Here’s What Every Diabetic Should Know About Yoga

Beat diabetes

Diabetes affects millions of people worldwide. Diabetes is estimated to have resulted in 1.5 to 4.9 million deaths a year. It is being hailed as the next health time bomb. There is growing body of evidence showing that yoga can help to prevent and manage some forms of the disease.

The Many Faces Of Diabetes

Diabetes mellitis is group of metabolic diseases characterised by prolonged periods of high blood sugar levels due to faulty insulin production or processing. The most common types of diabetes are

  1. Type 1 Diabetes — When the insulin-producing cells of the pancreas are destroyed by your body’s immune system. It develops in younger people, often teenagers, and accounts for 10% of cases of diabetes.
  2. Type 2 Diabetes — This is the most common form. Here the body either doesn’t produce enough insulin or is resistant to it. Type 2 Diabetes typically affects those over 40, especially if they are overweight, of Afro-Caribbean or Middle Eastern origin or have a family history of diabetes.
  3. Gestational Diabetes — When a previously healthy woman develops high blood sugar levels in the later stages of pregnancy. This usually resolves following the birth, but if not managed well during pregnancy, there is a risk of both mother and child developing Type 2 Diabetes later in life.
Sugar levels
Image Credit: Alden Chadwick on flickr.

Yoga To Prevent Diabetes

In a healthy person, the pancreas regulates blood sugar levels by releasing insulin as your blood sugar levels rise. The insulin binds with the sugar and transports it to your cells and liver for storage. It is then released later when your body needs energy.

If your body is resistant to insulin, or does not release insulin in response to rising blood sugar levels, then your blood sugar levels will continue to rise until you reach a certain threshold and become hyperglycaemic. If left untreated, prolonged high blood sugar can cause damage to the kidneys, cardiovascular system and retinas.

Those who are heavily at risk of developing type 2 diabetes are classed as prediabetic. At this stage, developing a yoga practice has the potential to prevent the development of type 2 diabetes. Prediabetics will usually have one or more risk factors, such as being overweight or not getting enough exercise, and modifying those risk factors has been shown to prevent progression of the disease. Yoga is a great way to lose extra weight and get fitter, and offers an added bonus when it comes to your mental health as well.

Regulating Diabetes With Yoga

Type 1 and 2 diabetics have been found to have an overactive hypothalamopituitary axis (HPA), a group of glands in our brain that secrete hormones, which is potentially affected by prolonged stress. The body doesn’t know how to process this surplus of hormones, which results in a chronic, low-level inflammation. Yoga has been shown to combat the adverse effects of stress by stimulating the nervous system and counteracting the ‘fight and flight’ response. This in turn quietens the HPA and reduces the inflammation throughout the body.

Diabetes added up
Image Credit: Steve Davis on flickr.

There is growing body of evidence showing that yoga can help manage and improve other symptoms of diabetes. A study in 2015 showed that “yoga is effective in reducing blood sugar levels in type 2 diabetes Mellitus.” The year before, a different study placed type 2 diabetics on an eight week yoga course (including warm up, āsāna, prānāyāma, sāvāsāna and meditation) and found that yoga “resulted in greater weight loss and reduced waist circumference compared to a walking control.

But you don’t have to spend a lot of time practicing or break into a sweatAnother 2015 study looked at five minutes a day of of prānāyāma (anuloma valoma and kapalābati) in type 2 diabetics and found that this also reduced blood sugar levels. Similarly 30 minutes of prānāyāma and 15 minutes of śavāsana was shown to reduce blood sugar levels, increase sense of well-being and, in about 20% of the participants, reduced the need for medications!

Is Yoga The Cure?

The simple answer to that is – no. Yoga will never cure diabetes. In fact, some of the authors quoted above are careful to emphasise that yoga is an adjunct to conventional treatments. That being said, it will lower your blood sugar levels, improve your sense of well being, reduce your waist size and improve your cardiovascular and muscular strength. Any of which is reason alone to roll out your mat or book in to that beginners class you have been meaning to try for ages.

The Final Word

Having read the literature it seems to me that no matter which limb of yoga you choose to practice, they all assist with the symptoms of diabetes in some way or another. Prānāyāma especially gets a consistent thumbs up from the academics and most of the studies on āsana are positive. So whether you are at home or in a class I suggest you practice whichever aspects of yoga suit you and your age, fitness level, state of mind and health.

breath easy
Image Credit: Dani Vázquez on flickr.

If you are new to yoga I recommend a beginners class and if your diabetes is already causing you significant health problems then a restorative or gentle class would be a great place to start. Always tell your teacher that you’re diabetic and, if exercise does affect your blood sugar levels dramatically, I suggest checking it before practice. If you are at a class, it might also be worth having snacks to hand if you don’t routinely do so.

If you have experience practising yoga with diabetes, or know someone who does, feel free to post any tips, tricks or lessons you’ve learned in the comments below!

Sally Schofield
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