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Could stevia be the answer to diabetes treatment?
by Patrick B. Massey, M.D
From Daily Herald  - 2002-05-20

Diabetes is one of the fastest growing diseases in this country, especially in the adult population. People with the disease often are prone to high blood pressure, vision changes and decreases in arterial blood flow, which can lead to heart disease or stroke.

There are many reasons for the explosive increase in diabetes, among them obesity, sedentary lifestyles, genetics and, to some degree, sugar consumption. In the United States, the average person consumes more than 120 pounds of sugar each year.

Humans seem to be born with a sweet tooth. This has spawned a multibillion-dollar industry for the development of sugar alternatives.

Interestingly, nature has provided a sugar substitute called stevia. Wild stevia is a perennial shrub native to the Amambay mountain region in Paraguay. It has been used for centuries by the natives as a sweetener and in the 1800s was "re-discovered" and used throughout Latin America. In 1931, stevioside was isolated as the active part of the stevia leaf. The Japanese use it and today it accounts for about 41 percent of their total artificial sweetener market.

Stevia has some very interesting properties. It has no calories but has actions similar to several currently used medications. It stimulates the release of insulin and normalizes the response to glucose, especially in type 2 diabetes. It is used in Latin America as an inexpensive therapy for hyperglycemia.

In good medical studies, regular consumption of stevia also reduces high blood pressure without reducing normal blood pressure. Medical publications have shown that it affects calcium transport in a way that is similar to a class of drugs called calcium channel blockers (like verapamil), which commonly are used to treat high blood pressure. In laboratory animals, stevia also can induce diuresis or water release, similar to diuretics also used to treat high blood pressure.

One study even showed that stevia could prevent infection by the rotovirus, a common viral infection among school-age children.

There are claims that stevia can help skin conditions and stomach problems and enhance immunity, but these have not been examined by the medical community. Raw leaves might be contaminated by bacteria and fungi and I do not recommend their use.

I am a proponent for the study, development and use of natural products for many chronic diseases. The few products we have ever examined seem to be safe, effective and inexpensive. They also do wonders for agricultural economies. Stevia seems to do the work of at least four medications at a fraction of the cost and, possibly, with fewer side effects. It would be interesting to directly compare stevia with currently used oral diabetic medications.

Patrick B. Massey, M.D., Ph.D., is medical director for alternative and complementary medicine for Alexian Brothers Hospital Network.


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