Science & Research

Study finds correlation between mindfulness, glucose levels

Those with higher mindfulness scores 35 percent more likely to have healthy glucose levels

Staff Writer
Friday, March 4, 2016

Researchers at the School of Public Health have found a correlation between mindfulness and plasma glucose levels. The study, led by Eric Loucks, assistant professor of epidemiology, found that participants who were more mindful were more likely to have a normal plasma glucose level and thus not be obese, according to the paper published this month in the American Journal of Health Behavior.

Mindfulness in the study is defined as “the ability to attend in a nonjudgmental way to one’s own physical and mental processes during ordinary, everyday tasks.”

Though “the data is quite limited, this is the strongest data we have to show that people who are more mindful tend to be less obese and tend to have lower glucose levels,” said Stephen Buka, professor of epidemiology and co-author of the paper.

All 399 participants in the study were originally part of the New England Family Study, an investigation that has researched neuropsychiatric and developmental risk factors since the 1960s. The New England Family Study enrolled pregnant women from the Boston and Providence areas and periodically collected data on them and their children for seven years, Buka said.

The participants had a median age of 47 and were assessed for mindfulness using the Mindful Attention Awareness Scale, a questionnaire that asks participants to rate their agreement to different questions, Buka said. For example, the participants had to rate their agreement on a six-point scale for statements such as: “I find it difficult to stay focused on what’s happening in the present,” he said. Other data, including amount of physical activity, levels of perceived stress, body mass index and blood pressure were also collected, according to the paper.

Once Loucks noticed a relationship between MAAS scores and cardiovascular risk factors, he began to collaborate with Willoughby Britton, assistant professor of psychiatry and human behavior and co-author of the paper, who has been researching mindfulness for 20 years. Loucks and Britton began writing a series of papers on mindfulness and risk factors, including obesity and adiposity, and eventually turned their focus toward plasma glucose levels, Britton wrote in an email to The Herald.

Blood samples were then collected from participants after a night of fasting to monitor their baseline plasma glucose levels, Buka said.

After adjusting for confounding variables such as sex, race and family history of diabetes, the researchers performed regression analysis on the data, said Roee Gutman, assistant professor of biostatistics and co-author of the paper. Regression analysis was used to build “a model that tries to explain why we see this variability between why some people have and why some people don’t have normal glucose levels,” Gutman said.

The study found that participants with high MAAS scores were 35 percent more likely to have normal plasma glucose levels in comparison to those with low MAAS scores, according to the paper. But more research is needed because of the small sample size used in the study, Buka added.

Participants with “higher levels of mindfulness were also 20 percent less likely to have (Type II Diabetes),” according to the paper. But due to small sample size and wide confidence intervals, these associations may not be statistically significant.

“A big part of why some folks are more prone to developing obesity or diabetes is their own dietary patterns,” Buka said. “The thought is that (a) level of awareness about one’s own body and one’s ability to attend to the current situation will help people be more successful in regulating their diet,” he added.

Since publishing the paper, the team has received a $4.7 million grant from the National Institute of Health to investigate how mindfulness can relate to a patient’s ability to follow doctors’ orders, Britton wrote. While Loucks is in the process of developing the Mindfulness-Based Hypertension Treatment, Britton is studying how mindfulness affects cognitive, emotional and self-related processes, Britton wrote. Britton plans to then integrate her findings into Loucks’ treatment, she added.

“We’re interested in reversing the obesity epidemic,” Buka said. “It may be that if we can increase people’s mindfulness, we will be able to reduce later obesity.”

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