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Ask a Doctor: Acupuncture and Traditional Chinese Medicine for Treating Diabetes

BY Jingduan Yang TIMEJune 7, 2022 PRINT

Diabetes mellitus is a group of chronic diseases where the body cannot properly regulate blood sugar levels. Type 2 diabetes, which mainly affects adults, is most common.

Here, the body is either resistant to insulin or does not make enough insulin to maintain the right blood sugar level.

About 420 million people are living with diabetes worldwide. According to the World Health Organization, diabetes is the ninth leading cause of death globally. In the U.S, it is the seventh leading cause of death.

It is estimated to cost over $320 billion in medical costs, lost work, and wages. The complications of diabetes include eye problems, kidney failure, nervous system disease, and heart problems, amongst others.

From making healthy lifestyle choices to having a support team of healthcare professionals, proper management of diabetes entails a holistic approach. These healthcare professionals should be physicians, nurses, dietitians, licensed acupuncturists, and other relevant professionals.

Traditional Chinese Medicine and Diabetes

In Chinese history, diabetes has been recognized and treated over the past 2000 years. Traditional Chinese medicine referred to diabetes as “Xiao-Ke” or wasting and thirsting disease. In traditional Chinese medicine, common symptoms of Xiao Ke were frequent urination, thirst, excessive hunger, and weight loss. These symptoms are similar to type 1 diabetes and some type 2 diabetes that do not produce enough insulin. However, wasting symptoms are uncommon with type 2 diabetes.

According to traditional Chinese medicine, diabetes results from an imbalance in the cyclical flow of Qi (pronounced as “chi” and refers to the power of energy or life force that flows in the body) within the meridians, the pathways through which Qi, blood, and other body fluids flow, and organ systems. This imbalance produces heat that depletes the body’s fluids.

Chinese medicine theories classify diabetes into three types according to the concept of San Jiao. San Jiao describes the body cavities which can influence other organs mainly through the free movement of Qi.

Patients with upper-Jiao diabetes (mainly the lungs) experience thirst and drink excessive amounts of water, middle-Jiao diabetes (primary the spleens) suffer from hunger and over eating, while diabetes relating to the lower Jiao (the kidneys), complain of thirst and urinating a lot of with turbid urine.

Chinese medicine uniquely addresses each diabetic patient. From acupuncture, herbal medicine, energetic exercises, and lifestyle modification, amongst others, there are various treatments for the practitioner to choose from, depending on the individual.

Treatment focuses on regulating blood circulation and Qi and balancing the organ systems to improve pancreatic function and stop fluid depletion resulting from high blood sugar.

Using Acupuncture to Treat Diabetes

The World Health Organization recognizes acupuncture to be an effective treatment modality for several medical conditions: chronic pain, migraine, and diabetes.

Acupuncture, an essential aspect of traditional Chinese medicine, involves the insertion of very tiny and primarily painless needles at strategic points on your body.

Yishu –a point on the back to the side of the 8th thoracic vertebrae, has often been used and has proven to be quite beneficial in the treatment of diabetes. There are several other meridians all over the body also used for treating diabetes with acupuncture.

Acupuncture helps regulate pancreatic function and consequently insulin levels. It is also effective in treating pain arising from diabetic neuropathy, as it stimulates endorphins which are neurotransmitters that block the feelings of pain.

In addition, acupuncture reduces cortisol production by strengthening liver and kidney function to discharge the extra stress hormone quickly. Cortisol is known to increase blood sugar levels. So, this ultimately helps balance parts of the body that cannot regulate sugar levels on their own.

In treating diabetes, different forms of acupuncture may be employed, depending on the patient’s specific case. They include traditional acupuncture, electroacupuncture, wrist-ankle acupuncture, and herbal acupuncture.

Traditional acupuncture stimulates specific body points to achieve results. The patient’s medical history, age, and severity of the condition influence how this form of acupuncture is employed.

Several studies have shown electroacupuncture to be an effective way of controlling blood sugar and treating the pain associated with diabetic neuropathy. It is the most typical form of acupuncture used in treating diabetes. The acupuncturist inserts the needles at specific points and connects them to a device that transmits electrical impulses from one needle to another.

The name wrist-ankle acupuncture stimulates acupuncture points around the wrists and ankles mainly to alleviate pain caused by diabetic peripheral neuropathy.

