Individuals suffering from diabetes who also practice mindfulness, a mental exercise focusing on the present moment, may experience improved blood glucose levels according to a new study by Brown University researchers. Because sustained high blood glucose levels can lead to complications of both pre and full blown diabetes, these findings present one way to prevent or better manage the disease. Eric B. Loucks, PhD, an assistant professor of epidemiology at Brown University’s School of Public Health and his five colleagues published the study, “Associations of Mindfulness with Glucose Regulation and Diabetes,” in the March 2016 issue of the American Journal of Health Behavior.
The study measured several physical and psychological health indicators in 399 volunteers who participated in the New England Family Study.
A representative of Brown University provided me with a copy of the manuscript that Dr. Loucks had written for publication which allowed me to learn all the details of the study and provide an analysis of how the findings relate to those of us who have to live with diabetes or prediabetes.
One of these health indicators was blood glucose levels. Another was dispositional mindfulness. Professor Loucks defines dispositional mindfulness as “someone’s awareness and attention to what they are thinking and feeling in the moment.”
Details of the mindfulness-blood glucose association study
Professor Loucks and his colleagues found that the people who score highest on the scale for mindfulness were significantly more likely to have healthy blood glucose levels than the others in the study. The researchers were able to find this association by testing the participants for seven psychological and physiological factors, including blood glucose and the Mindful Attention Awareness Scale, or MAAS, a questionnaire to determine dispositional mindfulness.
The most mindful participants, those who scored six on the MAAS scale of one to six, were 35 percent more likely to have healthy glucose levels under 100 mg/dl (5.56 mmol/l) than the people in the study who had MAAS scores lower than four. While the difference is statistically significant, the results shown an association and to establish causality it needs to be replicated by prospective studies.
Although mindfulness comes from the spiritual practice of Buddhism, it is not religious. In fact, even some Buddhist traditions in the West, including Insight Meditation, strip away years of ritual. In addition, Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, or MBSR, and Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy have completely secularized mindfulness.
What is mindfulness?
The founder of MBSR, Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, defines mindfulness in his 1994 best-seller Wherever You Go, There You Are: Mindful Meditation in Everyday Life as “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally.”
Dispositional mindfulness differs somewhat from the traditional concept of mindfulness in that it is not necessarily being purposeful or nonjudgmental. A study published last year suggests that while one-third of dispositional mindfulness is genetic, two-thirds can be learned.
Meditation is a technique that help many people learn to become more mindful, and I have had a daily meditation practice for years. It does help me to become ever more mindful. While my average blood glucose level is close to 100 mg/dl, based on my most recent A1C test result of 5.3 percent, I know that one person’s experience is only anecdotal evidence.
But this new study is one of the first to investigate the relationship between mindfulness and diabetes in hundreds of people. While we have to think of it as being a preliminary finding, becoming more mindful probably can benefit all of us who have diabetes.
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David Mendosa was a journalist who learned in 1994 that he had type 2 diabetes, which he wrote about exclusively. He died in May 2017 after a short illness unrelated to diabetes. He wrote thousands of diabetes articles, two books about it, created one of the first diabetes websites, and published a monthly newsletter, “Diabetes Update.” His very low-carbohydrate diet, A1C level of 5.3, and BMI of 19.8 kept his diabetes in remission without any drugs until his death.