The human nervous system is composed of two separate structures: the central nervous system and the peripheral nervous system. The central nervous system is the brain, spinal cord, and nerves. The peripheral nervous system consists of the many ganglia, sensory neurons, and nerves that connect to one another and to the central nervous system. Together, these two structures make up your body’s electrical wiring system, messaging between your brain and body in a complicated language of electrical signals that keep your body moving and your organs active with the involuntary functions of breathing, cleaning, and pumping that keep you alive.
The peripheral nerve system sends messages to the brain and spinal cord. Messages such as “My feet are cold,” or “Ouch, that pan is hot!” travel to the brain via an intricate web of nerves. When these delicate nerve endings are damaged by chronic high blood sugar levels, injury, or infection, they can send messages of pain or tingling when there is no stimulus or they may not feel something that is actually causing harm, such as stubbing your toe or stepping on something sharp.
Diabetes is the leading cause of peripheral neuropathy in the United States, with up to 70% of those affected by the disease suffering from noticeable symptoms. Symptoms of peripheral neuropathy range from mild numbness and tingling, prickling sensations and muscle weakness to more moderate symptoms of painful touch and burning pain. In extreme cases, peripheral neuropathy can result in muscle wasting and paralysis.
It’s important to know that although peripheral neuropathy in the hands and feet is the most common complaint of patients experiencing neuropathy, there are a host of other symptoms and organs that may be affected. Your peripheral nerves connect to the central nervous system, sending messages back to the brain from your internal organs as well as your limbs. Pain and numbness and atrophy can occur anywhere along the peripheral nerve route.
You might not immediately notice the signs of neuropathy of your digestive tract or circulatory system, but insidious damage to these nerves can leave you with chronic infections and at risk for falls from dizziness. If your neuropathy symptoms are affecting your feet and legs, they are more than likely affecting your internal organs, too.
Common Symptoms of Peripheral Neuropathy:
- Pain and numbness in the legs and feet
- Pain and numbness in the hands and arms
- Burning sensation in the lower legs
- A feeling of “fullness” or as if there is sand in your calves
- A “crawling” feeling in your legs
- Fleeting, sharp pain that is consistent and may present all over the body or may be concentrated in the same spot
- “Sparking” pain that may occur all over your body
- Losing the feeling of a full bladder, and also not emptying it completely, resulting in frequent urinary tract infections
- Chronic diarrhea, constipation, bloating
- Difficulty achieving or maintaining an erection in males and sensory loss in females
Pain from neuropathy can interfere with your daily activities. The pain you feel is your body’s alarm system telling you that something is wrong. Damaged nerves are starved of oxygen and nutrients causing numbness and the undernourished nerves misfire, erroneously sending pain signals to the brain.
Secondary symptoms such as sleeplessness and inactivity are often experienced with neuropathy. Pain in the limbs often manifests later in the day, making it difficult to walk or even run errands, or to concentrate. Falling asleep may become difficult or impossible, and sleep can be interrupted with shooting pains.
Mainstream Neuropathy Treatment
Doctors recommend bringing blood sugars under control in order to alleviate diabetic neuropathy. Normal hemoglobin A1C results are 7.5% or lower and the closer you can get to normal, the more likely you can control the symptoms of neuropathy.
Your physician can prescribe several types of medicines to help relieve the chronic pain caused by peripheral neuropathy:
- Serotonin and Norepinephrine Reuptake Inhibitors (SNRI’s) are typically the first line of defense in treating paid associated with diabetic neuropathy. They are also relatively safe, and they are especially effective for those who suffer from chronic pain as well as depression. Trade names for drugs in the SNRI class include:
- Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRI’s) are the most commonly prescribed antidepressants. They are relatively safe and they typically cause fewer side-effects than other antidepressants. Trade names for drugs in this class include:
- Although the exact mechanism of action is not understood, anti-seizure medications appear to interrupt the overactive signals of pain that damaged nerves send to the brain. Common trade for drugs in this class include:
- Prescription painkillers are sometimes used to manage peripheral neuropathy. Because tolerance is quickly achieved, higher doses are required for pain management and they are therefore regarded as poor choices for long-term pain management. Trade names for drugs in this class include:
Although patients using the above drugs can experience some relief, the many side effects of each drug can be quite devastating. Constipation, nausea, dizziness, confusion, respiratory issues, liver failure, addiction, and death are all very real results that can occur when choosing pharmaceutical solutions to manage neuropathic pain.
Prescription medication can be effective, but given side effects, it’s worthwhile to consider other alternatives. There are natural supplements available that offer real relief to those who suffer from peripheral neuropathy. These supplements are easily available without a prescription from local drug stores, health food stores, and online suppliers. There is much research available on natural supplements and they are normally much more reasonably priced than pharmaceuticals.
Effective supplements that are easily found at the drug store or online include:
- Alpha Lipoic Acid is an antioxidant that is found in every cell of the body. It is both fat and water soluble and evidence shows that it helps regenerate other antioxidants and make them active again.
