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The acupuncture office of Deborah Hutchinson, PhD, LAc, DiplAc (NCCAOM)®. Located in downtown Lexington, Kentucky, offering acupuncture and moxibustion according to Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) principles

Diabetes: Can Acupuncture Help?

picture of woman removing cup with text that reads Can acupuncture help with diabetes?Did you know that acupuncture can be a powerful ally for people who have various types of Diabetes?

It’s true…let me explain how an acupuncturist views the common condition.

Although Western and Traditional Chinese Medicine use different methods to treat common diseases, both approaches also agree on many things. So what are the similarities? Both Western and Eastern focus on diet, weight loss, and exercise to treat diabetes.  Both use medications, nutritional supplements or herbs to reduce blood sugar and improve cellular respiration. However, the each medical system has different theories, diagnostic patterns, and treatment methods.

Western medicine considers diabetes mellitus as a disease of blood sugar metabolism. In Western Medicine terms, diabetes is caused by either or a failure of the cell’s ability to accept insulin and dump toxins into the blood or the pancreas is not able to produce adequate insulin to lower blood glucose. According to TCM, diabetes overlaps with the condition called Xiao Ke or “wasting and thirsting disease.” It is divided by the patient’s symptoms into upper jiao, middle jiao and lower jiao. We’ll discuss more about this further in the article.

**Please note: this article is for information purposes only and is not intended to diagnose or treat diabetes or other conditions. You must see a qualified health care practitioner for that.**


Diagnosis of Diabetes

Western Medicine starts with the patient reporting symptoms and requires lab tests to confirm the diagnosis. Typically your physician will require labs drawn on two different days to diagnosis diabetes. The tests used include the A1C test, Fasting Plasma Glucose test, Oral Glucose Tolerance Test, and Random Plasma Glucose Test.

Diabetes, according to Western Medicine  is divided into three general categories (ADA, 2018):

  • Type 1—pancreatic beta cell autoimmune destruction is usually diagnosed in children.
  • Type 2, adult onset functioning, yet progressive beta cell destruction autoimmune markers along with insulin resistance.
  • Gestational diabetes is hyperglycemia during pregnancy. Gestational diabetes usually resolves itself following delivery of the baby.

According to TCM, diabetes mellitus generally is caused by heat, dampness, and phlegm. The Western diagnosis of diabetes overlaps with a condition call Xiao Ke or “wasting and thirsting disease.” Not everyone with diabetes will necessarily be diagnosed with Xiao Ke and conversely not everyone diagnosed with Xiao Ke can be diagnosed with diabetes in a Western clinic sense. TCM uses differential diagnosis developed over 3,000 years. TCM practitioners use the patient’s case history, looking at the patient’s tongue and feeling the patient’s pulses at both wrists in three positions and three levels. “Reading” the pulse, isn’t counting beats. The pulse shows nine organ and channel conditions– the “climate” of the body.  The practitioner can feel such as heat, cold, damp, excess, deficiency and phlegm which indicate how to best treat the patient.

Xiao Ke is divided by the patient’s symptoms and also divided into 3 general categories:

  • Upper Jiao – The upper jiao is when the lung isn’t able to descend moisture to the rest of the body.
  • Middle Jiao – The middle jiao is “spleen not able to transform and transport” to the rest of the body. Stomach may also have excess fire or deficiency thus unable to digest food.  Liver yin deficiency, creating fire, may also be a culprit.
  • Lower Jiao – Lower jiao involves kidney yin. Yin is the body’s ability to cool, ground; it’s substance and associated with water.  When yin is deficient, it creates heat in the body, and consumes the body’s fluids.

Within each Jiao, the diagnosis can be further divided. Though there are many TCM patterns for this condition, here are some of the more common ones with contributing causal factors according to TCM theory:

Upper Body:

  1. Lung Heat Injuring Fluids. This can be caused by childhood exposure to secondhand smoke, recurrent lung infections caused by viral or bacterial pathogens, often the pathogen has not been completely eliminated. Also cigarette smoking dries the lung mucosa, destroying delicate cilia, depositing carbon into lung tissue. The patient may experience a variety of symptoms related to the lungs and breathing.

