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For Diabetes, Breathe Deeply

Medically Reviewed by Charlotte E. Grayson Mathis, MD
From the WebMD Archives

Dec. 28, 2001 -- Nearly one in 15 Americans will develop type 2 diabetes. It is the silent epidemic afflicting this country. Many of them will control the disease through diet and exercise; others will need to inject insulin.

Now there's another option to try: Stress reduction. New research shows it may be as effective as some medications in controlling blood sugar levels.

Researchers have long known that stress worsens diabetes. Stress causes the release of hormones "that lead to energy mobilization -- known as the 'fight or flight' response," explains Richard Surwit, the author of a new study from Duke University published in the January issue of Diabetes Care. "Key to this energy mobilization is the transport of glucose [sugar] into the bloodstream, resulting in elevated glucose [blood sugar] levels."

The key question was: If stress raises glucose levels, could stress reduction techniques lowerblood sugar levels? A few previous studies hinted that the answer was yes. But they used time-intensive individual therapy, which many people -- and health plans -- cannot afford.

Surwit and his team studied 108 people with type 2 diabetes. All attended five half-hour educational sessions about diabetes. But half of the patients were also taught stress reduction techniques during their sessions, while the other half weren't. One year later, the doctors tested all patients. Of those who learned stress reduction techniques, 32% had lowered their hemoglobin A1c (HbA1c) by 1% or more -- a significant change. HbA1c is a standard blood test used to determine average blood sugar levels in people with diabetes.

Only 12% of the other patients -- who received diabetes education only -- showed similar improvement.

The FDA considers a 1% decrease in glucose levels sufficient when reviewing new drugs for diabetes control.

Now, says Surwit, the answer is clear: "Managing stress can significantly improve a patient's control of diabetes. These techniques are simple, quick to learn, and have been shown to work for multiple conditions, including [preventing heart attack]."

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