Using the Mind to Fight Diabetes
With diabetes reaching epidemic proportions among the U.S. population, patients and health providers are looking for new ways to help manage this serious condition. One expert says learning to control stress may be part of the answer.
Richard Surwit, Ph.D., vice chairman of the department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Duke University Medical Center, has been studying the connection between stress hormones and blood glucose levels for two decades. Research shows the link is indeed a direct one.
"It just so happens that what endocrinologists call counterregulatory hormones, hormones that are responsible for controlling blood sugar, psychologists call stress hormones," he explains. "These are the same hormones, but they're used by the body in different ways. What we've found is that the effect of stress hormones on glucose metabolism is profound, and that relatively simple stress-management techniques can have clinically meaningful effects on glucose control in people with diabetes."
"If and when your blood sugar falls below what it should be, the body secretes these hormones to raise glucose levels. However, the body also creates the very same hormones in response to stress, so that if you're under stress your body is making available more stored sugar than it would normally. If you don't have diabetes, this is no problem. But for people who have diabetes, that sugar can't be utilized, hence it raises their blood sugar," added Surwit, who is the author of "The Mind-Body Diabetes Revolution" (Free Press, 2004).
In the book, Surwit provides a step-by-step stress-management program known as Progressive Muscle Relaxation to help reduce glucose levels.
"This technique has been shown in over 50 years of research to reduce circulating stress hormones," he says. "In our research, we've shown that the technique will produce a clinically significant change in blood sugar in most of the people who use it.
"It's a very simple technique in which people learn to tense and relax major muscle groups in a sequence. Once they get good at this, they become more aware of when their body's stress levels are deviating from what they should be and they have a very good way of dealing with it."
Since stress is actually a somewhat vague term that applies to many different psychological phenomena, Surwit has developed specific techniques designed to help manage different moods and emotions, including anxiety, depression and hostility. He cautions that these techniques aren't intended as a substitute for medication, exercise and a healthy diet, but can be an adjunct treatment. He adds that the program detailed in "The Mind-Body Diabetes Revolution" was designed to help make these techniques available directly to patients and that it is very easy to learn and follow.
"One of our studies that was published last year showed that these relaxation and stress-management techniques could be taught to the average person in five one-hour group meetings," he says. "The techniques are quite simple."