Yoga therapy: A sweet spot in diabetes control
By Robyn Tiger
Did you ever stop to wonder how the cells in your body get their energy? Just like you, your cells need food—for them, that comes in the form of a sugar called glucose. Insulin, a hormone released by the pancreas, acts like a key that lets glucose into the cells. Abnormally high blood glucose levels occur when glucose can’t get into the cells because they’re resistant to insulin or when there isn’t enough insulin to process the glucose present.
Too much glucose in the blood causes diabetes. According to the most recent National Diabetes Statistic Report, more than 23 million people in the United States (7.2% of the population) have diabetes. These numbers are steadily increasing worldwide. Risk factors include being overweight, family history, inactivity, and metabolic syndrome (the combination of elevated blood pressure, glucose, cholesterol, and abdominal fat). Several of these risk factors are also caused by elevation of the stress hormone, cortisol, which is the result of too much stress in life.
Yoga therapy’s strengths
1. Stress management. Diabetes is associated with several life-threatening and disabling complications, but the news isn’t all bad! Several studies, including those listed on the Research page of yogatherapy.health, have shown the benefits of yoga for diabetes management. Yoga therapy works predominantly by its ability to decrease the stress response, which in turn controls blood glucose levels. In addition, postures and other yogic techniques may benefit the function of abdominal organs like the pancreas via mechanical and energetic effects.
Calming breathwork (such as belly breathing and alternate-nostril breathing), restorative yoga poses, and guided meditation (such as yoga nidra) allow for quieting of the stress response. Moving slowly and mindfully through yoga practice in a comfortable temperature is also calming for the nervous system. According to yogic tradition, postures such as twists and forward bends as well as breathwork that engages the abdominal muscles can improve the overall health of the pancreas and digestive system.
Decreasing the stress response helps to keep the blood vessels open so nutrients can flow freely to all parts of the body. With chronic inflammatory conditions like diabetes, elevated levels of substances that can include glucose and cholesterol create changes in the blood vessel walls that can eventually hinder blood flow and even block it. This narrowing of the blood vessels can cause high blood pressure, heart attack, stroke, kidney failure, blindness, limb damage, and poor wound healing that may lead to amputation.
2. Pain relief. Another complication of diabetes is neuropathy—pain, numbness, and tingling in the legs and feet. Yoga therapy can help to relax muscles and release endorphins (natural pain relievers), decreasing pain and improving sensation. This results in better posture, balance, coordination, and less chance of falls and injury.
3. Mindfulness. Another advantage of yoga therapy includes the development of mindfulness, which can increase body awareness. This can lead in an unforced way to healthier food choices, improving nourishment, digestion, and weight loss.
Research has additionally noted that yoga enhances lung function, mood, and sleep and the need for less diabetic medication—in short, an overall improvement in the quality of life for those with diabetes! As with any physical activity, it is important to check with your doctor before practicing yoga to assist with diabetes management. It’s also important to practice with a certified yoga therapist who understands diabetes and its complications and can safely and effectively guide you through an individualized practice specific to your needs.
Robyn Tiger, MD, C-IAYT, RYT-500, is a physician, certified yoga therapist, and founder of Yoga Heals 4 Life, which serves those touched by cancer, anxiety, and stress-related disorders. She integrates western and eastern philosophies for complete physical, mental, and emotional well-being.