Diabetic neuropathy is a painful and debilitating problem for which little can be done with medication. Fortunately, some natural treatments are showing promise in not only easing symptoms but in actually improving nerve function.
Diabetic neuropathy is one of the more painful problems that occurs with the progression of diabetes. Neuropathy is another term for nerve damage, and in this case, it is nerve damage resulting from inadequate blood supply to the nerves. The blood supply becomes restricted by atherosclerotic plaque formation in the small blood vessels that supply the nerves, and this is a common result of increased blood lipids (cholesterol and triglycerides) associated with diabetes.
Diabetic neuropathy typically first involves the feet, and may later involve the hands, creating the “stocking and glove” pattern of symptoms. As the nerves degenerate from lack of blood supply (and therefore a lack of vital oxygen to the nerve tissue), various symptoms of nerve damage begin to arise. The symptoms of diabetic neuropathy may include numbness, burning pain, tingling, and stabbing pain.
Because diabetic neuropathy is tied to poor blood flow (and resulting decreased oxygen) to the nerves, symptoms tend to be worse at the extremes of activity level. When someone with diabetic neuropathy is inactive for an extended period of time, such as when sleeping, overall blood pressure and circulation decreases, resulting in decreased blood flow and oxygen supply to the nerves, and increased neuropathy symptoms. This often results in restless sleep, or a complete inability to sleep due to pain.
On the other end of the activity range, when someone with diabetic neuropathy exerts him or herself, overall circulation is increased, but there is increased uptake of oxygen by the large muscles. This means that less oxygen is available in the smaller blood vessels that supply the nerves in the feet and hands. This is why it is usually necessary for people with diabetic neuropathy to rest frequently any time they have to walk or exert themselves.
In addition to pain, the loss of nerve function in the feet begins to interfere with balance and coordination when walking. Balance is controlled by nerve signals from the feet, visual cues from the eyes, and from the vestibular system in the inner ears. While normal balance can typically be maintained when one of these 3 systems is partially diminished in function, major losses in one system, or partial losses in two or all 3 can dramatically interfere with balance when standing or walking. Since diabetes not only causes loss of nerve function in the feet, but also tends to eventually interfere with vision, and because older diabetics often have other age-related losses in the visual and vestibular senses, a major loss of balance can result. The loss of balance is often one of the more debilitating aspects of diabetic neuropathy, and many times causes falls and other accidents that result in injuries.
Medications are available that can decrease the pain of diabetic neuropathy, but do little to improve actual nerve function, nor help with neuropathy-related balance problems. There are some natural treatments; however, that do appear to improve nerve function in many cases. Of course, the first line of defense is simply making the necessary lifestyle changes to try to reverse diabetes and/or to prevent it from getting worse, including diet and exercise. Beyond that, there are nutritional supplements and other interventions that have shown promising results in recent studies in actually improving nerve function in cases of diabetic neuropathy.
Probably the best of these natural treatments is alpha-lipoic acid. Numerous studies have shown significant improvements in diabetic neuropathy with both oral and intravenous supplementation of this nutrient. Alpha-lipoic acid is a strong anti-oxidant which is beneficial to cardiovascular health, but also appears to have a direct effect on healing diabetes-related nerve damage.
Another promising treatment is magnetic therapy, particularly using magnetic shoe insoles for diabetic neuropathy in the feet. It should be noted that there is a large range in magnet strength used in magnetic insoles, and it appears that the effectiveness of magnet therapy improves with higher magnet strength (higher gauss rating). Preliminary studies have shown good results with magnetic insoles, and it is speculated that magnetic gloves might produce similar results in neuropathy of the hands.
While it may not be possible to completely eliminate diabetic neuropathy, there is much that can be done to improve the situation with natural remedies in the majority of cases.