Type 2 diabetes is a chronic disease that limits the way your body regulates and uses sugar for energy, resulting in sugar levels in the blood that are dangerously high. Along with medication and lifestyle changes, about 66 percent of Americans with diabetes include some type of mind-body practice in their daily care to help them control or lower their blood sugar.

Studies do exist on mind-body practice for type 2 diabetes, but there’s no consensus on how much these practices help control and lower blood sugar. A new review of studies by researchers at the University of Southern California’s Keck School of Medicine finds that mindful disciplines (such as yoga and meditation) do help, and the amount of help was surprising to the research team.

What Mind-Body Practices Were Studied

The research team reviewed randomized controlled trials—the highest level of research trials—from across the globe between 1993 and 2022. They selected 28 trials that compared treatment with a diabetes medication alone to treatment with medication plus a mind-body practice. This was the first trial to include a range of mind-body practices such as meditation, yoga, qigong and mindfulness-based stress reduction. The researchers calculated the effect of these practices on fasting blood sugar and hemoglobin A1c.

Like yoga, qigong is an ancient mind-body exercise that combines breathing, meditation and movement. Mindfulness-based stress reduction was developed at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center in 1979. It combines meditation, meditative exercise, gentle and mindful movement (including yoga) and loving-kindness meditation (which involves repeating positive phrases expressing compassion for yourself and others).

How to Know You Have Diabetes…and What Helps

Hemoglobin A1c is a blood test that measures your average blood sugar over the past two to three months. This test is a good way to tell how well type 2 diabetes is being managed. The result is given as a percentage. A result of 6.5 percent or above indicates diabetes. People with type 2 diabetes should have an A1c below 7.

The results of the review are published in the Journal of Integrative and Complementary Medicine. These were their key findings…

  • All mind-body practices taken together lowered hemoglobin A1c by almost a full percentage point (0.84 percent) more than medication alone.
  • All the mind-body practices lowered A1c, but the most effective practice was yoga, which lowered A1c by a full percentage point. The benefit increased as the number of yoga sessions increased.
  • All mind-body practices together lowered blood sugar by almost 23 milligrams more than medication alone.

Lowering A1c by one percentage point is very significant because only about 50 percent of people with type 2 diabetes can keep their A1c under 7. The most prescribed medication—metformin—lowers A1c by an average of 1.1 percent, indicating that a mind-body practice is almost as effective as medication.

Mind-Body Practices Are Healthful for Everybody

The authors of the study conclude that mind-body practices are an important tool and are strongly associated with improvement in control of type 2 diabetes. Although prevention of type 2 diabetes was not part of the study, the results suggest that mind-body practice could help people with prediabetes reduce their risk for future type 2 diabetes. And according to the CDC, most people have prediabetes before they have type 2 diabetes. Close to 100 million adults in the U.S. have prediabetes—unfortunately, more than 80 percent are not aware of it. A yoga and/or a meditation habit can be very effective for people with prediabetes—a condition that is reversible with lifestyle changes.

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