By By JoAnn Stevelos, MS, MPH
Have you found yourself needing to destress, chill out, get mellow, or calm yourself? For people with Type 2 diabetes, learning how to manage stress and relax not only benefits their overall health, but it also helps manage diabetes. Complementary and alternative therapies can not only help you relax, but also can ease pain in people with Type 2 diabetes. Techniques including meditation, massage, yoga, acupuncture, and reiki may help you learn more about how your body works and how to deal with stress. Adopting effective ways to manage stress will help you feel not only more relaxed, but also healthier.
The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, part of the National Institutes of Health, describes complementary and alternative medicine as a “group of diverse medical and health-care systems, practices, and products that are not presently considered to be part of conventional medicine.” With Type 2 constituting nearly 95% of diabetes cases in the United States, various complementary therapies are being studied to determine whether they can help people with Type 2 diabetes manage their symptoms while offering a pathway to good health and well-being. While many studies have found certain complementary and alternative therapies to be ineffective or even harmful, yoga, acupuncture, and reiki have shown promising results in helping people manage diabetes.
Yoga is an ancient India discipline that engages a person’s body, mind, and spirit to help attain balance and well-being. During a session, you begin to understand how your body and mind are connected through poses, breathing, and meditation. The beautiful shapes and physical postures of a yoga practice are called asanas. Some of the asana names for the simpler poses may be familiar, like downward-facing dog or child’s pose. Don’t be intimidated by the more difficult asanas involve arm balancing, such as crow pose or peacock pose. These advanced asanas are taught after a person has grown stronger and more flexible in the arms and core. Most people begin by learning very simple poses and then gradually advance to more complex ones. However, the health benefits of yoga are experienced even at the beginner level.
The breathing exercises in a yoga practice are called pranayamas. Learning to breathe into your belly and using a vocal sound to release a breath are basic yoga breathing techniques that help practitioners achieve different states of being. Breath control can aid mental and emotional healing, or simply help you destress and relax. When you feel tense, overworked, agitated, or edgy, pranayamas can help you unwind and mellow out.
Learning to meditate is one of the most useful components of yoga. Meditation is a broad term that describes many techniques that help you relax, feel stronger mentally and emotionally, and develop compassion, love, and patience for yourself and others. Meditation is often used to clear the mind and ease many health concerns, such as high blood pressure, depression, and anxiety. While typically performed in a seated position, some forms of meditation are active — for instance, walking. When practicing walking meditation, you coordinate your breathing with your steps. You may even repeat a sentence or two as you inhale and exhale — called a “mantra” — such as, “I am breathing in to calm my body, I am breathing out to relax my mind.” As you learn about the interconnectedness of the mind and body, you will begin to understand what relaxes you and what makes you feel anxious or stressed.
Often people with Type 2 diabetes are stressed simply by the condition, which further aggravates their symptoms. Mediation is an active way to manage stress that can help restore your confidence and give you back some control, fight the condition, and help you live well.
Various styles and levels of yoga teach breathing methods, meditation, and poses. Iyengar, Ashtanga, and Hatha are offered in most communities, with classes ranging from beginner to advanced. Many people experience the benefits of yoga right away, and they look forward to their practice as a way to relax, strengthen their minds and bodies, and nurture the spirit and soul. Stepping onto a yoga mat brings them an immediate sense of calm and clarity.
Becoming more aware of your body through yoga may in turn give you more confidence and the skills to maintain your diabetes treatment. When you begin a daily practice of breathing and poses, you gradually adopt a sense of mindfulness that feels like an old friend, allowing you to relax. As this relaxation becomes familiar, it actually helps lower your stress. Less stress enables your body to more easily stabilize its sugar level, keep blood flowing at a good rate, and maintain a healthy weight.
Type 2 diabetes is sometimes called a lifestyle disease because stress and its impact on your nervous system greatly affect your glucose levels. Stress causes an increase in the secretion of glucagon, which increase blood glucose levels. A daily yoga practice that includes body postures, breathing exercises, and a short meditation can help reduce stress in the mind and body. Alleviating stress helps reduce glucagon and control blood glucose.
Studies have shown that daily yoga practice will help people maintain a healthy weight. Yoga practices that include sun salutation poses — a series of standing and bending postures connected to your breath that encourage balance and strength — can help you lose and/or maintain your weight. Corpse pose, which entails lying on your back, relaxing your arms and legs, closing your eyes, and breathing deeply, also yields benefits for people with Type 2 diabetes because it helps relieve stress and lower blood pressure. Yoga as a form of exercise will not only help your body respond better to insulin and reduce blood glucose, but also will improve circulation, particularly in the arms and legs, where many people with Type 2 diabetes have problems.
Basic yoga breathing techniques for beginners are helpful for reducing stress. The best thing about breathing exercises is that you can do them anytime and anywhere. For example, a breathing technique called “balanced breathing,” or Sama Vitti, will help calm your body and focus your mind. You sit in a comfortable position, close your eyes and bring your awareness to your natural breath. Just observe and breathe: inhale — exhale. After a minute or so, begin to inhale on a count of four and exhale on a count of four. Continue to breathe this way until you feel your mind settle down and your body relax.
