Blood Sugar

Cool crisp days, bright blue skies, gentle breezes, shimmering morning frost, crunchy bronzed leaves under foot and then the first snowfall …. The coming of fall and its passing into early winter are magnificent times of year in the natural world. We enjoy the bounty of fall’s harvest with myriad colors of seasonal squashes, potatoes, late greens and root vegetables. We celebrate with holidays and feasts among family and friends from Halloween until the New Year.

For those who have blood sugar problems, this time can be quite challenging. Often on holidays, our normal eating schedules are rearranged as we wait for the proverbial "roast" (whatever the main course may be) to get to the table so we may eat. Meals are often oversized and not well balanced in terms of good food combining and this stresses our digestive systems. Additionally, meals are often full of simple carbohydrates from starchy vegetables and a plethora of desserts to indulge in, that easily convert to sugars within the body. All of these factors can become a challenge to stay balanced for people with hypoglycemia. Fortunately, there are some herbs and techniques that can help us through the feasting season.

Find Your Triggers

If you have problems with blood sugar balance, it is important to work with a health care practitioner to determine whether other elements are related to or triggering this problem. Candida yeast infections, depleted or hypersensitive adrenal glands from chronic stress, low-grade thyroid imbalances, dietary imbalances or caffeine usage have been linked to blood sugar imbalances in both medical research and naturopathic literature.

Adrenaline release from the adrenal glands is a particularly important issue. When blood sugar is otherwise balanced, a stressful situation could cause radical shifts in blood sugar, thus releasing adrenaline. Adrenaline is also released when your blood sugar gets too low and tends to cause an extreme counter-swing in regulatory hormones. Thus, learning stress reduction techniques may be a key issue in managing your blood sugar. Because caffeine causes adrenaline release, caffeine containing substances (coffee, sodas, black or green teas, chocolate, cocoa, yerba maté, guarana) are to be avoided.

Currently, there are a number of recommended diets for hypoglycemia, often with conflicting suggestions. For instance, one diet suggests nutrition high in complex carbohydrates and low in simple carbohydrates, given at frequent intervals. Another diet recommends a high protein intake. Perhaps the existence of all of these diets reflects the fact that those with hypoglycemia are not alike constitutionally, thus needing different foods to stay balanced. Getting familiar with your nutritional requirements is important through your own reading as well as through consultation with a nutritionist or a nutritionally oriented physician.

The Importance of Healthy Digestion

In many traditional systems of healing, blood sugar problems of all types are thought to be related to the overall functioning of the digestive organs. Therefore, general support for liver function, enzyme activity and elimination is often recommended as a regular program in addition to herbs and nutrients to support blood sugar balance. This kind of regular support is often enough to resolve most day-to-day problems with hypoglycemia. What follows are some herbs that have supportive qualities for the digestive system:

Licorice root contains compounds which easily translate into steroids and related hormones in the adrenal gland, making it very supportive and balancing for the adrenals.

Barley grass contains amylase (enzymes that convert starch to sugar).

Beet root contains glutamic acid, methionine and glycine (essential for liver health) and betaine (a digestive substance that promotes the regeneration of liver cells and helps with fat metabolism).

Cardamom aids intestinal spasms and indigestion and stimulates bile flow for liver health and fat metabolism.

Fennel and anise both aid abdominal spasms and indigestion.

Holiday Hints

For holidays we often need further support. While modern books on food combining can shed a great deal of light on how to support a taxed digestive system with better meal composing, this is often difficult to employ practically and tactfully on holidays when faced with eating out. Here are some alternatives:

Herbs with a sharp or acrid taste have been used for centuries in European culture as "bitters." They are served as apéritifs or cocktails both before meals and between courses at banquets. A wide variety of herbal digestive bitters are available through natural food stores and suppliers. These generally direct you to take them before the meal so that their stimulant action on digestive enzyme release from the liver and pancreas have a running start.

Traditionally, the order of courses in banquets was laid out with an eye towards facilitating digestion. Appetizer and salad courses (whether served before or after the meal) provided both sour and pungent tastes which are thought to stimulate liver and intestinal function. High carbohydrate foods like pastas, grains, potatoes, squashes and root vegetables were served together as a separate course from the high protein meat, fish or fowl courses which were served with cooked greens (kale, collards, dandelion, arugula, sorrel, etc.) to facilitate their digestion. Often, sauces and gravies had special herbs added to help with digestion of fats in the animal foods - juniper berries, mugwort, savory, hawthorn berries, caraway, fennel and saffron. Substantial breaks in service between courses were provided to let the previous course have some time to digest by itself. This is in some sense a traditional type of food combining technique, so that combinations of foods that require different and conflicting enzymes to digest are not mixed. The longest of these breathers was between the final entrée and the dessert course - generally an average of 30 minutes!! During this time, small quantities of liqueurs with digestive stimulant actions were slowly sipped with no other fluids being taken at this time so as not to dilute the digestive enzymes being secreted by the body. Classic digestive and soothing teas like chamomile, peppermint or the coffee-like chicory root were taken even later.

Herbs For Blood Sugar Balance

A number of herbs are reported either in research or in the traditional literature to be of benefit in regulating blood sugar balance. Research on cayenne shows that it increases glucose utilization, protects against hypoglycemia induced adrenal release and lowers elevated blood sugar. Many hypoglycemics bring low blood sugar on themselves by eating a mostly simple carbohydrate (starch or sugar) meal or snack which sends the blood sugar initially soaring only to be followed by an overcorrective plunge. Research on bitter melon, fo-ti, elecampane, dandelion and the fatty acids in evening primrose and borage shows that with regular use they may help regulate blood sugar in diabetes and hypoglycemia. Although there is very little research on juniper berry, it shows possible blood sugar regulating effects which echoes one of its uses in traditional herbalism.

As you can see, we have a plethora of choices in helping to manage blood sugar problems during the holidays or any time of year. With these techniques, many people are able to reduce both the physical and emotional repercussions of blood sugar imbalances, moving on to a freer and more stable lifestyle. Salut!!


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From winter 1996 Herbal Insights