Dealing with Diabetes
You probably don't think about diabetes—but you should. Diabetes can strike people at almost any age. More than 16 million Americans are affected—an increase of 33 percent from 1990 to 1998, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Diabetes can lead to debilitating or fatal complications, such as blindness, kidney disease, heart disease, and amputations.While this may paint a bleak picture, the outlook for diabetics is bright. Research has shown this chronic condition can be controlled and greatly improved by conscientious lifestyle changes—i.e., weight loss, diet, exercise—and in many ways yoga can help.
There are two kinds of diabetes. Type 1 usually affects those under the age of 30 and is caused by an autoimmune or genetic dysfunction where the pancreas fails to release enough insulin, which is crucial in breaking down sugar in the body. Type 2 diabetes, which affects more than 90 percent of diabetics, is usually diagnosed in people over 40 who are generally overweight and inactive. Unlike type 1, the pancreas secretes enough insulin, but the body cannot effectively use it.
Exercise is a big part of diabetes treatment because it increases insulin sensitivity and lowers blood sugar. A report in the New England Journal of Medicine (May 3, 2001) found people at a higher risk for contracting type 2 diabetes can reduce their chance of getting the disease by 58 percent by losing as little as 10 pounds, exercising, and adopting a healthy diet. And many have turned to yoga to battle the emotional and physical challenges of weight loss. Several Indian and European studies have indicated yoga also may help reduce insulin-regulating medication by lowering blood sugar levels. But because people under stress have elevated blood sugar levels, it's difficult to determine whether asanas and meditation work because they relax patients or because specific poses stimulate the pancreas, causing it to release more insulin.
Either way, some believe a yoga intervention has to transcend the pancreas and insulin problem. "If you work just the pancreas and not the other organs, then you do not create a balance," says Shanti Shanti Kaur Khalsa, Ph.D., who teaches Kundalini Yoga techniques to diabetics. "Diabetes has to do with carbohydrate metabolism, so I also advise rhythmic movements, like charnjap, a yogic form of walking that involves breath and mantra and can improve metabolism." Yet it's important to keep in mind that yoga is but one component for treatment. Says David Simon, M.D., of the Chopra Center in San Diego: "Yoga can help, but diabetics need more; they need aerobic, strength-building activities."