More Mindfulness May Mean Better Health, Lower Blood Sugar
If you’re like most people trying to improve their health, you’ve probably read a lot about exercises to do or special foods to eat that can help you meet your health goals. And while it’s certainly true that exercising more and eating better are great for your health, the mind may also play a significant role in determining your health. That’s one of the implications of a new study published this week that investigated how everyday mindfulness might affect a person’s health in a number of different ways. Their results indicate that engaging in daily mindful practice may help you boost your health while potentially affecting your risk for diabetes.
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What is mindfulness and can I learn it?
Mindfulness refers to the ability to pay attention to your physical and mental processes without judgment. For example, mindful people pay more attention to their emotions during conversations, which gives them a better sense of what emotions they’re actually experiencing in that moment. Mindful eaters may have a better sense of how hungry they are and how their body is responding to the food they’re eating. The key is that this attention isn’t judgmental. Feeling angry or hungry isn’t necessarily bad. Mindfulness is simply recognizing the state of your mind and body.
Interestingly, the ability to be mindful may be both learned and inborn. At least one study using identical twins found that about one third of people’s ability to be mindful can be chalked up to their genetics. The rest has to do with their environment and the things they might have learned. That means that, while some people are naturally more mindful, everyone can become better at mindfulness if they work at it. These researchers were curious to see if people who were more mindful might have different health traits than those who weren’t, especially when it comes to diabetes.
What do we know about how mindfulness affects diabetes?
Some studies have shown that people who learn mindfulness techniques are more likely to have lower blood glucose or HbA1C numbers, both of which are associated with lower risk for diabetes. These studies often worked by teaching diabetics to focus on behaviors such as eating and exercise that are known to influence blood sugar levels. But the results of these studies have been mixed, with some finding and others failing to find a link between mindfulness and better blood sugar control. Other studies have indicated that mindfulness may act to help behaviors needed to control diabetes, by boosting activity in areas of the brain that help you decide how much to eat for example. These researchers wanted to get a better handle on how exactly mindfulness might affect diabetes.
How did the research team investigate mindfulness?
The researchers used participants from two long-term studies, one called the New England Family study and another called the Collaborative Perinatal Project. These studies had followed a number of individuals living in New England over the course of many years of their life, which meant the researchers had large amounts of health data they could use for each participant. They looked for people who were still alive and willing to participate in another study on mindfulness. The 400 who agreed were assessed using a scale that determined how mindful a person was in their everyday life. The researchers then tested measures related to diabetes risk, like blood sugar, and also looked at many of the health measures available on each of the individuals. Doing so allowed the team to look for possible ways mindfulness might be affecting a person’s health in ways that would lead to a lower risk of diabetes.
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What did the research team find?
The researchers found that people with higher mindfulness scores were also more likely to have normal blood glucose numbers, but it was unclear whether this translated into a lower risk of having diabetes. As expected, they found that diabetes was associated with high blood pressure, obesity, having a family history of diabetes, and having low HDL cholesterol. But when the researchers looked through their data to see which factors were most important in linking mindfulness to better glucose control, they found that obesity and having a sense of control in one’s life appeared to be key.
This matches up with past studies that have found people who are more mindful are also less obese, which could in turn lower their risk for diabetes and blood sugar issues. Lower rates of obesity among more mindful people may relate to being better able to control what you eat and to think more clearly about how healthy behaviors could benefit you in the long run. Other studies have shown that mindfulness helps people to feel more in control of their lives and believe that they can make changes in their life. The team thinks this might relate to diabetes by helping people feel they can make change for the better when it comes to their health rather than feeling that their actions won’t have an impact. That makes them more likely to try to eat better or exercise more, which then lowers their diabetes risk.
How does this apply to me?
This study provides evidence that trying out mindfulness is worthwhile for anyone looking to get healthy, especially if you’re in poor health or you know you’re at risk for health conditions. Practicing mindfulness is easy and can fit into whatever amount of free time you have available. Starting up a daily meditation practice may help you feel more relaxed, with the potential added benefit of better blood sugars.