Yoga: Best Bet for Diabetics

Diabetes is a serious medical condition, characterized by a failure of the pancreas to produce sufficient insulin. Over 16 million American suffer from either Type 1 or Type 2 diabetes, and both forms can cause complications like an increased risk for heart disease, stroke, neuropathy, and serious foot and oral health problems.

Type 1 diabetes, a genetic condition where the body doesn’t produce enough insulin, is usually diagnosed in children and young adults. Lifestyle factors don’t play as much of a role in this type of the disease as they do in Type 2 diabetes, which develops later in life. With Type 2 diabetes, the body becomes resistant to insulin, often due to obesity, poor diet, and aging.

However, those with both types of diabetes can benefit from eating a healthy diet, losing weight and incorporating regular exercise into their lives. And while yoga can provide a great workout, it may also help treat diabetes in other ways. According to an article in Natural News, this may be because yoga “Rejuvenates pancreatic cells, through alternate abdominal contractions and relaxation, during asanas… and breathing exercises (and)…reduces blood sugar due to muscular exercise involved in the asanas.”

Some interesting studies support these claims:

  • At the Department of Physiology, All India Institute of Medical Sciences in New Delhi, twenty volunteers practiced a routine of specific poses (including bow pose, seated twist, cobra, and bridge) for five days. Subsequent blood tests showed an “improved sensitivity of the b-Cells of the pancreas to the glucose signal.”
  • Twenty diabetics embarked on a 40-day yoga routine, at the end of which most participants had a decrease in fasting glucose levels and promising changes in insulin levels, according to a study published in the Nepal Medical College Journal.
  • In May 2001, the New England Journal of Medicine reported that by losing weight, exercising and committing to a healthy diet, people at high risk for type 2 diabetes could cut their risk by 58%. While this study doesn’t specify yoga as a beneficial type of exercise, a yoga-friendly lifestyle does endorse a healthier way of life, including getting in shape and eating better. Plus, yoga can be a great form of exercise, if done at a brisk enough pace,

Part of yoga’s beneficial effect on diabetes could be related to its stress-relieving abilities. What does stress have to do with diabetes? The American Diabetes Association claims that stress can “alter blood glucose levels. It does this in two ways. First, people under stress may not take good care of themselves. They may drink more alcohol or exercise less. They may forget, or not have time, to check their glucose levels or plan good meals. Second, stress hormones may also alter blood glucose levels directly.” Yoga not only reduces cortisol (the “stress hormone” levels), but it teaches us positive ways of dealing with life’s daily tensions.

As an easy form of exercise and stress relief, any kind of yoga can help diabetics – all forms of the practice can lower blood pressure, reduce obesity, and increase relaxation, all of which can reduce the risk of diabetes-related complications. But there are specific poses and styles that may be especially beneficial. Kundalini yoga teacher Shanti Shanti Kaur Khalsa, PhD, who specializes in teaching diabetics, tells Yoga Journal that she advises rhythmic movements, like a yogic form of walking called charniap, since diabetes has to do with carbohydrate metabolism. And certain asanas – like Dhanurasana (Bow pose in prone position) and Ardhamatsyendrasana (Half spinal twist) – relieve pressure and increase strength of the pancreas, which can help this organ function more effectively.

There is no cure for diabetes, but it can be controlled. Yoga seems to reduce the impact the disease has on one’s lifestyle and health, and greatly improves quality of life. However, even the best practice doesn’t eliminate the need for medical treatment and more intensive interventions. So if you have diabetes, follow your doctor’s recommendations – but perhaps adding a yoga class to your weekly routine can round out your efforts to counteract the disease.

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