Herbal acupuncture is a popular form of acupuncture amongst acupuncturists. It reduces blood sugar levels. Here, the practitioner injects extracts of natural herbs into the acupoints. Different herbs are used depending on the presenting symptoms and age.

Chinese Herbal Medicine for Diabetes

The importance of Chinese herbal medicine cannot be overemphasized in the treatment of diabetes. In diabetes, people with metabolic disorders have blocked meridians which inadvertently causes poor Qi and blood flow. The result is blood congestion in the meridians. Therefore, the pancreas loses nutrition and worsens the disease, leading to complications.

In treating diabetes, practitioners use different formulas which are effective for different patients. Amongst these formulas are Liu Wei Di Huang and Da Bu Yin Wan. The effects of these formulas are usually noticeable in less than two months.

One such formula, which includes Shan Yao, Huang Qi, Fu Ling, and Cang Zhu, helps reduce blood sugar levels by improving the pancreas’ production of insulin. It achieves this by helping the body’s Qi nourish the pancreas with adequate blood supply from vigorous circulation. As a result, it repairs pancreatic beta cells and restores their function.

Another formula, Yu Quan Wan, acts by raising the Qi in the lungs, making the lungs more robust. With an increased abundance of Qi in the lungs, the resulting pulmonary energy promotes adequate sugar utilization.

As the master organ for fluid metabolism, the kidney plays a significant role in diabetes. Therefore, it is essential to strengthen the kidneys. A particular formula, Liu Wei Di Huang Wan, specializes in nourishing the kidneys and liver. It also helps the adrenal glands regulate blood sugar levels.

Studies have also shown that American ginseng improved glucose tolerance, which is therefore often added to herbal formulas. Other herbs can be added to a formula to treat complications of diabetes such as peripheral neuropathy and blurry vision.

One other prescription formula that includes Dan Shen, San Leng, E Zhu, and Cang Zhu relieves blood stagnation or congestion, improves circulation, nourishes the pancreas, and opens the channels of nutrient transport.

Getting Started

It is essential to begin your treatment by finding a good acupuncturist. The practitioner will speak with you at your first appointment about your specific symptoms and discussions about your lifestyle, diet, and health goals. As the treatment involves a holistic approach, the practitioner will want to learn more about other aspects of your life that may be a source of stress.

Based on the peculiarities of your disease, your practitioner will recommend a gradual specialized treatment plan for you which might be a daily treatment or twice a week as needed.

Studies have shown that there are minimal risks associated with acupuncture and traditional Chinese medications in the treatment of diabetes. Apart from the minor side effects of soreness, occasional bruises, or minor bleeding, acupuncture with sterile needles is mainly safe.

However, suppose you have bleeding conditions such as hemophilia or vitamin k deficiency. You may want to opt-out of this form of treatment or be aware of the increased risk of bruises.

Many traditional Chinese acupuncturists are also well trained in modern medicine, and some are licensed medical doctors. However, you may want to inform the rest of your healthcare providers before you commence this form of treatment.

You should also know that this form of treatment can complement modern drugs and result in even better efficacy. However, you should report any unusual effects or changes you experience to your healthcare providers.


Loke A. (2021) Diabetes. World Health Organization (WHO). November 2021.

Liu, Z. (2009). Diabetes (Xiao-Ke). In: Liu, Z. (eds) Essentials of Chinese Medicine. Springer, London.

Lee SW, Nam MH, Lee BC. (2017) Herbal acupuncture for type 2 diabetes: A meta-analysis. Exp Ther Med. 2017;13(6):3249-3256. doi:10.3892/etm.2017.4379

Liu JP, Zhang M, Wang WY, Grimsgaard S. (2004) Chinese herbal medicines for type 2 diabetes mellitus. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2004;2002(3): CD003642. DOI: 10.1002/14651858.CD003642.pub2. PMID: 15266492; PMCID: PMC9028977.

Covington MB, (2001):  Traditional Chinese Medicine in the Treatment of Diabetes. Diabetes Spectr 2001;14(3):154–159.

Epoch Health articles are for informational purposes and are not a substitute for individualized medical advice. Please consult a trusted professional for personal medical advice, diagnoses, and treatment. Have a question? Email us at

Author, teacher and international expert on acupuncture and Chinese medicine, integrative medicine, and psychiatry. Dr. Yang is based in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. You can find out more about Dr. Yang at his website
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