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Mindfulness May Help Defeat Diabetes

New research links the disposition to lower blood glucose levels.
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(Photo: Seika/Flickr)

(Photo: Seika/Flickr)

Diabetes has been called a global epidemic, as well as one of the fastest-spreading diseases in the United States. Interventions to prevent it have, to date, been modestly effective at best.

New research points to a different approach, one that costs little money and involves no drugs. It identifies an important ally in preventing, or controlling, this potentially disabling disease: mindfulness.

Brown University researchers report that, in a study of 399 middle-aged Americans, those experiencing a high degree of everyday mindfulness were significantly more likely to have normal plasma glucose levels, compared to those who tend to be checked out or preoccupied. High blood glucose levels are, of course, closely associated with diabetes.

If these results are confirmed, "mindfulness may serve as an intervention target ... to better prevent and treat diabetes risk," a research team led by epidemiologist Eric Loucks writes in the American Journal of Health Behavior. Mindfulness, for the uninitiated, is usually described as non-judgmental awareness of one's thoughts, emotions, and physical sensations.

A diagnosis of pre-diabetes provides an extremely strong incentive to start your training.

The participants—members of the New England Family Study—had a median age of 47. All provided blood samples and completed the Mindful Attention Awareness Scale, a 15-item questionnaire designed to measure dispositional mindfulness.

They reported their level of agreement (on a one-to-six scale) with such statements as "I find it difficult to stay focused on what's happening in the present," "I tend not to notice feelings of physical tension or discomfort until they really grab my attention," and "I could be experiencing some emotion and not be conscious of it until sometime later."

In addition, they provided data on other factors that could influence the results, such as body mass index (to determine obesity), perceived stress level, blood pressure, physical activity, and socioeconomic status.

The researchers report that, after taking such variables into account—as well as the participant's age, and any family history of diabetes—those with "higher dispositional mindfulness were significantly more likely to have normal plasma glucose."

Furthermore, they were also "about 20 percent less likely to have type 2 diabetes." While that finding was not statistically significant—the total number of participants with diabetes was too small to draw a definitive conclusion—it reinforces the glucose-level findings, and certainly points in the right direction.

Additional analysis found these results reflect "a lower likelihood of obesity, and greater sense of control, among participants with higher levels of mindfulness." Previous research has found mindfulness enhances self-control, making it easier for people to stick to their diets and exercise regimens.

Interestingly, those factors accounted for some, but not all, of the difference in glucose levels. Mindfulness appears to induce other positive health effects that we have yet to fully identify.

Given that diabetes is "the seventh leading cause of death in the U.S.," and that mindfulness, at least to some degree, can be taught, this is hopeful news.

Learning to watch your thoughts and pay attention to your feelings isn't easy. But a diagnosis of pre-diabetes—where your blood glucose is at an elevated, but not yet dangerous, level—provides an extremely strong incentive to start your training.


Findings is a daily column by Pacific Standard staff writer Tom Jacobs, who scours the psychological-research journals to discover new insights into human behavior, ranging from the origins of our political beliefs to the cultivation of creativity.