Acupuncture May Help Prevent Type 2 Diabetes, Study Shows

  • New research suggests that acupuncture may reduce the risk of developing prediabetes, a condition that can eventually lead to type 2 diabetes.
  • Experts say the research is credible but doesn’t address different variables that could influence outcomes.
  • They also note that prediabetes is generally treatable and preventable by eating healthier, getting more exercise, and losing weight.

Acupuncture has been used for thousands of years to treat a number of ailments and illnesses.

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) defines acupuncture as a traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) technique in which practitioners stimulate specific points on the body, often by inserting thin needles through the skin.

The NIH notes that acupuncture is generally considered safe when performed by an experienced, well-trained practitioner who uses sterile needles. For that reason, the NIH cautions that improperly performed acupuncture may cause serious side effects.

Still, the effectiveness of this ancient practice has been frequently researched, and there is evidence that acupuncture could offer significant health benefits.

New research from Edith Cowan University in Australia finds that acupuncture may help reduce the risk of developing type 2 diabetes. The meta-analysis, recently published in Holistic Nursing Practice, shows that acupuncture therapy may contribute to improved glycemic control in individuals with prediabetes.

Investigators analyzed more than a dozen previous studies covering the effects of acupuncture in over 3,000 people with prediabetes.

Their findings suggest that acupuncture therapy may significantly improve key markers of prediabetes and reduce the incidence of this condition.

In addition, they found no reports of adverse reactions to acupuncture among the subjects studied.

According to the American Diabetes Association (ADA), just over 37 million Americans were living with diabetes in 2019, with 8.5 million undiagnosed.

Individuals who develop prediabetes face an increased risk for type 2 diabetes.

“Prediabetes, or impaired glucose tolerance, is a condition in which the blood sugar is elevated but is not high enough to be considered diabetes,” Dr. Caroline Messer, an endocrinologist at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City, told Healthline.

“It’s a warning sign that the body is starting to become resistant to insulin,” she continued.

Elevated blood sugar levels are often the first indicators of prediabetes.

Dr. José Mayorga, executive director at UCI Health Family Health Center and associate clinical professor in the Department of Family Medicine at UCI School of Medicine in Santa Ana, California, explained that a fasting blood sugar level of 99 mg/dL or lower is considered “normal.”

“100 to 125 mg/dL indicates you have prediabetes and 126 mg/dL or higher indicates you have diabetes,” Mayorga said.

He added that other blood tests a person might use to determine if they have prediabetes include the Hemoglobin A1c and Glucose Tolerance Test.

While type 2 diabetes is frequently associated with diet, exercise, and lifestyle factors, other aspects of health could also influence a person’s risk, noted Min Zhang, a PhD candidate at Edith Cowan and lead author of the new research.

“It’s not only about blood sugar levels,” Zhang said in a statement. “If you experience sleep problems, high blood pressure, a lot of stress, these can contribute, too.”

“So, acupuncture can help with these factors and work holistically to help people balance their life,” she added.

While Zhang’s findings are based on credible studies, Messer cautions there were many factors that weren’t addressed.

“As with so many other studies, the issue is that there are so many variables,” Messer said.

“Are patients experiencing lower blood sugars because the acupuncture gives them time to relax and therefore lowers cortisol levels and eventually sugar levels? Are the acupuncturists encouraging or influencing healthy habits in addition to performing acupuncture?”

Messer emphasized that the majority of the studies looked at were randomized controlled trials (RCTs), which gives the meta-analysis more credibility.

“But I would like to see a large prospective double-blinded randomized controlled trial before drawing any final conclusions,” Messer said.

Dr. Melissa See, MPA, medical director at AltaMed Health Services, told Healthline that symptoms of type 2 diabetes to look out for may include:

  • increased thirst
  • increased urination
  • increased hunger
  • fatigue
  • unintentional weight loss

See cautioned that some people may not experience any symptoms at all, something that is often the case in people with prediabetes. She also emphasized that people living with obesity are particularly at risk for the condition.

“The [U.S. Preventive Services Task Force] USPSTF recommends screening for prediabetes and type 2 diabetes in adults ages 35 to 70 who have overweight or obesity,” See said. “Clinicians should offer or refer patients with prediabetes to effective preventive interventions.”

See added that prediabetes is typically treated with lifestyle modifications, “such as implementing daily exercise and adopting a healthy diet, with a focus on decreasing intake of carbohydrates.”

While type 2 diabetes is largely preventable, other factors, such as a person’s hormones, can also play a role.

Of course, a healthy diet and regular physical activity can aid in weight loss and help manage blood sugar, but results may vary depending on factors like an individual’s age, biological sex, current weight, and genetics.

“Lose a modest amount of weight and get regular physical activity, and your risk goes down,” Mayorga said.

A growing body of evidence shows that acupuncture offers many health benefits, and new research shows that it may also be effective for managing prediabetes.

Individuals with prediabetes who manage their condition may be able to prevent type 2 diabetes.

While acupuncture could offer a valuable alternative, more rigorous research is still needed.

For now, experts recommend a healthy, balanced diet, regular exercise, and weight maintenance to help manage blood sugar levels and prevent the development of type 2 diabetes.

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