Demystifying Diabetes through Yoga

What Is Diabetes, and How Can Yoga Help Manage This Condition?

Senior yoga teacher Ceri Lee has lived with Type 1 diabetes for many years, worked around its complications through her own practice and is able to offer yoga with physical & nutritional guidelines for enhanced health & wellbeing for diabetics.

An Epidemic in the Modern World

Did you think that diabetes just affected overweight people carrying a few extra pounds? Then think again! There are multiple causes for diabetes, and if you suffer severe stress over a prolonged time, you too could be at risk.

“Diabetes is fast becoming an epidemic in the modern world. More than 230 million people worldwide have diabetes and according to the World Health Organisation, the number will increase to 333 million by 2025.”

Patrick Holford

The Facts About Diabetes and Why You Could Be at Risk

The word Diabetes literally translates from Greek to mean water ‘siphon’ or ‘fountain.’ Named as such because of the frequent need to pass water, resulting from the need to drink excess water, to try and flush away excess blood sugar from the body. Diabetes occurs when the level of glucose in the bloodstream is too high and the body becomes unable use it for energy, because the cells that make insulin no longer work properly. The role of insulin acts as a key to unlock the energy from glucose. There are a variety of reasons why the body can no longer manage this effectively, so that the level of sugar in the blood continues to rise, until the onset of diabetes occurs.

There are two types of diabetes. Type 1 is an auto-immune disease, which has nothing to do with lifestyle or diet. It is caused by a genetic rogue gene that is triggered to destroy the insulin cells in the pancreas. It is non-reversable and usually manifests in early life resulting in a life-long dependency of insulin therapy.

Type 2 or ‘mature onset’ is the more common type affecting 90% of all people suffering with diabetes. It has multiple causes, that are commonly, but not exclusively due to poor diet, stress, and a sedentary lifestyle. Type 2 develops over many years and is characterized by inadequate insulin production and diminished insulin action. The result is a higher level of glucose in the body than is healthy. The insulin making cells then must work harder to produce insulin for converting the sugar into energy for the body. Eventually the insulin making cells become worn out, and less effective in their role. This leads to high blood sugar level, which, unless it can be reduced, will result in diabetes.

So Where Is This Excess Glucose Coming From?

Often it may be through a poor diet that contains an excess of calories, combined with a lack of exercise which literally ‘gets the blood pumping,’ helping to keep the body working effectively at what it does naturally. But another major cause of diabetes is stress!

When the body experiences stress it produces hormones including cortisol, epinephrine (adrenaline), glucagon and the growth hormone. These stress hormones help the body cope with stress which increases the production of glucose in the liver. The liver naturally produces sugar in the body, but when the body is stressed over a prolonged period, sugar is constantly being pumped into the body internally, which eventually results in inadequate insulin production. Cortisol and the growth hormones also reduce the effectiveness of insulin, resulting in diminished insulin action. Over a prolonged period, this over production of sugar, and diminished insulin action could result in Type 2 Diabetes.

This May Be Disturbing to Read…

“The recent flourishing of diabetes (and diseases which stem from the same fundamental cause) can be considered a side effect of the twentieth century technological age, pollution on the personal level reflecting global pollution.”

Dr Swami Shankardevananda

How many of us honestly feel that we live in a stress-free zone, and eat healthily with the right balance of exercise taken every week? Or rather, are we caught in a race to keep up with the modern world, and now living a life based on convenience because we no longer seem to have enough time to spare to invest in our self-care? Many of us really do need to rethink our lives and how we manage our lifestyles before the body becomes at risk from becoming diabetic. This is a real problem in the modern world with very serious consequences, and as a Type 1 Diabetic, I am here to recommend wholeheartedly that you act right now.

Thankfully, the great news for Type 2 Diabetes is that this condition can be reversed! Yogic practises and diet are conducive for the diabetic to make lasting lifestyle changes towards reversing this condition.

How Yoga Can Help

  • Yoga is an ancient science and practice that originated thousands of years ago in the East, ultimately for the purpose of spiritual evolution. Hatha yoga is one strand that is designed to maintain optimum health in the body and mind and incorporates all the main components required to develop fitness.
  • As well as improving fitness levels, Hatha yoga also works effectively on the parasympathetic nervous system, encouraging a relaxation response which can help to reduce the release of stress hormones into the body.
  • Yoga encourages mindful action so that through regular, mindful practice, a greater awareness of the body develops, reducing the desire for the consumption of unhealthy food substances, and yearn for more wholesome food and a healthier lifestyle.
  • The teachings and philosophy of yoga direct towards a holistic approach to life, and its mindful approach expands the mind to greater awareness of the world. With this awareness becomes a desire to preserve and look after the earth and respect the natural world.

The Importance of Exercise

There is no doubt that a healthy diet and more active lifestyle can help delay the development of type 2 diabetes. In ‘The Diabetes Guide’ NHS diabetes professionals state that here is now very strong evidence to suggest that the development of type 2 diabetes can be delayed or prevented by regular exercise.

There are three main components to exercise:

  • Cardiovascular
  • Muscle strength
  • Flexibility

Most forms of exercise improve cardiovascular fitness and develop muscle power but with little emphasis on flexibility. However, in recent years the western world has discovered Hatha yoga, a physical practice that incorporates all the main components required to develop fitness. It also prescribes a holistic approach to life through varying means to maintain optimum health in the mind as well as the body.

