Pumpkin could help diabetics avoid insulin shots

NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - Pumpkin extract has insulin-like effects that could help people with diabetes keep their blood sugar under control, results of an animal study hint.

Chinese researchers found that animals with drug-induced diabetes treated with pumpkin extract had lower blood glucose levels, greater insulin secretion, and more insulin-producing beta cells than diabetic rats that weren’t given the extract.

“Pumpkin extract is potentially a very good product for pre-diabetic persons, as well as those who have already developed diabetes,” Tao Xia of East China Normal University in Shanghai, one of the study’s authors, noted in Chemistry & Industry, a magazine published by the Society of Chemical Industry (SCI).

Pumpkin is frequently used to treat diabetes and high blood glucose in Asia, Xia and Qin Wang of Shanghai Jiaotong University note in the Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture, which also is published by SCI.

To investigate the possible mechanisms by which pumpkin might be helpful, the researchers fed an extract of the fruit to diabetic and non-diabetic rats.

While rats with diabetes had 41 percent less insulin in their blood than normal rats, giving them pumpkin extract for 30 days boosted levels of the blood-sugar-regulating hormone by 36 percent, the researchers found. And after 30 days of being fed pumpkin extract, diabetic rats had blood glucose levels similar to those of non-diabetic rats.

The percentage of insulin-producing cells in the pancreas was 59 percent for the normal rats and 21 percent for the diabetic rats, but feeding diabetic rats the pumpkin extract brought their percentage of insulin-producing cells up to 51 percent, the researchers found.

The extract also reduced the amount of oxidative cell damage, suggesting that the pumpkin’s antioxidant effects may be responsible for its pancreas-preserving effects.

Quoted in the Chemistry & Industry article, David Bender of the Royal Free and University College Medical School in London called the research “very exciting,” especially because pumpkin extract could be taken orally. But he said pumpkin shouldn’t be touted as a way to treat or prevent diabetes until human studies of the extract’s effects are done.

SOURCE: Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture, July 2007.