Ancient Mind-Body Practice May Impact Blood Sugar Levels

People doing yoga
Researchers are trying to determine whether the practice of yoga can help regulate stress hormones and thereby control blood sugar levels.

By Karen Angelo

The practice of yoga, which dates back to 2,700 B.C., has withstood the test of time, with generations of people turning to it for its spiritual, mental and health benefits. 

Now, a group of researchers, including Public Health Assoc. Prof. Herpreet Thind of the Zuckerberg College of Health Sciences, is investigating whether yoga can be used to help manage Type 2 diabetes. 

“While past studies have shown that yoga may be an effective therapy for certain health conditions, there were methodological concerns, such as the small number of participants and lack of a control group,” says Thind, who is leading the new study at UMass Lowell. “In this [latest] study, we’re measuring indicators of health in the yoga group and a control group and following the groups over time to see if they continue the programs.” 

The research comes as a growing number of people are being diagnosed with diabetes, which now affects 38 million Americans. Approximately 90% to 95% of those people have Type 2 diabetes, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. People with the disease have high blood sugar levels due to the body’s inability to use the hormone insulin effectively. If not managed, the disease can increase the risk of heart disease, neuropathy, kidney damage, eye disease and dental problems. 

The researchers are trying to determine whether yoga can help regulate stress hormones and thereby control blood sugar levels. 

The study, which is funded by the National Institutes of Health, is also being conducted at The Miriam Hospital in Providence, Rhode Island, and at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. About 90 adults with Type 2 diabetes, but without any other serious medical conditions, are participating. 

The researchers are comparing two groups – participants who take part in a 12-week yoga program and those who do standard exercises, such as brisk walking or working out at a gym. Researchers are collecting data such as glucose levels, stress, body composition, diet, physical activity and sleep. Study participants take the 12-week yoga program live via Zoom and visit the study center for assessments. The standard exercises are done on their own. 

“We’re comparing health improvements in each of the groups and are also evaluating if they are motivated enough to form a habit to continue the yoga program and standard exercises,” says Thind. “Similar to exercise, yoga may be an effective way to manage blood sugar levels along with diet, weight management and medications.” 

Master of Public Health graduate Cosette Scott ‘24 and Meilani Chen ’24, who earned a bachelor’s degree in public health, have worked as research assistants on the project. Their responsibilities included screening individuals for eligibility, collecting data, checking in with participants and conducting follow-up visits. 

“Learning about the potential benefits of yoga in managing diabetes was fascinating, and it reinforced my interest in exploring different approaches to health interventions,” says Chen. “I gained valuable insights into study design, data analysis and effective communication of research findings.” 

Scott says being involved in the project has enriched her skills. 

“I believe that my work in research has taught me critical thinking skills, how to pay better attention to detail, and has strengthened my communication skills, which will be extremely valuable my future career as an epidemiologist,” she says. 

If this pilot study results show promise, the researchers will apply for additional funding to conduct an efficacy study with more participants.