Being overweight is stressful on the body, and stress can worsen obesity-related health issues and make it harder to shed pounds—throwing people into a vicious cycle that seems impossible to escape. Now, a new study published in the journal Obesity offers a strategy that may help. In a group of overweight women, mindfulness training reduced stress and fasting blood sugar levels better than traditional health-education classes.
To study the effects of mindfulness, researchers from Penn State University randomly assigned 86 overweight or obese women to receive eight weekly sessions of either mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR), taught by a professional instructor, or general health education, taught by a registered dietitian.
The MBSR group learned how to use mindfulness techniques—like meditation and breath awareness—to respond to stress. The health education group learned about diet, exercise, obesity-related health issues and general stress management.
The goal of these sessions was not to help people lose weight, but to reduce stress and stress-related health problems. In that sense, mindfulness worked better: After eight weeks of training and eight more weeks of home practice, perceived stress scores for women in the MBSR group had decreased 3.6 points from the start of the study on a 10-point scale, compared to only 1.3 points for women in the health education group.
Both groups experienced improvements in mood, psychological distress and sleep-related problems. But only the MBSR group saw a decrease in fasting blood sugar levels—both right after training was completed and when the women were retested eight weeks later.
The researchers also tested the women for other health outcomes—including weight, body mass index, waist circumference, blood pressure, fasting insulin, cholesterol, inflammatory markers and levels of stress hormones—but they saw no significant changes for these measurements, in either group.
Still, the decrease in blood sugar levels could be enough to have real health implications, say the study authors. While they did not ask the women to report what or how much they ate, they hypothesize that “increased mindfulness could have made it easier for the MBSR group to adhere to the diet and exercise guidelines we gave them,” they wrote in the paper.
Only 71% of the study participants completed the eight-week training sessions, and only 62% stuck with the research for all 16 weeks, which reduces the strength of the findings. But the authors wrote that most dropouts were in the health education group, which “is evidence that the current standard of care is ineffective and unappealing to patients.” The fact that more women completed the mindfulness training than the health education (83% versus 59%) “lends support to the feasibility and acceptability of MBSR in women with overweight or obesity,” they added.
More research—in larger and more varied groups of people—is needed to determine the mechanisms through which mindfulness-based stress reduction may lower blood sugar, and to see whether sustained increases in mindfulness over longer periods of time would result in even greater and lasting benefits, the authors wrote. “If, as our study suggests, MBSR lowers glucose in people with overweight or obesity, then it could be an effective tool for preventing or treating type 2 diabetes,” they wrote.