Diabetes and Massage Therapy: Yes, It Could Lower Your Blood Sugar

If your experience of modern medicine’s approach to diabetes was anything like mine, you were given two basic keys to managing your blood sugar shortly after your diagnosis (and neither were a pamphlet on diabetes and massage).

First, you were told that you’ll need to track your carbohydrate intake from now on. Along with that you were probably told that the expectation for adhering to any sort of diet plan is incredibly low. After all, you made it this far in your life without watching what you eat, so what are the odds you’re going to change now? 

The second key makes up for that though. It’s the promise of modern medicine. You just take a pill and go enjoy your burger and shake, no effort, no stress. After a while, you’ll up the dosage and maybe add another pill or two, or even insulin injections if those don’t work.

The likelihood of “reversing” diabetes or managing it purely through diet and lifestyle is slim. Again, the bar here is very low. Beyond a few informative packets you’ll likely toss on the way out of the office, no one really pushes you to make healthier diet choices or to find ways to maximize your physical activity like your actual health depends on it.

That’s why we have medicines.

By my reckoning the problem with this approach is twofold. First, there’s a lot we can accomplish with diet and exercise. I know because I’ve done it myself. When I was diagnosed, my blood sugars were in the 500s and my A1c mirrored it. I needed insulin and metformin to get it back down to normal. Through a years-long process of changing the way I eat and move, and much to the surprise of my doctor, I achieved remission. It’s unheard of, he assured me. And I’ve heard the same from my coaching colleagues in medical practice as well.

Even for all the focus I’ve put on my health since then, there was something in my diabetes management strategy that I missed until just last year when I experienced an uncharacteristic and alarming blood sugar spike for several months. It’s the second problem with the medicine-centered approach. It’s the key no one really talks about, not even the folks advocating for plant-based diets as a way to manage blood sugar.

I’m talking about the influence of stress on diabetes.

Diabetes and Massage Therapy

Stress relief is truly the bridge that connects diabetes and massage therapy. And that makes sense, right? I mean, if there’s anything we all associate with massage therapy, it’s relaxation. People book a massage after stressful events or as a means of managing peak stress levels.

From my perspective, both the massage industry and diabetes research suffer from a curious desire to make themselves more complicated though. It’s as if, to some degree, we’re afraid of giving our mindset enough power to influence the physical condition of our body. So, diabetes becomes this mysteriously unmanageable monster we can only ever treat with medication. And massage therapy becomes this practice we have to justify as medically necessary for some reason other than the simple reality of stress relief.

Mind and body are connected though. Where some cultures might divide them, holistically we can even think of them as one being. After all, what is a mind but the thoughts and feelings of a brain and nervous system, themselves part of a body?

Still, the need to make massage therapy “medical” (in the sense of being more than a relaxation technique) has produced some great research on diabetes. A systematic review of scientific literature on diabetes and massage published in 2001, noted that massage might influence insulin uptake at the injection site, lower or normalize blood glucose levels, and improve certain forms of diabetic neuropathy.

Of note, the paper’s authors write:

“Additionally, massage has been shown to decrease anxiety in a variety of patient populations, including people with diabetes. These stress-reducing benefits of massage have raised the possibility that massage may be of benefit to people with diabetes by inducing the relaxation response, thereby controlling the counter-regulatory stress hormones and permitting the body to use insulin more effectively.”

A 2019 systematic review covering the previous twenty years of research on diabetes and massage noted similar effects for diabetics, including “a decrease in blood glucose, hemoglobin A1c (HbA1c) levels while an improvement in neuropathic pain and diabetic foot ulcer.”

What This Means For Diabetics

The bottom line is that depending on what your symptoms are, how well your diabetes is managed, and what kind of massage you’re receiving, massage therapy could really help you with a lot of the medical concerns you have.

Beyond the coulds and cans and maybes though, I truly think we (as diabetics) can look at massage as something that helps us relax. And that’s good enough, no other medical work needed. Helping diabetics relax equals better body use of insulin. That in itself is phenomenal.

The cool thing about being as fixated on healthy eating and fitness as I have been since my diagnosis, is that I can rule out most of the usual suspects when I see my blood sugar levels spike. I know it’s not what I’m eating. And I know it’s not that I’m sitting around the house or office too much.

The thing no one prepared me for or talked to me about before I saw it though was that high levels of stress in your life can send your blood sugar high on up there too. For about a month, I was seeing numbers in the upper 200s, and even after restarting medication, there was little change. It was only after I got my stress back under control that I saw relief.

If we care about our health post-diagnosis, we can’t afford to dismiss the impact of chronic stress on our physical health. And with that in mind, making massage therapy a regular part of our lives is a great way to better manage our stress level and our long-term outcomes living with diabetes.

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