How Mindfulness Practices Help Our Physical Health

Diabetes is as much about keeping a balanced mind as it is about keeping balanced blood sugar — and not just because you’ll feel happier and less burdened that way. Mindfulness has had an actual, demonstrated effect on HbA1c outcomes in clinical studies. The regular practice of roughly 20 minutes a day of mindfulness meditation dropped average HbA1c readings by one or more points in one study, and we all know how important that HbA1c number is.

So clearly, there is an effect. I’ve written about it a number of times in this very blog, suggesting various ways to incorporate mindfulness practices into our lives. But today I want to explain why mindfulness matters on a purely practical, physiological level. We feel a difference emotionally, but the reason that emotional balance is leading to concrete results in our body is the physiological response that the emotional balance triggers.

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What IS “stress”?
First off, it’s helpful to understand what “stress” is. Sometimes we call irritation “stress,” sometimes we call anger “stress,” and sometimes we call sadness “stress.” But stress is not an emotion. Stress is a hard-wired, physiological response our bodies enter into when there is a perception of threat. Along with that perceived threat, we feel irritated, angry, scared, sad, and a host of other emotions, but stress is not one of those emotions — it’s the mechanism UNDERNEATH that is creating the emotion.

Stress is something happening at the hormonal level in our bodies, entirely subconsciously. Here’s the breakdown of what happens during a fight-or-flight “stress response”:

• Adrenaline is released into the blood. This raises heart rate and blood pressure (something those of us with diabetes need to pay extra attention to).

• Cortisol is also released into the blood. Cortisol is another hormone, and it’s a doozy! Cortisol further constricts blood vessels, causing blood to pump faster and raising blood pressure further. It then causes the body to release a large amount of stored sugar into the bloodstream so that our muscles will have sufficient energy to do what they need to do in order to outrun the perceived “danger.” On top of that, it also blocks our insulin’s ability to move that sugar from our blood to our cells, so that it can be used immediately while we outrun the saber-toothed tiger (or irritable boss) that is chasing us.

Now, you might think the above process only applies in cases of actual physical danger. Well, no, not really. You see, our stress response was perfectly designed to help us in the wild, when the possibility of encountering a tiger while fetching the morning water was real. Unfortunately, our surroundings have evolved much faster than our physiology, and our bodies really don’t know the difference between the threat of an angry boss and the threat of a hungry tiger. The trouble is, dealing with a job loss does NOT require a physical response the way a physical threat to our safety does. It’s simply not at all helpful for us to engage the stress response with our angry boss. In fact, it’s really counterproductive. All we’re doing is raising our blood pressure, increasing our blood sugar, lowering our insulin’s effectiveness, and causing us to feel angry, worried, and sad.

Mindfulness to the rescue
So, how does a mindfulness practice help? It helps by building up practices within ourselves that can a) catch the subtle signs that we’re falling into a stress response and then b) give us tools to avoid, or at least minimize, that stress response. Advanced meditation practitioners have been studied many times, and those studies have provided some stunning results. At least one Tibetan Buddhist monk was able to avoid the startle response (as measured by blood pressure, heartbeat, muscle movements, and skin temperature) in reaction to a sudden loud sound. Tibetan monks have demonstrated an ability to consciously control their own heart rate and blood pressure (within boundaries, of course — they’re not magical). Another group of Tibetan monks learned how to manage their own physiological response to the point where they could control their own internal body temperature. They would sit in meditation outside in intense cold, and concentrate on raising their own body temperature to the point where a wet towel placed on their shoulders would actually steam! Scientists theorized they were doing this by activating the body’s “brown fat.”

Now, few if any of us will ever reach that level of mastery. These are people who have devoted their entire lives to understanding the mind and attaining perfect serenity. But remember, everyday people who did 20 minutes a day of mindfulness meditation STILL saw concrete results in their HbA1c! So mindfulness is not just some New-Agey, feel-good placebo. It works, and it’s something every one of us Diabetians ought to include in our management regimen.

The FDA has approved the first “follow-on” insulin for diabetes. Bookmark DiabetesSelfManagement.com and tune in tomorrow to learn more!