homeopathy, and spiritual healing.

Only about one-third of patients disclosed their CAM use to their physician or health care provider. "We suggest that health care professionals should carefully anticipate the likelihood of their [patients'] diabetic CAM use in order to enhance treatment optimization and promote medication adherence, as well as to provide a fully informed consultation," said first author Abdulaziz S. Alzahrani, a PhD student at the University of Birmingham (England). The study was published March 8, 2021, in the European Journal of Clinical Pharmacology.

Patients also have a responsibility, said Gregory Rhee, PhD, assistant professor of public health sciences at the University of Connecticut, Farmington. He was the lead author of a 2018 survey of CAM use in adults aged 65 years and older with diabetes in the United States using data from the 2012 National Health Interview Survey, and found that 25% had used CAM in some form in the prior year. "They need to be more up front, more proactive talking about CAM use with their doctors, and the second part is the physician. They also should be better educated in terms of CAM use. Traditionally, the physician in Western societies have pretty much ignored CAM use. But they are getting aware of CAM use and also we know that people are coming from multiple cultural backgrounds. The physicians and other health care providers should be better informed about CAM, and they should be better educated about it to provide patients better practice," said Rhee.

He also distinguished between approaches like yoga or Tai Chi, which are physically oriented and not particularly controversial, and herbal medicines or dietary supplements. "Those can be controversial because we do not have strong scientific evidence to support those modalities for effectiveness on diabetes management," Rhee added.

Alzahrani and colleagues conducted a meta-analysis of 38 studies, which included data from 25 countries. The included studies varied in their approach. For example, 16 studies focused exclusively on herbal and nutritional supplements. The most commonly mentioned CAMs were acupuncture and mind-body therapies (each named in six studies), religious and spiritual healing (five studies), and homeopathy (four studies). Among 31 studies focusing on herbal and nutritional supplements, the most common herbs mentioned were cinnamon and fenugreek (mentioned in 18 studies), garlic (17 studies), aloe vera (14 studies), and black seed (12 studies).

Prevalence of CAM use varied widely, ranging from 17% in Jordan to 89% in India and in a separate study in Jordan. The pooled prevalence of CAM use was 51% (95% confidence interval, 43%-59%). Subgroup analyses found the highest rate of CAM use in Europe (76%) and Africa (55%), and the lowest in North America (45%).

When the researchers examined patient characteristics, they found no significant relationship between CAM use and established ethnicity groups, or between type 1 and type 2 diabetes. The prevalence ratio was lower among men (PR, 0.86; 95% CI, 0.81-0.91). PRs for CAM use were lower among those with diabetic complications (PR, 0.81; 95% CI, 0.66-0.99). Individuals with diabetes of at least 5 years' duration were more likely to use CAM than those with shorter duration of illness (PR, 1.71; 95% CI, 1.04-1.32).

Most (78%) CAM users employed it as an addition to their treatment regimen (95% CI, 56-94%), while 21% used it as an alternative to prescribed medicine (95% CI, 12-31%). More than two-thirds (67%) of individuals did not disclose CAM use to health care professionals (95% CI, 58-76%).

Although CAM use can be a source of friction between patients and physicians, Rhee also sees it as an opportunity. Patients from diverse backgrounds may be using CAM, often as a result of different cultural backgrounds. He cited the belief in some Asian countries that the balance of Yin and Yang is key to health, which many patients believe can be addressed through CAM. "If we want to promote cultural diversity, if we really care about patient diversity, I think CAM is one of the potential sources where the doctors should know [more about] the issue," said Rhee.

The study was funded by the University of Birmingham. Rhee and Alzahrani have no relevant financial disclosures.

This article originally appeared on, part of the Medscape Professional Network.


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