Cut Stress-Cut Sugar; Relaxation Exercises May Keep Diabetes in Check

Article excerpt

Byline: Mary Carmichael

Compared with other methods of managing diabetes--strict diets, insulin injections, vigilant blood-sugar monitoring--Richard Surwit's technique seems too easy to be true. It doesn't involve pills or shots. It doesn't technically require a doctor's supervision. And if you're a diabetic reading this, you can start treatment right now, just by taking a deep, relaxing breath. Feel better?

If Surwit is right, you should. By lowering stress, he argues, patients with diabetes, particularly type 2, can keep their illness in check. Stress raises the body's levels of cortisol and epinephrine and, via those hormones, the amount of glucose in the blood. Because diabetics cannot make enough insulin to metabolize the raised sugar levels, the sugar stays high long after the stress has ended.

Surwit, a psychologist, first stumbled on the principle 25 years ago. Mind-body medicine was in its infancy, and he was frankly more interested in its potential for preventing heart disease. But a colleague, a Duke University endocrinologist, came to him with a challenge: a woman with diabetes who couldn't keep her blood sugar low even with a rigorous diet and standard treatment. When her work or home life turned stressful, her glucose levels shot out of control, leaving her hospitalized. The endocrinologist was at a loss to help his patient; after one week of bio-feedback and muscle relaxation with Surwit, she was stable enough to leave the hospital.

Today relaxation is used to combat everything from asthma to labor pains, but there's a stumbling block for diabetic patients: most insurance companies won't pay for Surwit's therapy, classifying it as experimental. Nonetheless, other doctors are starting to pick up the idea, using it in conjunction with more conventional remedies. And this year Surwit has made the treatment widely available in a different manner; he published a book this spring. …