Complementary Medicines

It is expected that people with diabetes will, at various times, have other health conditions that may require medication.

Most Australians take complementary medicines at least once a day and, as a nation, we spend more money on them than on conventional medicines. Before you do take them, you need to know:

  • Is the preparation safe?
  • Will it work?
  • Will it affect my diabetes?

You should never take a new medication without determining if it may affect your diabetes. Make sure the doctor or pharmacist you consult knows that you have diabetes and is aware of all the medications you use.

Complementary medicines are a group of diverse medical and health care systems, practices and products that are not presently considered part of conventional medicine but are often used in addition to conventional medicine.

Conventional and complementary/alternative/natural medications both have side effects and drug interactions but there is an important difference. Conventional medications are carefully controlled. The ingredients are known, in exact amounts, and the quality is controlled.

Complementary/alternative/natural medicines may not be regulated in the same way. There have been several occasions when a product has been found to contain an unexpected, and potentially dangerous, ingredient and the amounts of the active ingredient may not be consistent.

Complementary medicines may be ‘natural’ but they are not necessarily safe. Just like conventional medicine, they can have side effects or interact with other medications, conventional, complementary or alternative.

Always check complementary medicines with your doctor prior to use.

Negative Impact of Complementary Medicines on Diabetes

Some complementary/alternative/natural medications can have a negative side effect on diabetes. For example, glucosamine which is taken to treat/prevent arthritis may increase insulin resistance in animals (according to some studies) and might increase blood glucose levels in people.

Choosing Safe Complementary Medications

The Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) divides medicines into two categories:

  • Registered medicines are those which treat serious medical conditions and/or which are considered higher risk. All prescription medicines are registered, along with some over the counter (sold in pharmacies and supermarkets) medicines, such as some pain killers and cough mixtures.
  • Listed medicines are those which are designed to treat minor conditions and which are considered to be lower risk. Most natural and complementary medicines are listed medicines.

While registered and listed medicines may look the same on the pharmacy shelf, the testing process they undergo by the TGA is very different. Registered products are thoroughly tested for safety, quality and efficacy. Efficacy means that the medicine has the effect that is claimed for it. However, listed products are only tested for quality and safety. TGA does not test listed medicines for efficacy, although the manufacturers of listed medicines are supposed to have data to support the claims they make for their product. To check whether a medicine is listed or registered, look for a small number on the packaging which begins either AUSTR (registered medicines) or AUSTL (listed medicines).

For consumers, this means that you cannot be sure that a listed product has been tested to ensure that it has the effect that is claimed for it. If you are unsure about taking a listed medicine, it is a good idea to talk to your doctor or other health care provider and to find out if there is evidence available to support its use. You should always tell your doctor and Credentialled Diabetes Educator about any medicines, vitamins or herbal products (even those you buy at the supermarket or pharmacy) you are taking as they may affect your blood glucose levels or inter-act with insulin or other medications.

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