One of the hallmarks of ancient herbal remedies is that they are steeped in mystery and wonder. Unfortunately, they’re also looked down upon in the medical community as hokum, relying more on the power of placebo than on real change. But a new study of traditional Chinese medicine suggests certain herbal remedies stalled the progression of diabetes just as well as prescription medication.

The stall came in the transition from prediabetes to type 2 diabetes. Before a person’s blood glucose level reaches clear-cut diabetes, it passes through a danger zone, where the levels are high enough to give doctors concern but still too low to be formally diagnosed as diabetes. It’s a critical moment, researchers argue, because the prediabetic often still has the choice to lean one way or another. As more than 79 million Americans currently live with prediabetes, developing effective methods to nudge people in the healthy direction becomes more urgent.

“Patients often struggle to make the necessary lifestyle changes to control blood sugar levels, and current medications have limitations and can have adverse gastrointestinal side effects,” said Dr. Chun-Su Yuan, University of Chicago researcher and one of the study’s authors, in a news release.

Yuan and his colleagues recruited 389 participants for their double-blind, randomized controlled study. Subjects either took a capsule containing a cocktail of 10 herbal medicines — called Tianqi — or a placebo. The study lasted a year. Each participant was instructed to take the capsule three times a day before meals. They also received a month of lifestyle education at the study’s outset and met with a nutritionist periodically throughout. Researchers checked in on a quarterly basis to measure subjects’ glucose tolerance.

The end of the trial showed promising results for the Tianqi group. While 36 participants had developed diabetes over the course of the study, in the placebo group that total was 56 — revealing to researchers, after they controlled for age and gender, a 32.1 percent preference for the herbal medicine. Researchers point out that the success of the Tianqi group rivals the prescription drug success of acarbose and metformin, with few side effects having been reported.

“Few controlled clinical trials have examined traditional Chinese medicine’s impact on diabetes,” lead author Dr. Xiaolin Tong, of Guang’anmen Hospital in Beijing, said in the release, “and the findings from our study showed this approach can be very useful in slowing the disease’s progression.”

Diabetes is characterized by an overabundance of glucose due to the body’s inability to produce sufficient quantities of insulin. A hormone produced in the pancreas, insulin regulates the levels of glucose in the blood. Patients with type 2 diabetes must receive periodic insulin shots via a pump in order to keep their blood sugar at healthy levels. Tianqi has long been revered for its potent combination of herbs, which have the ability to lower blood glucose levels and improve control of blood glucose levels after meals.  

Given the present success of using the traditional herbs to curb the march toward diabetes, researchers hope to open up the field of study into traditional herbal remedies at large. “With diabetes evolving into a serious public health burden worldwide, it is crucial to take steps to stem the flood of cases,” Yuan explained. “Traditional Chinese herbs may offer a new option for managing blood sugar levels, either alone or in combination with other treatments.”