Treating Diabetes with Acupuncture

You don’t realize it yet, but in the 2 next minutes you’re going to find out that Chinese medicine has been treating diabetes for thousands of years. Called Xiao-Ke, or “wasting and thirsting,” it was first described in one of the oldest books about Chinese medical theory, Huang Di Nei Jing (Yellow Emperor’s Inner Classic). Written around 100 B.C. this ancient text says the syndrome arises from consuming too much fatty, sweet, or rich foods. It is states that diabetes typically occurs among wealthy people: “you ask them to refrain from a rich diet, which they may resist.” This description fits Type 2 diabetes.

China has a long history of dealing with this disease without modern drug therapy. This indicates that great effort has gone into alleviating the various symptoms of diabetes by natural methods. In the Yellow Emperor’s Inner Classic (written around 100 B.C.), the condition known as xiao ke is mentioned, and is translated today as diabetes or diabetic exhaustion (translation is emaciation-thirst).

Diabetes is a common metabolic disturbance of the endocrine system resulting from absolute or relative insulin deficiency. In the US, 17 million people suffer from diabetes.* Of these, 5.9 million people go undiagnosed. All causes of diabetes ultimately lead to hyperglycemia. Other symptoms include extreme fatigue, blurred vision, itchy skin, frequent or reoccurring infections, cuts and bruises that are slow to heal and tingling &/or numbness of hands or feet.

Approximately 10% of people with diabetes have Type 1 and 90% have Type 2. Type 2 is more common in overweight people over 40 years old. With this type the pancreas does not produce enough insulin or there is insulin resistance. Milder conditions can be controlled with diet and exercise. A great exercise program for Type 2 diabetes is to swim, walk, or do yoga 4 times a week.

Acupuncture and Chinese herbs are effective for treating Type 2 diabetes. In the 1994 the Journal of Traditional Chinese Medicine there was a report about “Clinical and Experimental Studies in Treating Diabetes Mellitus by Acupuncture.” It explains one of many such clinical trials that have been based on traditional methods of treatment that had been expounded in the past. The researchers recruited 60 patients with diabetes and divided them randomly into two groups: the acupuncture group (38 patients) and the control group (22 patients); the two groups were found to be well matched for symptoms and laboratory results (blood and urine tests). Both groups followed a regulated diet during the study, but one group received acupuncture at three points (on both sides of the body, thus six acupuncture needles): one of the forearm (inner elbow) and two on the lower leg with needles retained in place for approximately half an hour. One other point was treated on the back with only brief retention. Additionally, patients would receive acupuncture at one adjunct point (it could be on both sides), depending on the traditional Chinese diagnosis of the patient based on the ancient yin/yang concept. Electrical stimulation of the needles was used. The treatment was administered once a day for 30 days. For the control group, a well-known herbal pill, Xiao Ke Wan or Diabetes Pill, was administered. This pill had been the subject of earlier study and its level of effectiveness was already established. The patients were not using diabetes drugs during the trial except for 8 patients who required insulin injections.

Among the 22 participants who took the diabetes pill, there were 12 cases rated as effectively treated and 8 cases as markedly effective. The definitions of these improvements are as follows: the patients who experienced markedly effective results had their initial symptoms essentially disappear by the end of the one month treatment and their fasting blood-sugar levels had dropped below 130 (or the blood sugar two hours after a meal would be below 150). Urine-sugar content was reduced by 30% or more at the end of treatment compared to beginning of treatment. These patients were not “cured” of diabetes (if they had been, the fasting blood-sugar would usually be below 100), but they showed very evident improvements. For those deemed effectively treated (not markedly effective), symptoms were improved but not gone, and fasting blood-sugar levels dropped to below 150 (or two hours after meals below 180), and the 24-hour, urinary-sugar excretion declined by at least 10% from initial values (but not up to 30%). If these standards could not be met, then the treatment was deemed ineffective.

The diabetes pill for the control group was quite effective, which confirmed what had been established in earlier studies. All but two of the patients showed declines in blood sugar and urinary sugar excretion and improvements in symptoms. More than one-third of the patients had marked improvement.

For the 38 participants in the acupuncture group, there were 10 cases rated effective and 25 more cases rated markedly effective by the definitions used above. In other words, nearly 2/3 of the patients treated showed the marked improvement and only three patients failed to respond. The average duration of diabetic affliction among this group was 4.2 years (maximum 15 years). In general, better results are obtained with acupuncture and with herbal therapy when it is started earlier in the chronic disease process rather than later, when many complications may have developed. Thus, persons who have been diagnosed with diabetes for ten years or more may not experience such dramatic results as the group involved in this study.

The research report showed that the patients receiving acupuncture experienced a small but statistically significant decline in cholesterol, triglycerides, and beta-lipoproteins. The drop in triglycerides was most substantial, with a decline from an average value of 151 at the start to 117 one month later (a decline of more than 20%). There was significant improvement in “nail-fold microcirculation,” which is a measurement of blood circulation through capillary beds (poor circulation through these beds is one reason persons with diabetes suffer from skin ulceration). Both these results indicate improvement in the cardiovascular system. Further, among those who were using insulin, the amount needed after the 30 days of acupuncture declined in six of the eight individuals; in two of those cases, the insulin could be stopped altogether.

The authors of the study concluded: “the therapeutic effects of acupuncture on diabetes are similar to those of the diabetes pills, however, acupuncture EXCELS in the prevention of complications, especially cardiovascular diseases.”

Treating Diabetes in the US

In the U.S., people usually do not receive acupuncture every day, as was done in the previously described study. Instead, you may choose a course of acupuncture once or twice per week. However, through the combination of the less frequent acupuncture and the daily ingestion of herbs, one can expect to accomplish similar results to those reported above, at least for persons who have had diabetes for only a few years.

Acupuncturists in the US are in a position to provide expert treatment because the points to be needled are also used (in various other combinations) for treating other disorders. For example, the acupuncture point zusanli (called Stomach 36; located on the lower leg) is one of the most commonly used points for chronic diseases and is used especially when the disease is obviously affected by dietary factors. Acupuncturists can also determine from their training and experience with treating other disorders whether or not it might be better to select alternative acupuncture points for a person’s unique situation in place of the ones mentioned in the research paper.

The typical course of acupuncture therapy for diabetes is a minimum of twelve treatments (two treatments per week to start; but may be continued afterwards at the rate of one treatment per week, or as needed).

If you suffer from diabetes call our Minneapolis Acupuncture Clinic at 612-866-4000 for relief from your symptoms and to improve the quality of your life. Visit us at or go to our contact page now.


* NIH Publication May 2003
The article describing diabetes acupuncture research is from:

Chen DC, Gong, DQ, and Zhai Y, Journal of Traditional Chinese Medicine 1994; 14(3): 163-166.

The acupuncture points mentioned in the journal are quchi (LI-11), sanyinjiao (SP-6), zusanli (ST-36), and yishu (special diabetes point located at 1.5 cun lateral to the lower border of the spinous process of the 8th thoracic vertebra). Supplemental points include yuji (LU-10), guanyuan (CV-4), and baihui (GV-20).

The article describing herb research is from Lin L, et al., Journal of Tradition Chinese Medicine

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