A Psychological Trick Changed Diabetics' Blood Sugar Levels

A Psychological Trick Changed Diabetics' Blood Sugar Levels
(AP Photo/Koji Sasahara)
A Psychological Trick Changed Diabetics' Blood Sugar Levels
(AP Photo/Koji Sasahara)
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In a fascinating experiment, researchers at Harvard University discovered that perceived sugar intake affects blood sugar levels in people with Type 2 diabetes more than actual sugar intake, at least temporarily.

Psychologists Chanmo Park, Francesco Pagnini, and Ellen Langer recently published the results of their study in the journal Scientific Reports.

The trio recruited thirty people with Type 2 diabetes to participate in a "Beverage Tasting Study for Diabetes" exploring the effects of "specially designed beverages on the body’s reaction and cognitive functioning."

Subjects visited the lab on two separate occasions three days apart, ostensibly to drink and evaluate a zero-sugar and a high-sugar beverage tailored to help people control diabetes. But this was a trick...

In actuality, the two beverages were the same: a drink with roughly fifteen grams of sugar. Subjects were just told they were different and shown the first two nutrition facts below to complete the ruse.

After participants drank the beverages (a different one on each day), the researchers monitored their blood glucose levels at twenty-minute intervals over the ensuing hour. They found that participants who thought they were drinking the high-sugar variant had significantly elevated blood sugar levels during the monitoring period compared to those who thought they were drinking the low-sugar variant.

Average blood glucose levels over time as a function of beverage type.

"These findings challenge the mainstream assumption that natural biological and physiological metabolic homeostasis processes require sufficient insulin to allow glucose to return to normal ranges," the authors said of the results.

However, they caution that this sort of psychological trickery cannot treat Type 2 diabetes on its own. A diabetic could not, on a prolonged basis, trick themselves out of diabetes.

"Our study does not indicate whether psychological effects have long-term efficacy. Our findings instead suggest that psychological processes may be, at least temporarily, able to influence biochemical processes in diabetic metabolism."

On a broader level, the researchers say that the results support the psychobiological model of chronic disease, which suggests that psychological interventions can affect biological processes to help treat some chronic diseases.

"The goal is to find more effective treatments for millions who have resigned to feeling helpless in the battle against uncontrollable biological processes causing illness and disease, perhaps by recognizing that the mind has meaningful control in regulating health," they concluded.

Source: Park, C., Pagnini, F. & Langer, E. Glucose metabolism responds to perceived sugar intake more than actual sugar intake. Sci Rep 10, 15633 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-020-72501-w

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