Patti McGill Peterson Center for International and Intercultural Studies
A Comparative Study of Plant Based Healing for Diabetes in India and the United States
Diabetes Mellitus is a chronic disease in which a person has high blood sugar levels caused by too much insulin, resistance to insulin, or both. The United Nations estimated that 246 million people are affected by diabetes globally and, in 2007, the International Journal of Diabetes in Developing Countries named India the diabetes capital of the world with the highest number of diabetic patients. Since diabetes plagues both Asia and North America, I used it as a standard of comparison for an examination of plant-based healing in both places.
In both the US and India, the occurrence of diabetes has been drastically increasing over the past few decades, in response to changing diets and a decrease in exercise as people have shifted from an active and agrarian to a sedentary and urbanized lifestyle.
Historically, Indians have been genetically predisposed to diabetes; and for this reason, an extensive plant pharmacopoeia exists for its treatment in Ayurveda (traditional Indian medicine). In order to gather information on the process of plant-based treatment, I visited Ayurvedic doctors and universities and stores that sold plant products in four cities of Northern India, including Delhi, Jaipur, Mussoorie, and Varanasi. I was able to perform interviews at many herbal chemists, Ayurvedic dispensaries, and doctors in each of the cities I performed research. Delhi had a considerable number of diabetes specialists based in allopathic practices, while Jaipur and Varanasi had universities that study Ayurveda.
In the United States, doctors working in alternative therapies are not as readily available, but herbal supplements are commonly found in the form of vitamin supplements or medication. Most health food stores carry herbal supplements, and even chain pharmacies like CVS have some herbal medicines available.
Modernization and globalization are creating an interesting phenomenon in plant medicine. The sharing of medicinal knowledge, old and new, is creating an equal and opposite adoption and abandoning of herbal medicine in the United States and India respectively. As more Indians are changing their use of plants to complement their newly adopted allopathic medicinal practices (or abandoning its use all together), more Americans are turning to traditional herbal medicines from all over the world, also using them to complement allopathic medicine.
Galega officinalis is the perfect example of the resulting hybridization of the two medical modalities: traditional/herbal and western allopathic. The plant has been used to treat diabetes in Europe for centuries, and in the 20th century, many of its active compounds were isolated and tested for efficacy, leading to the discovery of the compound Metformin. Metformin is the only diabetic medicine that has its foundation in a compound isolated from a plant, and it is widely used in both the United States and India.
There is still huge potential in plant-based healing for diabetes because much of the trial and error has been completed and recorded in pharmacopoeias. With the appropriate laboratory testing, and doses of a plant, improved diabetes medicines that also protect against other negative effects of diabetes, including cardiovascular disease, kidney disease, and retinopathy (eye disease) may be discovered.