Yoga can reduce the blood-sugar levels of diabetics as powerfully as medication, according to a new study out of California.

The study is testament to the intimate relationship between mind and body, and the ability of each to affect the other in ways that often seem nothing short of miraculous.

While practitioners had already reported such effects anecdotally, the study is the first of its kind to investigate how yoga and other similar practices can affect blood sugar in a controlled environment.

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Yoga and blood sugar: benefits

“The most surprising finding was the magnitude of the benefit these practices provide,” says lead author Fatimata Sanogo, a PhD student in the Department of Population and Public Health Sciences at USC, in a statement. 

“We expected there to be a benefit, but never anticipated it would be this large.”

The researchers took data from 28 randomized controlled trials held worldwide between 1993 and 2022 where people with Type 2 diabetes began a mind-body practice along with their medication. A variety of mind-body practices were involved, from meditation, qigong and yoga to mindfulness-based stress reduction. The researchers compared the health outcomes of this group with people who only received medicine to lower their blood sugar levels.

Interestingly, all of the mind-body practices caused a significant decrease in the blood sugar of diabetics. The researchers observed a .84% reduction in hemoglobin A1C, a marker for average blood sugar levels in the last three months. Yoga was the most common mind-body practice and showed the largest effects, averaging at a 1% decrease in hemoglobin A1C.

Although 1% may not seem like a significant reduction, the authors note that Metformin, a popular diabetes drug, reduces hemoglobin A1C by 1.1%.

“What is important about this study is that the effect is very strong and that it is on top of the standard of care,” says Richard M. Watanabe, PhD, a professor of population and public health sciences and physiology and neuroscience at the Keck School of Medicine. He noted that the research revealed that mind-body practices helped participants achieve reductions in blood glucose levels on top of the reductions they were getting from medication.

The study suggests that mind-body practices could be a suitable alternative for people who don’t want to take medication. Mind-body practices may also have preventative effects in people who are prediabetic. The number of Americans who are at risk for Type 2 diabetes has risen to one-third. And since the study used trials from all over the globe, there’s plenty of reason to believe mind-body practices could help people with the condition worldwide.

“This could be an important tool for many people because Type 2 diabetes is a major chronic health problem and we are not doing a good enough job at controlling it,” says Sanogo.

“Although this study does not address it as a preventive measure, it does suggest it could help people who are pre-diabetic reduce their risk for future Type 2 diabetes.”

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