Facing the Diabetes Dilemma: Can Yoga Be the Unexplored Solution to Our Silent Epidemic?

It’s early in the evening. You’ve just wrapped up a big dinner, feeling stuffed to the brim, but something’s off. You can’t quite pinpoint it, then it hits you – you skipped dessert, that classic ‘sweet tooth’ craving. You swing open the fridge, its light revealing frozen pizzas and leftover takeout, and then you spot it – that box of pastries your cousin dropped off a few days ago, what a lifesaver. You take it out and keep it on the table. Just as you’re about to indulge in the world of brownies and cheesecakes, an old magazine beneath the box catches your attention. Before you can take a bite, there’s an article on Diabetes staring right back at you, its headline blaring, ‘According to the World Health Organization (WHO), 422 million people worldwide are living with diabetes, and this number is anticipated to rise.’ You recall chatting with your cousin about their 48-year-old neighbor who recently passed from complications related to high sugar levels. You can’t help but think of the irony as you place the pastries back, untouched and pristine, into the fridge. With a heavy sigh, you shut the fridge door, leaving those tempting treats behind

Please excuse my earlier attempt at humor; there’s truly nothing humorous about diabetes. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that 37.3 million Americans, which is 11.3% of the US population, have diabetes. Out of this number, 28.7 million have been diagnosed, while an alarming 8.5 million remain undiagnosed and unaware of their condition. Notably, Type 2 diabetes accounts for a staggering 90.9% or 21 million of all diabetes cases in the US. The financial toll is significant as well. In 2017, the CDC estimated the total cost of diagnosed diabetes to be $327 billion, comprising $237 billion in direct medical expenses and another $90 billion due to reduced productivity.

Let’s delve into how this impacts Indian-Americans. Statistics indicate that Indian-Americans are more susceptible to diabetes compared to other groups. The diabetes prevalence rate among Indian-Americans stands at 15.7%, a figure that notably surpasses the national average. Furthermore, Indian-Americans tend to develop type 2 diabetes at a younger age compared to other ethnicities. The latest statistics on the economic cost of diabetes for Indian Americans are from the American Diabetes Association’s 2022 Diabetes Care in Indian Americans report. The report found that the total cost of diabetes for Indian Americans was estimated to be $36.4 billion in 2022. This includes the cost of medical care, lost productivity, and premature death.

Diabetes is a “slow poison.” It is a disease associated with other conditions like high blood pressure leading to heart attacks, kidney failure, blindness, and other ailments. Diabetes is not curable, but it can be managed. Therefore, it is of utmost importance to understand how you can live a decent lifestyle by enjoying sweets in moderation and at the same time get your Diabetes controlled. Unfortunately, there is no drug known to mankind that can cure Diabetes. While a significant armamentarium of medications can help control your blood sugar, some come at the cost of having side effects. Many effective diabetic drugs have fallen into disrepute because they do not protect the heart. The present dictates to pharmaceutical manufacturers is only to discover medicines that have proven protection for the heart. The simple reason being a diabetic mostly dies due to heart disease or its complications.

It is essential to understand that medications, even when taken appropriately, do not cure or treat diabetes mellitus. This disease is called a lifestyle disease, and its treatment requires extensive lifestyle changes, with medications secondary to it. Millions of people have successfully been able to keep their Diabetes absolutely in control after engaging in radical lifestyle changes. Though it sounds complicated and impossible, it will disrupt your regular work and almost certainly entail giving up your profession. Fortunately, such fears are uncalled for because all you need to do is practice yoga for half an hour 4/5 days a week, including 10 minutes of mindfulness and meditation. You might be thinking that it is a long prescription. It is not.

Yoga is a practical and effective lifestyle modification that involves Asanas (Postures), Dharana (Mindfulness), and Dhyana (Meditation). Whether you believe it or not, at least seven of the eight components of yoga are essential to induce a lifestyle change. Yoga space has been unfortunately polluted by half-baked experts who need clinical training. Whether yoga works or not in Diabetes is not based on my personal experience. I would then be no different from the “erudite” neighborhood yoga practitioner or Guru who believes their experience is all that is required to prove that it works. Unfortunately, clinical medicine, including yoga therapy, is a scientific proposition propelled by research. Modern medicine agrees with yogic principles that stress exacerbates Diabetes. When stressed, your body releases hormones that can cause blood sugar to increase and blood pressure and heart rate.

Picture: USA Today

The therapeutic benefits of yoga, especially concerning diabetes, have been increasingly recognized in scientific literature. A systematic review and meta-analysis published in both PLOS ONE and the Journal of Diabetes Research highlighted yoga as a comprehensive and alternative approach to preventing type 2 diabetes. These studies specifically noted improvements in fasting blood glucose, low-density lipoprotein, triglycerides, total cholesterol, and systolic blood pressure among pre-diabetic individuals following yoga intervention. Furthermore, an article in the Asana – International Yoga Journal emphasized yoga’s efficacy in not only maintaining overall health but also in preventing the progression from a pre-diabetic state to Type 2 Diabetes and averting further complications in those already diagnosed. Another study in MDPI underscored yoga’s potential as an alternative exercise for type 2 diabetes patients, given its comparable benefits to other exercises in enhancing muscle strength and cardiorespiratory fitness, and its added advantage when combined with standard management.

Regular walks, combined with specific yoga poses like Dhanurasana and multiple twisting poses, can be helpful for people with Diabetes, as it helps burn off the excess sugar that has built up in their bodies and stimulate insulin production. In addition, Surya Namaskara, or Sun Salutation, is a sequence of 12 powerful yoga asanas, which is another effective way to reign in your rising blood sugar level. However, it can be modified by doing a faster variation that consumes more calories.

Last but not least, ‘you are what you eat’ might be quite literal for people with Diabetes. Indulging your sweet tooth urges might make you sweeter, literally, by increasing the blood sugar level in your body. This, unfortunately, has multifarious unseen ramifications, including blocking blood vessels leading to heart attack, stroke, or even amputations! People who have Diabetes should be aware of how essential it is, in addition to their yoga practice, to maintain a disciplined approach to their Ahara (diet). Yoga is effective in bringing blood sugar levels under control, particularly when combined with dietary modifications. If you have Diabetes, the most important thing you can do for your health is to pay close attention to what you put in your body, basically your diet. A diet that includes plenty of whole grains, fresh fruits, and raw veggies is low in calories and fat and contributes to an alkaline diet of high-quality natural foods. Avoid overeating by eating modest, frequent meals.

Yoga’s many health benefits include aiding in the management of Diabetes without leading to its dangerous complications. Yes, you can indulge in sweets, cakes, and chocolate occasionally, but remember that the central teachings of yoga are self-control and discipline, as well as avoiding overindulgence. So, when you practice yoga regularly and follow its principles, it is your best insurance to lead a healthy and long life.

The American Academy for Yoga in Medicine is hosting a webinar on Diabetes Management on November 4th, featuring expert physicians discussing how Yoga can be advantageous for individuals dealing with diabetes, or for anyone aiming to prevent its onset. It’s not merely about physical flexibility; it’s about fostering a balanced lifestyle and nurturing your overall well-being. Your path to a balanced, healthier life can start with this insightful session.

(The author is a Cardiologist, Meditator, and Yogi based in Memphis, Tennessee, USA. He is the Founder and Chairman of the American Academy for Yoga in Medicine. He is the Editor in Chief; The Principle and Practice of Yoga in Cardiovascular Medicine. [email protected])

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