How does Acupuncture and Traditional Chinese Medicine Treat Diabetes?

Written By: Jennifer Redding R.Ac

Chinese medicine identified excess blood sugar as a symptom of diabetes over 1,300 years ago.   Chinese medicine practitioners were able to diagnose diabetes using ants.  The practitioner would leave a urine sample close to an ant colony.  If the ants were attracted to the urine the practitioner knew there was excess sugar in the blood.

Chinese medicine considers diabetes to be a “Thirsting and Wasting” disease that is caused by deficiencies in the kidney/adrenal, pancreas, and lung organ/glandular systems.  The key symptoms include thirst, weight loss or gain, fatigue, and sugar in the urine.  Chinese medicine practitioners recommend a combination of Western and Chinese medicine to treat diabetes.  The Chinese medicine practitioner focuses on strengthening the body and managing long-term symptoms with acupuncture and herbs. Acupuncture is also used to control blood sugar levels.

There are many different TCM disease patterns that can develop for diabetics and a differential Chinese medicine diagnosis is necessary to determine the exact syndrome.  Yin deficiency is a common pattern in diabetes and is caused by stress, overeating, and fatigue.  Heat and dryness in the lungs and stomach are also common patterns.

Yin deficient symptoms include:

  • heat in the chest, soles and palms
  • dry mouth and tongue
  • sore lower back
  • frequent urination


Acupuncture is effective at controlling blood sugar levels, reducing appetite and thirst, improving blood flow and circulation, and preserving nerve function.  There are 20 commonly used acupuncture points that help to control blood sugar levels.

Acupuncture is an excellent treatment for assisting younger people more recently diagnosed with diabetes in controlling blood sugar levels.  Acupuncture can help to manage cholesterol levels which reduce the cardiovascular complications of diabetes and also peripheral neuropathy can be managed with acupuncture.

Acupuncture treatments for diabetics are usually on-going and used long-term to manage symptoms of diabetes.  Treatments are recommended 1-2 times per week in relation to blood sugar levels and symptoms.  Acupuncture can be combined with herbal remedies for best results.

Scientific Backing for Herbs Used in Chinese Medicine

Reports of Traditional Chinese Medicine having beneficial effects for people suffering from type 2 diabetes now has some scientific evidence to back up the claims. A collaboration between Chinese, Korean, and Australian scientists at Sydney’s Garvan Institute, has revealed that the natural plant product berberine could be a valuable new treatment.

Berberine is found in the roots and bark of a number of plants used for medicinal purposes including wound healing and treatment of diarrhoea. It has also been documented in Chinese literature as having a glucose lowering effect when administered to people with diabetes; yet, until now, its mode of action was unknown.
Garvan scientist Dr Jiming Ye says: “Our studies in animal models of diabetes show that berberine acts in part by activating an enzyme in the muscle and liver that is involved in improving sensitivity of the tissue to insulin — this in turn helps lower blood sugar levels. In addition, it seems berberine can help reduce body weight”.

Current medicines for treating type 2 diabetes include metformin and the TZD group of drugs. However, a large number of patients cannot tolerate metformin and the TZDs can cause undesirable weight gain. Therefore, it is critical to develop new therapies to treat type 2 diabetes, which is a growing health problem.
“Berberine has been used for decades, if not centuries, with few reported side effects. Given the limitations of existing medicines we are excited to have evidence that berberine may be a helpful new treatment for type 2 diabetes” said Professor James, head of the Garvan’s Diabetes & Obesity Research Program and co-author of the Diabetes paper.

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