Yoga is a holistic health framework which harnesses the mind-body relationship to improve overall health. This is made abundantly clear by research which explores the treatment of type 2 diabetes with yoga.
Type 2 diabetes is an incredibly common lifestyle disorder which results when the body becomes resistant to insulin or becomes partially or completely insulin deficient. This can cause hyperglycemia (high blood sugar) and ultimately a number of complications ranging from cardiovascular complications to overweight, to peripheral neuropathy, to diabetic foot problems. In 2017, there was a reported 425 million people affected by the disease worldwide–a number which is projected to reach 629 million by 2045, according to the International Diabetes Federation.
While there is no cure for diabetes, insulin injections are the primary approach which traditional medicine takes to treating the disease. However, insulin prices in the United States are outrageously high, leaving even those with good insurance plans struggling to manage not only their health but their finances in the struggle against diabetes.
However, managing blood sugar levels is only one step along the path to treating diabetes, and research increasingly indicates that lifestyle diseases require lifestyle management treatments.
Chronic stress, sedentary living and unhealthy dietary habits are major risk factors not only for the development of type 2 diabetes, but for increases in severity of the condition once developed. One study revealed that lack of physical activity was found to triple the risk for diabetes and increase the risk of coronary artery disease (a comorbid condition) by 2.4 times.
More recently, empirical evidence has begun to reveal how yoga practice is useful in not only the management of blood sugar levels, but in the holistic treatment of the lifestyle disease. The mind-body practice is particularly useful in the management of various lifestyle diseases, including type 2 diabetes because it addresses the disease from a lifestyle perspective, helps address barriers to treatment specific to the condition, and acts on the body in a holistic all-inclusive way.
Preliminary studies reveal that psycho-neuro-endocrine and immune mechanisms are involved in the beneficial effects of yoga on diabetes. This complicates interaction makes it even more clear why a holistic, mind-body approach is needed. Incorporation of yoga practice in daily life helps to attain glycaemic control and reduces the risk of complications in people with diabetes. Additionally, yoga promotes positive health habits and lifestyle management techniques including mindful eating and regular exercise (Raveendran, Deshpandae, & Joshi, 2018).
Barriers to Lifestyle Treatment
The risk of living a sedentary lifestyle is loud and clear– they say sitting is the new smoking because insufficient movement is associated with nearly every chronic disease, even diabetes. But a sedentary lifestyle is not only a cause but a barrier to treating type 2 diabetes. Those affected by diabetes often experience a reduced ability to engage in exercise because of overweight, physical unfitness, limited joint mobility, all of which are caused and worsened by a sedentary lifestyle. Additionally other diabetes-related complications, including cardiovascular disease, peripheral neuropathy, and diabetic foot problems tend to limit non-sedentary activity in those experiencing type 2 diabetes (Raveendran, Deshpandae, & Joshi, 2018). Research has begun to determine that yoga may be a unique wellness modality for the diabetes population because yoga naturally address many of these barriers.
Because the intensity of a practice, or even an individual pose can be moderated and modified, (from restorative yoga, to chair yoga, to simple seated practices such as pranayama and meditation and the use of props to find safety and security in a pose) yoga offers a unique form of exercise that can be catered to someone challenged with the physical barriers which accompany diabetes. Yoga is accessible to all levels and body types given the right instruction, so it offers a unique benefit of meeting a practitioner where they are at and building whole-body wellness from there.
Lowering Blood Sugar and Breaking Down Barriers one Balasana (Child’s Pose) at a Time
Yoga in general has a number of health benefits you are likely at least somewhat familiar with:
- Reduces stress
- Increases flexibility and joint mobility
- Increases muscle strength and tone
- Improves respiration, energy, and vitality
- Maintains a balanced metabolism
- Reduces weight
- Regulates cardiac and circulatory health
All of these health effects are important elements and factors of managing blood sugar levels and the symptoms of type 2 diabetes, and many of these benefits of yoga in general lay the groundwork for many of the diabetes-specific benefits of yoga:
- Helps to stabilize blood glucose levels
- Increases insulin sensitivity
- Balances the mind
- Increases breath capacity
- Stabilizes mood
- Tones the nervous system due to actively stretching the fine sheath around the muscle fibers which connect to the nervous system (Zinman 2017).