Middle Body:

  1. Excess Stomach Heat. Changes in diet and lifestyle usually clear this up.  Excessive consumption of alcohol, too much hot and spicy food, over-eating, too much red meat, too much highly processed food, dairy, and food allergens.   The person often feels famished and have other digestive complaints.
  2. Liver qi deficiency (Hazlehurst, 2016) : Blood sugar usually is higher with stress. When liver qi is not flowing, the liver qi energy tends to rise and may lead to headaches and irritability in addition to digestion complaints.

Lower Body

  1. Kidney Yin Deficiency (Zheng, 2011): Yin is the body’s ability to “cool” itself, it is substance, anchoring and grounding. Kidney energy is called Dan Tian “life force energy”.  If the “Dan Tian fire” is too high, fluids are evaporated, blood thickens, and energy raises. The patient experienced problems with urinary frequency and elevated blood pressure.


Managing Diabetes

Western medicine views diabetes as a problem where the body doesn’t make enough insulin or becomes resistant/insensitive to insulin. The standard approach for most people with a diagnosis of adult onset diabetes type 2 starts off with metformin as the first drug to try, to improve insulin sensitivity and inhibit production glucose in the liver. After starting medication, the A1C is measured after three months, then the dosage is adjusted or other medications are added. There are a few other classes of pharmaceuticals (sulfonylureas, glinides, DPP-4 inhibitors, thiazolidinediones, GLP-1 receptor agonists, alpha-glucosidase inhibitors, SGLT2 inhibitors, bile acid sequestrants, etc) that may be used when metformin does not control blood sugar effectively enough. If the A1C still isn’t within normal limits, insulin may be added.

In Chinese Medicine theory, diabetes isn’t “one size fits all” when it comes to treatment, but a symptom of a deeper problem (Guo, 2014). A TCM practitioner considers a detailed patient history, including past illnesses, emotional trauma and injuries important to determine the best treatment based on the differential diagnosis of the underlying pattern of disharmony. Treatment is specific to each person, specifically individualized to harmonize the internal climate and bring the person’s health back into balance. Each pattern had different treatments whether it be acupuncture points used, Chinese herbal formula prescribed, or dietary suggestions made. The single Western disease diabetes has many different treatments in TCM depending on the patient’s individual health pattern.

At this time, there is no cure for diabetes in Western Medicine, Chinese Medicine, or any other types of therapy, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t solutions to helping you reach optimal health. TCM offers many treatment options that can help. Used in conjunction with healthy life choices regarding food and exercise, many patients find acupuncture and Chinese Medicine to help them in their goals of reducing medication and improving overall health. Please contact your primary care physician and your acupuncturist to find what is best for you.


Click on the link for a free pdf about recent research on acupuncture for diabetes. Acupuncture Effective for Diabetes



  1. American Diabetes Association. (2018). Classification and Diagnosis of Diabetes: Standards of Medical Care in Diabetes-2018. Diabetes care, 41(Suppl 1), S13–S27.
  2. Gökhan, S. Hotamışlıgil et al. (April 24, 2019). “The short-chain fatty acid propionate increases glucagon and FABP4 production, impairing insulin action in mice and humans,” Science Translational Medicine, April 24, 2019, DOI: 10.1126/scitranslmed.aav012
  3. Hazlehurst, J. M., Woods, C., Marjot, T., Cobbold, J. F., & Tomlinson, J. W. (2016). Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease and diabetes. Metabolism: clinical and experimental, 65(8), 1096–1108.
  4. Guo, J., Chen, H., Song, J., Wang, J., Zhao, L., and Tong X. (July 14, 2014). Syndrome Differentiation of Diabetes by the Traditional Chinese Medicine according to Evidence-Based Medicine and Expert Consensus Opinion. Article ID 492193.
  5. Zheng, A.S.D. (2011). Essentials of Chinese Medicine. Internal Medicine 2nd Pgs 281-289. Bridge Publishing Group. ISBN: 978-0-9728439-8-0.

More information can be accessed from:

The American Diabetes Association website:

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