How Can Acupuncture Help with Diabetes?

by Michael Hurley, L.Ac.

According to the American Diabetes Association, in 2012, 29.1 million Americans had diabetes.  It is estimated that about 208,000 of these people are under the age of 20.  Diabetes is the 7th leading cause of death in the United States. To give an idea on the enormous prevalence of diabetes: In 2012, the total sales of worldwide diabetes medicine were nearly 35 billion US dollars.  Standard and Poor’s estimated that the total sales would be more than 58 billion US dollars in 2018.

While the above may be common knowledge, what may surprise you is that acupuncture and herbal medicine have been used to treat diabetes for over 2000 years. Traditional Chinese Medicine describes diabetes with the term “Xiao Ke” or, in English, “wasting and thirsting disease”.  Xiao Ke is discussed in great detail in a classic Chinese medical text, the Nei Jing, which was compiled around 100 B.C.  This text describes the patients’ symptoms.  Examples include: excessive hunger and thirst, frequent urination, and rapid weight loss.  These, of course, are all common symptoms of diabetes that we are familiar with today as well.

Western medicine breaks down diabetes into three main forms:

  • Type 1 Diabetes (formerly called juvenile-onset or insulin-dependent diabetes): Type 1 diabetes accounts for 5 to 10% of people who have diabetes. In type 1 diabetes, the person has a total lack of insulin. The body’s immune system destroys the cells in the pancreas that release insulin until, eventually, the body stops producing insulin.
  • Type 2 Diabetes (formerly called adult-onset or non–insulin-dependent diabetes): Type 2 diabetes accounts for 90 to 95% of people who have diabetes and can develop at any age.  It most commonly becomes apparent during adulthood, but type 2 diabetes in children is rising. In type 2 diabetes, the body isn’t able to use insulin the correct way.  This is called insulin resistance.  As type 2 diabetes progresses, the pancreas may make less and less insulin leading to insulin deficiency.
  • Diabetes Insipidus: This is an uncommon disorder characterized by intense thirst, despite the drinking of fluids (polydipsia), and the excretion of large amounts of urine (polyuria).  In most cases, it’s the result of your body not properly producing, storing or releasing antidiuretic hormone, but diabetes insipidus can also occur when your kidneys are unable to respond properly to that hormone.  On rare occasions, diabetes insipidus can occur during pregnancy (gestational diabetes insipidus).

As I have written in a previous blog post, the primary goal of acupuncture is balance.  As an acupuncturist, I evaluate four interdependent aspects:  Yin, Yang, Qi, and Blood.  The balanced flow of Qi is essential for overall well-being. Qi needs to flow freely into the body for all the organ systems to work together in balance and harmony.

Xiao Ke (diabetes) is caused by an imbalance of the flow of Qi within the meridians and organ systems –specifically, the spleen/pancreas (which are considered interrelated in Chinese medicine), stomach, and the intestines. Because food and water are not effectively processed, this ultimately blocks the flow of Qi. This particular imbalance produces heat that depletes the body’s fluids and Qi causing symptoms such as: fatigue, lethargy, unexplained weight loss, polydipsia, polyuria, polyphagia, poor wound healing, infections, irritability, and blurry vision.

Treating Diabetes:

While treatment approaches differ between Traditional Chinese and western medicines, both systems agree: It is essential for people to make healthy lifestyle choices in diet, exercise, and other health habits.  Diet changes are by far the most important that can be made.  The key is to avoid sugar and high calorie diets. Also, the American Diabetes Association (ADA) recommends most patients with diabetes engage in at least 150 minutes of moderate to intense aerobic physical activity on a weekly basis, with strength training at least two days a week.

In treating Xiao Ke, Chinese medicine offers a way to address each patient individually to eliminate the symptoms associated with diabetes and reduce the need for insulin medications.  Overall treatment focuses on regulating the circulation of blood and Qi and balancing the organ systems to improve pancreatic function and address internal heat and the depletion of fluids. The practitioner may choose to use a variety of techniques during treatment including acupuncture, Chinese herbal medicine, bodywork, lifestyle/dietary recommendations, and Qi Gong. Regular care is typically one to three acupuncture treatments per week depending on the severity of your symptoms.