Cortisol, the stress hormone can cause an increase in glucose release in the body as it attempts to fuel the body with extra energy to fight or flee the stressor. Research shows that reducing stress helps to reduce levels of cortisol in the body which helps to naturally manage blood sugars and prevents unnecessary blood sugar eleations
Additionally, exercise in general has been shown to increase the body’s natural sensitivity to insulin. When this occurs in the muscle cells surrounding the liver, it allows glucose to be absorbed into the bloodstream more easily helping to reach target levels for blood sugar and prevent it from dipping too low. Regular practice even helps normalize blood pressure and cholesterol levels in practitioners.
Strengthening poses which increase muscle mass also helps to regulate the metabolism and maintain a healthy body weight as well. Thus yoga naturally addresses many of the root causes and side effects of type 2 diabetes (Kay & Nelson, 2015).
Overall findings suggest that yogic practices treat type 2 diabetes in a holistic way, improving glycemic control, metabolic processes, lipid levels, and body composition and mobility, as well as lowering oxidative stress and blood pressure, enhancing cardiac, pulmonary, and autonomic function, mood, sleep and energy levels, and quality of life, and ultimately may even improve the condition to a level where reduction of medication use is possible (Innes, & Selfe, 2016).
But that’s not all, yoga also helps to improve health behaviors, one of which is particularly relevant to type 2 diabetes: eating habits. Yoga cultivates a mind-body connection and provides opportunities for practicing mindfulness including self-awareness, reflection, and change. Yoga, pranayama, and sudarshan kriya were found to be beneficial in improving dietary practices and medication adherence.Yoga practice has been correlated with intake of both fruit and vegetable intake, promoting a healthy diet. Meditation and ability to heighten mindfulness may be beneficial in controlling binge-eating patterns which can be commonly comorbid in those affected by type 2 diabetes. Mindful eating in diabetes has shown to facilitate improvements in many important factors in diabetes management including: dietary intake, modest weight loss, and glycaemic control (Raveendran, Deshpandae, & Joshi, 2018).
The Yoga Rx: Managing Type 2 Diabetes with Yoga
So exactly how much yoga should you practice to begin to manage your blood sugar?
Experts suggest a minimum of 2 and a half hours of yoga a week to start (that’s about two classes a week). But start with 5-10 minutes at a time if that much movement is painful or feels inaccessible. Begin to work your way up over time, monitoring blood sugar levels before and after practice. You may want to try different forms of yoga including restorative yoga, yoga nidra, kirtan, vinyasa flow, meditation, and pranayama classes, all of which offer various benefits for type 2 diabetes (Kay & Nelson, 2015).
Whatever practice you choose, and no matter how many barriers and challenges you have faced and are facing in the treatment of type 2 diabetes, yoga practice is there as a highly modifiable and highly accessible holistic health modality for healing and treating not only the condition but its side effects.
Yoga serves as an eternal reminder that your mind and body are intricately interwoven and that you can always come home to the wellness you feel on the mat is not foreign or external to you. It resides within you always.
Raveendran, A. V., Deshpandae, A., & Joshi, S. R. (2018). Therapeutic Role of Yoga in Type 2 Diabetes. Endocrinology and metabolism (Seoul, Korea), 33(3), 307–317. doi:10.3803/EnM.2018.33.3.307
Kay, A. B., Nelson, L. B. (2015). The Benefits of Yoga for Diabetes. Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health. Retrieved from: https://kripalu.org/resources/benefits-yoga-diabetes
Zinman, R. (2017). Yoga is for Everybody (Yoga Video and How Yoga can Help People with Diabetes). Diabetes Strong. Retrieved from: https://diabetesstrong.com/yoga-everybody-diabetes/
Innes, K. E., & Selfe, T. K. (2016). Yoga for adults with type 2 diabetes: a systematic review of controlled trials. Journal of diabetes research, 2016.