It’s not surprising that lessons in meditation and yoga have been found to reduce stress. They have also been found to reduce levels of perceived pain. But can these mind-body practices bring about a change as physical and directly measurable as reducing blood glucose levels in people with type 2 diabetes? Quite possibly, at least for some.
A 2015 study found that in overweight and obese women, a course in mindfulness and meditation not only decreased stress and improved quality of life, but also was linked to lower fasting blood glucose levels.
The women in the study were randomly assigned to one of two groups; those in the control group took a general health-education course for diabetes management. And this group also gained some benefits, such as reduced anxiety. But the larger benefits, including improved blood sugar levels, were seen in the group that took the stress-reduction course. The women included those with diabetes, pre-diabetic conditions and those without diabetes.
Doctors have long been aware of a link between stress and blood glucose levels.
“In people with type 2 diabetes, mental stress often raises blood glucose levels,” the American Diabetes Association reports. The link is less clear for those with type 1 diabetes, although physical stress raises blood glucose levels for both groups, the association said.
The study led by Nazia Raja-Khan, an assistant professor of medicine and obstetrics and gynecology at the Penn State College of Medicine, indicates that the stress-blood glucose relationship may be useful for regulating blood sugar levels in people with and without diabetes, or at least for obese and overweight women.
A course in mindfulness “significantly reduces fasting glucose and improves quality of life without changing body weight or insulin resistance,” she said at ENDO15, the 2015 conference of the Endocrine Society where she presented her findings.
The study examined the effect of an eight-week series of classes called Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), developed by Dr. John Kabat-Zinn at the University of Massachusetts Medical School and author of the book “Full Catastrophe Living.” Kabat-Zinn was a pioneer in the use of meditation and other mindfulness techniques to benefit patients with physical ailments.
The course covers yoga and meditation as well as body scans and breathing techniques. It includes lectures, readings and assigned practice between classes.
“MBSR may be a potential tool for helping patients who struggle with their diabetes achieve better blood sugar control, and ultimately reduce their risk of serious diabetes complications,” Raja-Khan said in an interview.
Researchers have known for a long time that stress is more than an uncomfortable feeling. Chronic stress has profound, measurable effects on people’s mental and physical health, on how often they visit the doctor and how much medication they need for certain conditions.
Of course, stress also diminishes our quality of life. Studies show that even our tendency not to focus on where we are and what we’re doing, but rather to dwell on other matters, makes us less happy.
A 2010 study titled “A wandering mind is an unhappy mind,” by Harvard psychologists Matthew A. Killingsworth and Daniel T. Gilbert, published in the journal Science, found that people spend nearly half their time thinking about things other than what they’re doing, and that this mind-wandering typically makes them unhappy, or at least less happy than they otherwise would have been. Even people who were thinking “pleasant thoughts” were less happy than those who were focused on what they were doing at the moment.
People who suffer chronic stress experience irritability, fatigue and other symptoms. And high stress levels are associated with more illness and less ability to cope with chronic pain and other health problems. People who undergo stress-reduction programs are significantly less likely to seek out health care, according to a 2015 study in PLoS One.
Among other things, MBSR has been found to reduce dependence on medications for pain. Considering the nation’s epidemic of opioid addiction, this is especially important for people who experience chronic pain and who are thus more likely to become dependent on pain relievers. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 78 Americans die every day from an opioid overdose.
A 2003 study found that MBSR training appeared to increased immune-system function as well. Patients who had undergone the meditation training had higher antibody titers than a control group when both received flu vaccines.
The training can literally change the brain. A 2011 study led by Massachusetts General Hospital researchers documented meditation-produced changes over eight weeks in the brain. The participants showed growth in areas of the brain that help with learning, cognition, memory, emotional regulation, empathy and compassion. The amygdala, the fight-or-flight part of the brain associated with stress, anxiety and fear, had actually gotten smaller.
Raja-Khan said that she is pursuing a grant to study the effect of the stress reduction course’s effects on people with diabetes, this time on a more extensive population.
“For the next study, I am interested in studying MBSR in patients with type 1 or 2 diabetes, both men and women,” she said.
The findings of her 2015 study confirmed those of earlier preliminary research conducted without a control group. In a 2007 paper in the journal Alternative Therapies, a team of researchers led by a professor of emergency medicine at Jefferson Medical College found that the same stress-reduction course significantly reduced blood glucose levels in patients with type 2 diabetes, and that “symptoms of depression, anxiety, and general psychological distress decreased by 43%, 37%, and 35%, respectively.”
Raja-Khan’s study was funded by the NIH National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) and the NIH National Center for Research Resources and the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences funded the study.
The courses are offered in many areas as well as online.