For years, western medicine ignored the potential health effects of what it now calls Integrative and Complementary Medicine. But in the past decade, extensive research at a number of prominent institutions has found that a number of therapies that were once viewed as unorthodox actually offer significant benefits. Now, major university medical centers and cancer hospitals are rushing to incorporate complementary therapies into their care, while stressing that these approaches are complementary to—not a replacement for—traditional cancer treatment.
Among the therapies that researchers have found beneficial are meditation and other activities that encourage relaxation, including cognitive behavioral therapy, mindfulness, repetitive prayer, yoga, tai chi, even knitting. It turns out they help reverse the natural response to stress, breaking the cycle of inflammation that gets ignited with cancer. They also alleviate physical as well as psychological symptoms of stress and disease.
Stopping the Stress Cycle
When we’re stressed—physically or emotionally—the natural response is to go into fight or flight mode. The brain releases stress hormones. The body revs up in preparation of decisive action. The heart races and we become hyper-vigilant. If the stress continues, so does the response, which leads to inflammation at the cellular level with all sorts of negative consequences. It disrupts sleep, it interferes with our immune systems and it turns on genes that inhibit long life.
Meditation and other relaxation activities help stop the stress cycle and reduce the negative impacts. They reduce anxiety, depression and insomnia. They improve energy and metabolism. And, they strengthen the immune response, helping to keep us healthy. Research continues to build the case that we could all benefit from finding a little “om” in our lives. But, it’s particularly important for cancer patients. There appears to be a connection between reduced stress and slowed tumor progression as well as reduced likelihood of recurrence—better sleep, stronger immunity, better defense against mutant cells.
Turn Off Stress
It doesn’t take years of being a yogi to benefit either. According to one study at the Benson Henry Institute, part of the Harvard/Massachusetts General Hospital network, twenty minutes of relaxation activity a day for just eight weeks has been shown to create lasting changes in how our bodies function. More benefit comes with more practice, and we have to keep at it to maintain the benefits gained, but the potential payoff is huge.
There are lots of ways to turn off the stress and turn on the relaxation response. All it takes is focusing on a repetitive sound or movement while stopping the flow of everyday thoughts. So, make time for yoga. Use a meditation app on your phone. Sing in the choir, take up Qi Gong, or repeat “knit one purl one” while the needles fly. You’ll feel better, and it just might help you get and stay healthy, too.
For more information about the relaxation response, go to:
Benson-Henry Institute, part of the Harvard/Massachusetts General Hospital network
Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center Integrative Medicine
MD Anderson Cancer Center Integrative Medicine Program
US National Institutes of Health National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health
And if you are looking for ways to integrate meditation into your life, there are a number of free apps available for your phone that might help. Calm offers mindfulness meditations, as does Smiling Mind. And Create to Heal provides guided meditations and art to assist in stress reduction and healing.
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