Preventing Type 2 Diabetes – Can Yoga Help Reduce Major Risk Factors?

The incidence of type 2 diabetes mellitus is skyrocketing, affecting more than 300 million people worldwide. This had lead to extensive efforts to understand and prevent the disease. Now, research published in Psychoneuroimmunology, points to low inhibition and high anxiety as risk factors for developing type 2 diabetes.

Yoga Reduces Stress & Anxiety

Studies also show that a regular yoga practice may increase self-regulation and inhibition, and reduce stress and anxiety, providing a safe, cost-effective alternative for prevention.

Researchers have theorized that low inhibition – the inability to divert attention away from negative thoughts, or to refrain from acting on the impulse to engage in unhealthy behavior – may be related to diabetes 2 risk. In contrast, high inhibition, the capacity to resist the temptation to engage in negative thoughts and unhealthy behaviors, may promote health.

Emotional stress and anxiety are both significant risk factors for poor health. When it comes to type 2 diabetes, both are linked to a greater inflammatory response, which is a reliable predictor of diabetes onset and progression. Research suggests that those who experience high levels of anxiety, may also have reduced inhibition.

People with low inhibition have trouble shifting their minds away from upsetting ideas, leading to more stress and emotional upset. For those with type 2 diabetes, low inhibition can also make lifestyle changes such as diet modifications, exercise, and monitoring blood sugar levels regularly difficult to maintain. This places them at greater risk for obesity, heart disease, and premature death.

Linking Inhibition and Anxiety with the Risk of Type 2 Diabetes

To better understand the links between low inhibition, high anxious arousal, high inflammation and diabetes risk, researchers assessed 835 adults (mean age 57.62 years, SD = 11.60) on a number of dimensions including cognitive inhibition, anxious arousal, levels of serum interleukin-6 (IL-6) – a biological marker of inflammation linked to anxious arousal – and hemoglobin HbA1c, a blood-based marker of glycemic control.

Results showed that those with higher inhibition experienced lower anxious arousal, and had lower levels of inflammation (IL-6), better glycemic control (HbA1c), and were less likely to meet criteria for diabetes. Conversely, individuals with lower inhibition reported higher anxious arousal, and had elevated levels of inflammation (IL-6), reduced glycemic control, and a greater likelihood of being diagnosed with type 2 diabetes.

Studies also show that those with low inhibition are also less likely to consume fruits and vegetables, adhere to an exercise plan and maintain a healthy weight. What’s more, they are more likely to engage in other risk behaviors such as smoking, and alcohol consumption.

The study’s authors believe that parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) activation may be one mechanism that links low inhibition to anxious arousal and inflammation. The parasympathetic nervous system is related to the body’s ability to rest, and to repair itself. Stress is linked to low PNS activity, which increases the potential for anxiety, inflammation, and poor health.

Yoga Practice May Reduce Diabetes Risk

Emerging evidence shows that mindfulness practices like yoga and meditation stimulate the relaxation response (PNS activation), which counteracts anxious arousal. Brain imaging studies also suggest that mindfulness-based therapies are linked to positive changes in neural networks associated with increasing inhibition (anterior cingulate cortex), and reducing ruminative thoughts (default mode network). This may explain why a systemic review of yoga trials with individuals with types 2 diabetes found that regular yoga practice was associated with improved glycemic and insulin resistance and lipid profiles, decreased hypertension, and healthier body weight composition (BMI).

While the proposition that regular yoga practice may increase inhibitory control, and therefore decrease inflammation and diabetes risk has never been tested, we do know that individuals who practice yoga tend to adopt behaviors consistent with a healthy lifestyle, such as eating nutritious foods, exercising regularly, and engaging in social activities.  What’s more, they also report decreased perceived stress and anxiety, increased relaxation, better mood, and enhanced wellbeing following yoga practice.

Whether you practice yoga to prevent or manage type 2 diabetes, or to maintain overall physical and mental health, the preponderance of evidence suggests that regular yoga practice is good for you. As always, consult your physician and a qualified yoga instructor to make sure that you choose a style of yoga that is best for you.

B Grace Bullock, PhD, E-RYT 500 is a psychologist, research scientist, educator, yoga and mindfulness expert and author of Mindful Relationships: Seven Skills for Success – Integrating the Science of Mind, Body and Brain. Her mission is to reduce stress, increase health and well-being and improve the quality of relationships. She offers classes, workshops, writing and research that combine the wisdom of applied neuroscience, psychophysiology, psychology and contemplative science and practice. Her goal is to empower individuals, groups, leaders and organizations to reduce chronic stress and increase awareness, attention, compassion, mindfulness and effective communication to strengthen relationships, release dysfunctional patterns and unlock new and healthy ways of being. Dr. Bullock is also the Founding Director and Principal Consultant of the International Science & Education Alliance, an organization devoted to exceptional research, program evaluation, assessment design, strategic planning and capacity building to support equity, programmatic diversity and scientific integrity, and promote effective leadership, decision-making and social change. Bullock is a Certified Viniyoga Therapist and Faculty at the Integrated Health Yoga Therapy (IHYT) Training program. She is the former Senior Research Scientist at the Mind & Life Institute and former Editor-in-Chief of the International Journal of Yoga Therapy. For more information see


Murdock, K.W., LeRoy, A.S., Lacourt, T.E., Duck, D.C., Heijnen, C.J. & Gagundes, C.P. (2016). Executive functioning and diabetes: The role of anxious arousal and inflammation.  Psychoneuroendocrinology, 71, 102-109.

Desai, R., Tailor, A., & Bhatt, T. (2015). Effects of yoga on brain waves and structural activation: A review. Complementary Therapies in Clinical Practice.

Innes, K.E. & Selfe, T.K. (2015). Yoga for adults with Type 2 Diabetes: A systemic review of controlled trials. Journal of Diabetes Research. Article ID 526967

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