Yoga includes many kinds of breathing exercises for different situations and causes. As you learn more about the breathing techniques, you will identify the patterns of the breath and how they are connected to your mood or state of mind. Becoming aware of your breath is the first step toward using pranayama to help control your breathing and create positive changes in your body and mind.
Acupressure is an ancient healing art that uses the same pressure points as acupuncture — called “acupoints” — but employs pressure instead of needles. While studies have not yielded strong results for acupuncture as a means of helping manage Type 2 diabetes, researchers have found several important acupressure points that may help relieve some of the pain and discomfort caused by the condition. For example, the fleshy part between your index finger and thumb is an acupressure point called “intestine point” or “hand valley point.” Applying pressure to this spot removes excess heat from the body, reduces headache, and increases energy. Massaging the point helps reduce stress.
The acupressure point found on the wrist directly below the little finger is called “stress relief point.” Massaging this point every day for five minutes can help reduce stress. Specific acupressure points on the feet control problems like hypertension. One of these acupressure points, called “liver point” or “big toe point,” lies on the top of your foot near the largest and second toes. When this area of the foot is massaged daily, you may sleep better and feel more relaxed.
A recent study looked into the effects of acupressure therapy on the development and progression of complications in 80 people with Type 2 diabetes. All participants took regular medicines and participated in diet and exercise programs to control hyperglycemia (high blood glucose) and hypertension, with one group also receiving acupressure for 90 minutes four to six times per week for three years. The researchers found better kidney function and less pain in the acupressure group.
Reiki is a Japanese healing technique that aims to channel energy from a therapist into a patient through touch, to help the patient heal and feel balanced and well. The Reiki technique is sometimes called “laying on hands.” People who practice Reiki believe that there is a life force energy that passes through the practitioner but does not originate with him or her. Rather, the energy is universal, and the practitioner acts as a conduit, creating the channel to move the energy. If your life force energy is low, you are more likely to become stressed and feel ill. Increasing your life force energy through Reiki is thought to reduce stress and leave you more likely to be happy and healthy.
Practitioners of Reiki seek to treat the whole person — the body, emotions, mind, and spirit are all taken into consideration as to how best to help you heal and enhance your quality of life. Reiki also complements conventional medical or therapeutic techniques to relieve pain, manage stress, and help you heal.
In Reiki, the life force nourishes your body’s organs and cells. When this life force is not flowing freely, it can cause your organs or tissues to not work well or become blocked. Reiki practitioners believe that the flow of your life force depends on your thoughts and feelings. For example, negative thoughts, whether conscious or unconscious, may disrupt or block the life force from flowing freely through your body. Reiki aims to help your body balance its flow of energy and clear or heal energy pathways. If a Reiki practitioner feels a blockage or too much energy in a particular area of your body, he or she will bring a feeling of positive intent to the energy field to encourage healing.
You may be wondering what a Reiki therapy session entails. According to Reiki master Melissa Loson, MSW, “Reiki treatments are typically done with the recipient lying on a massage table or sitting in a chair. The recipient remains fully clothed and only the shoes are removed. The practitioner’s hands are placed either directly on or just above the recipient’s body. Typically, heat from the practitioner’s hands can be felt as the energy moves through the hands to the recipient, and this is a very gentle and soothing effect. Prior to the session, we will discuss any ailments, being physical or emotional. After the treatment, we will process the experience. Sessions are about 60 minutes.”
When it comes to choosing a Reiki practitioner, Loson says, “Being comfortable with the person is the most important. They should be certified and be able to provide you with a history of their education and have a visible Reiki certificate in their office.” As with any health-care professional, word of mouth matters; ask for referrals from friends and family as well as your health-care provider.
If you decide to try one or more alternative therapy, you must still maintain your diabetes treatment plan. Also, inform your health-care providers which techniques you are using. The more information they have about your day-to-day diabetes-management regimen, the better-equipped they are to help monitor your health.
Unfortunately, many alternative therapies are not covered by insurance even when they help with pain management or stress relief. If you think the extra expense of an alternative therapy is too much, Loson advises, “Many people spend a lot of time trying to look good on the outside, but investing in learning to heal from the inside is what can bring real happiness and relief from stress. For many of the people who come for Reiki treatment, it is so rare in their lives to have a full hour to be in complete quiet, listening to soothing music, and having the attention of someone who wants to help relieve them of pain and stress. It is a joy when a patient turns to me and says, ‘Oh, that’s what relaxing feels like.’”
While often thought of as the latest fad, many complementary and alternative therapies are rooted deeply in the history of traditional medicine and healing from various cultures. Adopting these methods of healing in conjunction with modern medicine has the potential to be life-changing for people with Type 2 diabetes as they learn to manage stress and ease their symptoms.
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