Did you know that 30.3 million people in the U.S. have diabetes? That’s 9.4% of the U.S. population, according to the Center for Disease Control National Diabetes Statistics Report from 2017. And the CDC estimates that 7.2 million people in the U.S. with diabetes are undiagnosed (23.8%). Cases of diabetes are rising year by year, and scientific studies show that the incidence of diabetes, especially type 2, is closely correlated with obesity.
Ayurveda and Diabetes
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention outlines diabetes self-management tools, resources, and services to support preventative self-care for diabetes. Headings such as “Eat Well!”, “Get Active!”, and “Be Prepared!” reference three main approaches to managing diabetes. Not unlike these recommendations by the CDC, Ayurvedic approaches to managing diabetes also center around diet, physical activity, and mental readiness. Ayurveda is simply another lens with which to focus on diabetic health by listening to body signals, learning to identify signs of imbalance, and adopting interventions and management techniques to restore and maintain balance in the body.
In the Vedas—Sanskrit Ayurvedic texts—“madhumeha” is the word used to describe diabetes, and literally translated means “sweet urine.” “Madhu” means “honey” or “sweet” and “meha” refers to the urinary duct. And the Sanskrit translation is most logical, in that it references the process by which sugars that are not properly assimilated into the body from the blood stream exit the body by way of urine. Mallika Varma of The Ayurveda Experience explains that “aggravation of Vata dosha due to tissue depletion (dhatukshya) is one way diabetes develops. Obstruction of the channels (srotas) through blockage by Kapha dosha and fatty tissue (Kapha Meda Avarana) is another cause of diabetes.” In short, diabetes is a result of many health factors synthesizing to cause disease in the bloodstream.
Type 1 diabetes is characterized by the body’s inability to produce enough insulin to process and assimilate blood sugars. Type 2 diabetes is characterized by the body’s inability to use insulin effectively. Type 2 diabetes is often associated with excessive sleep, lack of physical activity, and overindulgence in food and sweets. Those with type 2 diabetes generally observe a high-fat diet including high alcohol consumption and a sedentary lifestyle that leads to (or is paired with) obesity. Type 2 diabetes accounts for 90-95% of statistical cases and almost 90% of those with type 2 diabetes are overweight or obese, according to the body mass index (BMI).
In Ayurveda, type 2 diabetes is called apathyanimittaja, and is an imbalance in the kapha dosha. The kapha humor is built of the earth and water elements, and it reflects slow, heavy, static, dense, and oily qualities. The kapha dosha primarily lacks the fire element, or agni, which is responsible for metabolism and efficient assimilation of nutrients within the body. So, for those with diabetes, proper absorption of sugars in the bloodstream is the main challenge. Imbalances in the vata dosha (air and ether elements) can also lead to the development of diabetes over time.
Ayurvedic Approaches to Managing Diabetes
Awareness around dietary health is essential in effectively managing diabetes. Decrease consumption of sweet, sour, and salty foods and limit consumption of alcohol, caffeine, salt, and fats. Check the glycemic index of foods, which measures how quickly a given food causes blood sugar levels to rise. A diabetic diet should ideally be composed of:
- 50-60% carbohydrates
- 15% proteins
- Remainder fats/oils
- 40 grams of fiber per day
Foods to enjoy:
- Whole grains: barley, brown rice, buckwheat, millet, oatmeal, bran, whole wheat pasta
- Legumes: red kidney, black, pinto, white, garbanzo beans; lentils; split peas
- Fruit with a low glycemic index: apples, pears, peaches, plums, bananas, oranges, grapefruit, kiwi, berries, avocado, watermelon, dates, dried apricots, raisins
- Fresh and leafy vegetables: spinach, kale, collard greens, broccoli, tomatoes, cucumber, cauliflower, cabbage, carrots, green beans, turnips, squash, pumpkin, artichoke, asparagus, mushrooms
- Bitter vegetables and greens: dandelion greens, beet greens, arugula, garlic, radicchio, endive
- [Unsalted] Nuts and seeds: pistachios, almonds, hazelnuts, walnuts; pumpkin, flax, sunflower
- Milk products with less than 1% fat; cheese 10-20% milk fat
- Lean proteins: fish, tuna, skinless chicken and turkey breast, tofu, eggs, rabbit, game birds like partridge
- Oils: olive, canola, sesame, soybean, sunflower (3 tablespoons or less)
Foods to avoid:
- Pineapple, mango
- Frozen or canned fruits (like those in thick syrup)
- Fruit juices (whole fruits have more fiber and less concentrated sugar)
- White potatoes
- Red meat
In addition to the foods above, the following spices serve to combat some of the symptoms of diabetes, such as inflammation and blood imbalances. Similarly, the element of tin is naturally rejuvenating, and may be integrated into daily life as a diabetic engaging Ayurvedic methods of health management.
- Nutmeg: stimulating spice, good for kapha and pitta doshas
- Licorice: aids in digestion, relieves constipation
- Turmeric: purifies blood, anti-inflammatory, and taking turmeric after a meal stabilizes blood sugar
- Pepper, asafetida, aloe, holy basil, garlic, onion, ginger, mustard, fenugreek, cumin, coriander, cinnamon
Developing a regular yoga practice is one recommended step to managing diabetes because yoga is a form of exercise that can target areas of potential weakness to encourage strengthening. Consider some of the following poses, which focus on abdominal strength and cleansing (by way of compression) of the abdominal organs.
- Vajrasana (thunderbolt pose)
- Navasana (boat pose)
- Matsyasana (fish pose)
- Setu Bandhu Sarvangasana (bridge pose)
- Virasana and Supta virasana (hero pose and reclined hero pose)
- Ardha matsyendrasana (half lord of the fishes pose or half spinal twist)
- Gomukasana (cow face pose)
- Uttanasana (standing forward bend)
- Halasana (plow pose)
Pranayama (Yogic breathing techniques)
Breathing practices serve as a way of intentionally diffusing prana, the life force, throughout the body. The following particular pranayama focus on awakening and cleansing of toxins in the body.
Not to be practiced without consulting your healthcare professional, therapeutic vomiting (vamana) is another way to eliminate the mucus-causing excess kapha. It is just one of the five bodily cleansing methods integral in Ayurvedic medicine. It is a way of literally clearing the body of imbalances in the doshas that contribute to diseases such as diabetes.
Ayurveda offers a perspective on health and healing that integrates elements of everyday life to serve as a medicinal process. Mind and body are one, and so just as the body must be healthy, so must the mind to achieve healthy life balance. Curious to learn more about your doshic balance? Take this quiz to find out more about your body and incorporate some of these methods into your daily health routine.