Doctor’s Tip: How mindfulness meditation can improve health
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Stress is harmful to our emotional as well as our physical health. A large body of scientific evidence now supports the mind-body connection. As Dean Ornish, M.D., points out in his most recent book “The Spectrum,” “Stress can suppress your immune function, cause a heart attack or stroke, increase your risk of cancer, delay wound healing, promote inflammation, cause you to gain weight, impair your memory, cause depression, exacerbate diabetes and worsen your sexual function. Just for starters.” Stress can also damage your DNA, which contributes to aging.
How does stress do all this? It initiates the “fight-or-flight” response: Stress hormones such as cortisol are released, muscles contract, blood pressure rises, blood clots more easily, arteries constrict, neurotransmitters in the brain such as serotonin are affected, sleep is disrupted, and often anxiety and depression ensue.
So stress affects our emotions, thoughts and bodies, but what many people don’t know is that we can control our thoughts, thereby preventing this harmful cascade. We all have constant chatter going on in our minds, and particularly in people prone to depression and anxiety, many of these thoughts are repetitive (i.e. obsessive) and negative. This chatter prevents us from being mindful (focused) about a lot of what we do every day, including eating.
If you are under stress, and most of us are to one degree or another, consider a class in mindfulness meditation. You will learn how to sit in a relaxed position; how to focus on your breathing; how to control your brain chatter, particularly the negative and obsessive thoughts. If you practice mindfulness meditation every day, ideally first thing in the morning, you will find that you feel much more centered the rest of the day, that you are more positive and more focused, that your mood improves. As a result you will be less prone to anxiety and depression and your physical health will benefit as well.
Dr. Ornish proved 25 years ago that heart disease can be reversed with exercise and a plant-based, whole food, low fat diet. As he became more aware of the mind-body connection, he added stress reduction to his program, and his program is now approved by Medicare. His book “The Spectrum” includes a chapter about “the stress-management spectrum” in which he recommends mindfulness meditation.
You can find mindfulness meditation programs on the Internet. However, the best way to learn this technique is through a local class. I would highly recommend the secular Mindful Life Program, taught by Lara Bartels in Carbondale (http://www.mindfullifeprogram.org, phone 970-633-0163). The brochure reads: “Combine meditation training with practical, accessible and universal skills that empower you to engage in your life with attention and intention. Learn to experience life’s events consciously and be able to respond with clarity and wisdom. Transform your life and cultivate genuine, lasting happiness.”
To some, this might sound like a new age fad. But it is actually ancient, having been practiced by Christian monks as well as Eastern religious disciples for centuries.
Dr. Feinsinger, who retired from Glenwood Medical Associates after 42 years as a family physician, now has a nonprofit Center For Prevention and Treatment of Disease Through Nutrition. He is available for free consultations about heart attack prevention and any other medical concerns. Call 970-379-5718 for an appointment. For questions about his columns, email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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