How Hatha Yoga Compares to Modern Physical Exercise

Exercise has many benefits for everyone, which can effectively…

  • Lower blood pressure
  • Release endorphins (feel good hormones)
  • Improve circulation.
  • Keep the brain active.
  • Keep joints supple.
  • Strengthen the heart.
  • Improve insulin sensitivity (for type 1 this will help to decrease level of insulin required in body)
  • Improve circulation.
  • Enable deep sleep.
  • Improve concentration levels.
  • Improve anxiety symptoms.

Yoga Does All the Above and More!

The essential difference between yoga and other exercise is the mindfulness in the execution of practice. The concentration required is quite unique in the way it focuses the mind through specialised breathing techniques and mental visualisations, whereas the approach of modern physical exercise is often much more mentally frenetic. From my own experience, this lack of focus stems from the fact that one is primarily concerned with the result, rather than the process of ‘being in the doing’!

The extreme and sometimes violent movements of modern exercise can encourage a build-up of lactic acid whilst pumping adrenalin into a stressed and fatigued body and over stimulated mind. Unlike other forms of physical exercise which have goals of fitness, strength or physical beauty, yoga may attract those wishing for the same goals, but it directs the aspirant towards an internal frame of reference and intuitive intelligence as a way of experiencing life, reality, and truth.

Yoga approaches the body by paying great attention to maintaining flexibility, keeping muscles elastic, also giving the heart a cardiovascular workout in a unique way. Unlike regular cardiovascular work, which occurs usually with any aerobic activity, in yoga the cardiovascular system is challenged to work through inversions. In such practices the speed of performance is slow to moderate, which calms the mind and has long lasting benefits for the body. Yoga’s holistic approach exercises mind, body, and soul, creating balance and harmony both within the individual organism and how that person relates to the world around them.

The task of Hatha Yoga is threefold:

  1. To perform an asana (posture) correctly
  2. To breathe correctly
  3. To focus the mind through practice.

Only when yoga is practised in this way, can the body and mind find the full benefits and obtain maximum power from the practice.

How Yoga Relates to the Endocrine System

The endocrine system is controlled by the sympathetic and vagus nerves, and its function is to pass hormonal secretions directly into the blood or lymph, which are then expelled from the body after use. It works with the nervous system, which includes the sense organs, the brain, the spinal cord and all the nerves. Together the endocrine and nervous systems help the body maintain homeostasis and influence metabolism, growth, and the reproductive cycle.

Hormones excite or arouse the body and are secreted from the glands according to emotional impulses from the brain. Before modern science understood the endocrine system, and how the glands respond to emotional impulses, yogis had already established asanas that stimulate and massage the various glands in the body. For example, Sarvangasana (shoulder stand) has a powerful effect on the thyroid gland.

Yoga aims to restore or maintain correct levels of internal secretions and strengthen the various glands in the endocrine system. Yoga also helps to bring the emotions under control through concentration and relaxation, so that physical conditions created by extreme emotional reactions can be minimalised. For example, high blood pressure can be a result of excess secretions of adrenalin from the adrenal gland, which is a hormone that responds to fear, anger or passion resulting directly in a faster heartbeat. Through pranayama (breath work) the nervous system is calmed, which affects the gland’s response. In the practice of asanas, combined with the control of prana in the breath, there is a beneficial effect on the body in its entirety.

Thus, yoga brings truth to the maxim; a healthy mind equals a healthy body.

A Sattvic Diet

A bowl of healthy salad

“Research has found that insulin dosage can often be reduced with a high fibre diet, such as whole grains, beans and vegetables – an ashram diet.”

Dr Swami Shankardevananda

Sattva is a Sanskrit word that means purity, and a yogic lifestyle encourages sattvic living, that includes a disciplined, yet loving attitude towards your body, a discerning mind, and choosing food that is healthy and wholesome.

Sattvic foodstuffs are generally those living at the top of the food chain where much of the life force comes directly from the sun. Other foods include milk, rice, barley, wheat, cream cheese, butter, lentils, and almonds. For the diabetic, a sattvic diet rich in whole foods, low in fat, salt, sugar, minimally processed and that which is grown directly under the sun is generally found to be beneficial in helping to maintain blood sugar levels and a healthy heart.

The Secret to Life Is Finding the Right Balance in Everything You Do

Balance is at the core of the practice of yoga in every aspect of our lives. The practice we do on the mat can help teach us how to strike a balance in our increasingly busy and stressful lives. In fact, the busier our lives become, the more we really need something like yoga to help us find some balance and maintain a sense of equilibrium in body and mind.

As a yoga teacher since 2001, there have been many people come to yoga and derive great benefit from it. Experience of my own yoga practice, since becoming diabetic, has shown how powerful it can be. From effectively lowering blood sugar, reducing stress levels, and improving general fitness to an entire shift in thinking and mindset. With a mindful and steady approach, yoga can be a powerful tool for you too in strengthening the mind and body, helping to maintain good sugar levels and boost the immune system for general good health. Regardless of current fitness levels or shape of body, yoga can be for you. With specialized knowledge you can be guided to work at a level that is suitable for your body, and with lasting results.

If you are diabetic or care for someone who is diabetic, please get in touch to make an enquiry about how I might help you.

Ceri Lee BA (hons) is a senior yoga teacher, midlife mentor and owner of the Yoga Light Centre, an independent yoga studio with guest accommodation in North Wales. From here she teaches weekly yoga classes and records her specialist online series. She offers midlife mentorship programs, 1-1 yoga tuition, and regularly runs yoga retreats around the world.