Meditation is a technique used to train the mind and body to enter a state of focused consciousness. Many types of meditation exist, but they share common elements. Two essential components of meditation include drawing attention to a focal point, which can be a mantra or breath awareness. The second component is to enter a brain space that is nonjudgmental. During meditation, the mind often wanders; thus, an essential aspect of meditation is the ability to redirect one’s attention to the original focal point.
Benefits of meditation include improved focus and attention, reduced stress, better sleep, and a slew of health effects, including decreased blood pressure, protected cognitive function with age, and improved immunity. It also seems to help control blood sugar. Here, I’ll explain how this works.
The connection between meditation and blood sugar
The metabolic health benefits of meditation relate to regulating stress and its impact on glucose levels. A quick primer on this relationship: When the body is under stress, the sympathetic nervous system releases adrenaline (epinephrine) and cortisol into the bloodstream. In turn, our heart rate and blood pressure increase, and our breathing quickens.
Epinephrine also triggers blood glucose stored in the muscles and the liver to be released, so we have readily available energy to react to the stressor by fighting or running away. We often refer to this as the “fight or flight” response.
Persistently high cortisol levels can lead to chronically high blood glucose levels because cortisol directly opposes the actions of insulin, the hormone that typically clears excess glucose from the bloodstream. It inhibits the secretion of insulin, resulting in higher blood glucose levels. Many events can trigger a stress response—things like stubbing your toe, important deadlines, and traffic jams. These mild stressors can add up, leading to prolonged stress hormone levels that can contribute to insulin resistance.
Because meditation includes focused attention and the practice of allowing thoughts to wander without judgment, meditation can help us refocus our attention and reduce the stress response and, thus, the levels of stress hormones.
The brain regions involved with mindfulness meditation include three networks activated during meditation, non-meditative states, and the transition between states. This triple network model consists of the central executive network, which is activated while focusing on the present; the default mode network, which is active when the mind wanders; and the salience network, which is active when there is awareness of mind wandering.
Current studies indicate that meditation can improve the connections between these networks. These connections function as highways between brain regions and strengthen the neurochemical synapses between brain cells, making communicating easier for different brain regions. In a study of 46 adults inexperienced in meditation, functional magnetic resonance imaging showed increased connectivity within the triple network model after 31 days of mindfulness meditation, suggesting that even short bouts of meditation can strengthen the link between brain regions.
Meditation also alters the brain regions involved in cognitive functions, such as sustained attention, which can help shift the mind away from a stressful stimulus. Neuroanatomical changes that have been observed in meditators include increased cortical thickness in the frontal cortex—a brain region that is involved in each of the individual networks comprising the triple network. This change is hypothesized to be associated with improved executive control, mental processes supporting sustained attention, mental flexibility, and self-control.
Additionally, meditation seems to stabilize the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, the pathway responsible for physiological reactions to perceived stress, thereby reducing cortisol secretion. Together, these effects can lead to improved blood glucose by reducing perceived stress and inhibiting the release of the stress hormone connected with insulin resistance.
Research indicates that various styles of meditation can decrease blood glucose levels and self-reported stress.
In a study in India, researchers randomly selected 60 patients with coronary artery disease between 30 and 70 years old and found that those who practiced meditation consisting of relaxation, breathing, mindful attention, and forgiveness, for at least five sessions per week for six months experienced a significant decline in fasting and postprandial blood sugar levels, compared to those not practicing meditation.
In an 8-week study, one group found that mindfulness meditation consisting of a seated lotus position and concentrating on breath led to significant improvements in blood glucose levels in adults aged 18-65.
A recent meta-analysis of 12 studies found that breathwork improved perceived stress compared to people in the non-breathwork control groups. A separate study found that practicing slow breathwork for 12 weeks led to a 30 percent decrease in perceived stress in students between 18 and 25 years of age. Heart rate and blood pressure also decreased in these participants. In another study, 20 minutes of transcendental meditation practiced twice daily for three months reduced chronic stress and emotional exhaustion in healthcare workers. Transcendental meditation involves the silent repetition of a word or phrase known as a mantra.
How to get started with meditation
Like many techniques or skills, meditation requires practice. Still, beginners can experience positive effects, which accumulate as you continue to practice. Research shows as little as five to 12 minutes of daily mindfulness meditation is associated with decreased stress and anxiety. You can get started using a meditation app such as Headspace or Calm, or the 4, 7, 8 breathing technique is a great meditative practice. Here’s how to do it:
- Inhale for 4 seconds
- Hold your breath for 7 seconds
- Exhale for 8 seconds
If five minutes of stillness is daunting, consider incorporating an element of meditation into an everyday activity. Here are some options to try:
- If you are on public transportation, use each stop to pause whatever you are doing, take one deep breath in and a slow exhale while naming three things in front of you.
- Washing your hands or the dishes can be a meditation if you allow each sensory input to be an invitation to attend to the moment. What does the cold water feel like? Where do you feel it? By asking yourself these questions, you are practicing attention and awareness in the present moment.
- You can even practice mindful walking. Put away the phone or other distractions, and just feel the movement of your limbs and attend to the sights and sounds around you while internally naming them.
See how what you do affects your metabolic health
The best way to understand whether meditation can improve your blood sugar is with a continuous glucose monitor and an app like Levels to help you understand your data. Levels members get access to the most advanced CGMs and personalized guidance to build healthy, sustainable habits. Click here to learn more about Levels.