Mindfulness Meditation and Your Health
With commentary by Gerald Bernstein, MD, coordinator of the diabetes program at Lenox Hill Hospital, New York, and former president of the American Diabetes Association and Diana Winston, director of mindfulness education, University of California Los Angeles Mindful Awareness Research Center.
If you've been struggling to lose weight, reduce stress, keep blood sugar levels under control, researchers say learning how to practice more mindfulness may help.
Mindfulness is an umbrella term, says Diana Winston, director of mindfulness education at the University of California Los Angeles Mindful Awareness Research Center. She defines it as ''paying attention to our present moment experience with openness, curiosity and a willingness to be with what is.'' In recent years, experts have found that approaching life in a mindful state can help with many of the issues those with diabetes or at risk for it face. 1, 2,3,4,5,6, 8
Two of the most common mindfulness techniques, she says, are mindfulness based stress reduction (MBSR), developed in 1979 at the University of Massachusetts, and the program she is affiliated with, called mindful awareness practices, or MAPs. 3
While the practice of meditation is ancient, of course, research on mindfulness meditation and its health benefits began to increase about a decade ago. It has really picked up steam in the last five years, says Winston, the coauthor of "Fully Present: The Science, Art, and Practice of Mindfulness" (2010, DaCapo Press). "I think mindfulness is growing more and more popular, and people are becoming more interested in it," she says. Why? People are feeling more stressed, she says, and many want alternatives to traditional remedies. There's also the simplicity: find a quiet spot, close your eyes, pay attention to the breath and bring focus back to it when attention wanders.
Mindfulness Research Scorecard
Weight loss: Adding mindfulness to a structured diet and exercise program produces more weight loss than the diet and exercise program alone, according to one study. Mindfulness works, the researchers say, by promoting awareness of your hunger level and how full you feel and reducing reward-driven eating and stress that can trigger over-eating. 1
Glucose Levels & Stress: Penn State researchers assigned 86 women, all overweight or obese, to attend 8 weeks of mindfulness based stress reduction (MBSR) or health education. At the study's end, those in the mindfulness group, but not the education group, had a substantial drop in fasting blood sugar. Those taking mindfulness instruction had a drop of nearly 9 milligrams per deciliter, while the comparison group had no substantial decline. Both groups reported less anxiety and distress. 8
Depression: Mindfulness-based therapy decreased the severity of depression better than a program that included physical fitness, music therapy and nutrition education. Both groups took antidepressant medicines. However, after 8 weeks, 36% of those getting mindfulness therapy had a reduction in their depression scores, compared to 25% of those in the comparison group. 2
Diabetes risk: Brown University researchers assessed the ''mindfulness'' of 399 volunteers and looked at their blood glucose levels. Those with the highest mindfulness scores were 35% more likely to have healthy blood glucose levels (under 100 milligrams per deciliter). Experts say the more mindful people are, they less likely they are to be obese, a risk factor for type 2 diabetes, and the more likely they are to feel in control of their lives. 7
Researchers can't explain for sure why and how mindfulness works. In one report, experts speculated that mindfulness-based programs may increase regulation of emotions and decrease rumination--that unhealthy tendency to constantly focus on your distress. 5
Practicing mindfulness may actually change the brain, researchers have found. After 8 weeks, those who practiced meditation showed an increase in gray matter concentration in the left hippocampus, an area involved in learning, memory and emotion control.7
Mindfulness meditation, taught at a growing number of healthcare facilities, ''could be a good adjunct" to traditional diabetes treatments, says Gerald Bernstein, MD, coordinator of the Friedman Diabetes Program at Lenox Hill Hospital, Northwell Health System, and a past president of the American Diabetes Association.
The American Diabetes Association has no official stand on mindfulness meditation, says Matt Petersen, managing director of medical information for the association. However, he says, ''we have documented that if you suffer from diabetes distress, you are going to do worse than someone who does not." Mindfulness has been shown to help depression and stress, he says. "Strategies that are effective at helping someone deal with stress in their life that makes it harder to take care of the diabetes is desirable," he says. 4