- Alpha lipoic acid is a natural compound found in many foods that you eat every day, such as potatoes, broccoli, tomatoes, spinach, carrots, brewer’s yeast, and beets. You can also find substantial quantities of alpha lipoic acid in red meat, particularly organ meat.
- Its ability to help kill free radicals is thought to help with diabetic neuropathy. Because it passes easily into the brain, it may help protect brain and nerve tissue, making viable as possible treatment to protect against stroke and dementia.
- Side effects are rare, but include insomnia, diarrhea, fatigue, and skin rash. Since alpha lipoic acid may aid in reduction of blood glucose levels, use caution if you are using any other glucose lowering medications and be watchful of symptoms of low blood sugar such as sudden blurry vision, dizziness, sudden mood changes, shaking, headache, trouble thinking clearly, and loss of consciousness.
- Recommended dosing for treatment of peripheral neuropathy is 600mg per day for adults.
- Vitamin B9, or folic acid, increases the production of red blood cells and aids in the production of red blood cells and cell regeneration. It is often used to help your sciatic nerve recover from injury. It supports DNA synthesis and helps protect and nourish nerves.
- Foods rich in vitamin B9 include spinach, beans, peas, asparagus, broccoli, avocado, orange juice, mushrooms, and liver.
- Recommended dosing for aid with neuropathy is 400-600mcg/day
- Vitamin B6 & B12 also provide nerve protection and cell regeneration. They increase protein synthesis and support the regeneration of damaged nerve cells when taken in high doses. Vitamin B converts carbohydrates to fuel that is used by all the cells in the body, including the central nervous system.
- Foods that contain vitamin B6 and B12 include fish, poultry, meat, eggs, and dairy. B6 is also found in bananas, spinach, and sweet potatoes. B12 is found in shellfish, brewer’s yeast, and soy products. Additionally, both are found in fortified cereals.
- Recommended dosage for vitamin B6 is 200mg per day. Dosages higher than 200mg are known to exacerbate peripheral neuropathy symptoms.
- Recommended dosage for vitamin B12 is 100-1500mcg/day. We recommend talking to your physician for the best dose for you. Additionally, your physician can provide B12 injections in higher doses over a longer period of time which may be of greater benefit than an oral regimen.
- Vitamin D-2 is a plant-based form of vitamin D and is known to encourage nerve growth and to also protect nerves from permanent damage. It’s hard for most to get the recommended daily amount of vitamin D from a normal diet, so supplementation for most adults, even those not suffering from neuropathy, is recommended.
- To increase vitamin D intake from your diet, you can eat fatty fish, such as salmon, mackerel, and tuna. You can also find vitamin D in beef liver, cheese, and egg yolks. Additionally, you can find foods fortified in vitamin D such as cereal, some dairy products, orange juice, and soy milk.
- It’s recommended that everyone supplement with vitamin D every day and recommendations range from 2000IU/day to 10,000IU/day. In diabetic patients, closely monitored studies have found that neuropathy is profoundly relieved at 50,000IU per week, but these studies were small and more testing is required.
- Vitamin D toxicity can occur in doses of 40,000IU per week and higher. Since it is fat-soluble, your body stores vitamin D until it’s needed and therefore does not metabolize it quickly. Hypercalcemia can occur at toxic levels of vitamin D. Symptoms of toxicity include nausea and vomiting, abdominal pain, bone pain, frequent urination, and muscle pain.
- Stay safe and use no more than 4000IU/day of Vitamin D. If you would like to increase that dosage, talk to your physician before taking more than the recommended levels.
- Avena Sativa (Oat Straw) comes from green oats and is an herbal medicine that has been used for centuries to improve brain health, and is being used more recently to alleviate the painful symptoms of diabetic neuropathy.
- Oat straw contains powerful antioxidants that can help painful inflammation and swelling. It helps to calms nerves when they are inflamed, reducing stress and anxiety.
- Recommended dosing is 350 -700mg per day.
- Magnesium and Calcium deficiencies can affect nerve health. Both are required for the health and stability of the myelin sheath, the membrane that wraps around the core of a nerve and facilitates transmission of electric signals from the brain. Calcium assists in the transmissions and magnesium aids in muscle contraction, nerve connection, and muscle relaxation.
- Foods rich in magnesium and calcium include dried pumpkin seeds, cashews, sesame seeds, soy beans, whole grains such as brown rice and oats, avocados, prunes, yogurt, and cheese.
- Dosing for magnesium is 320mg/day and for calcium, 1200mcg/day for women and 1000mcg/day for men.
- Be careful with dosing for all minerals. Toxicity can and will exacerbate neuropathy symptoms. Talk to your doctor before taking larger than recommended doses.
You can begin adding supplements to your daily regimen immediately. A good place to start for most who are experiencing diabetic neuropathy is with alpha lipoic acid and a Vitamin B Complex supplement. Often, these two will help to alleviate much pain and discomfort. Additionally, supplementing with fish oil tablets and vitamin C & E will provide additional antioxidant support of your nervous system.
As always, discuss any changes in your medication regimen with your physician. Short of allergies, you should be able to work with your health care professional to find the right supplements for you.