Monthly Archives: December 2017

The Science of Mindfulness

In a heavily peer-reviewed environment, Jon Kabat-Zinn, often termed the ‘father of mindfulness,’ proved beyond reasonable doubt that practices of Integrative Medicine—including the marriage of meditation and medicine—made Western medical science twice as curative.

More recent studies confirm that both prayer and meditation are highly reactive in both lowering our reactivity to traumatic and negative events, and also helping preserve the aging brain. Dr. David Spiegel, associate chair of psychiatry and behavioral sciences and medical director of the center for integrative medicine at Stanford University School of Medicine, explained: “Praying involves the deeper parts of the brain: the medial prefrontal cortex and the posterior cingulate cortex — the mid-front and back portions,” says Dr. Spiegel, adding that this can be seen through magnetic image resonance (MRI), which render detailed anatomical pictures. “These parts of the brain are involved in self-reflection and self-soothing.”

In another study conducted by NYU Langone Medical Center, members of Alcoholics Anonymous were placed in an MRI scanner and then shown drinking-related images to stimulate cravings—which were soon after reduced when the participants prayed. The MRI data demonstrated changes in parts of the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for the control of emotion and “the semantic reappraisal of emotion.”

Last month, researchers from UCLA found that long-term meditators had better-preserved brains than non-meditators as they aged. Participants who had been meditating for an average of 20 years had more grey matter volume throughout the brain — although older meditators still had some volume loss compared to younger meditators, it wasn’t as pronounced as the non-meditators. “We expected rather small and distinct effects located in some of the regions that had previously been associated with meditating,” said study author Florian Kurth. “Instead, what we actually observed was a widespread effect of meditation that encompassed regions throughout the entire brain.”

There is further data backing the idea that meditation and prayer can trigger the release of feel-good chemicals in the brain. Dr. Loretta G. Breuning, founder of the Inner Mammal Institute and the author of The Science of Positivity and Habits of a Happy Brain, explains that when we pray, we can activate neural pathways developed when young to release hormones such as oxytocin. “Oxytocin is known for its role in maternal labor and lactation, but it also [enables] social trust and attachment, giving us a good feeling despite living in a world of threat,” says Dr. Breuning. “It’s the idea of ‘I can count on something to protect me.’ So when a situation comes up and you’re out of ideas and you are helpless, feeling much like you did when you were a baby, prayer can provide some other source of hope.”

While meditation is not a panacea or cure-all, there is ample evidence that it may benefit those who practice it regularly. If you have a few minutes in the morning or evening, rather than turning on your phone or going online, see what happens if you try quieting down your mind, and paying attention to your thoughts while letting them go without reactions. If the research is accurate, a few minutes of mindful meditation may make a big difference.

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Gut & Autoimmunity: The Intimate Ties

The ways in which factors like genes, infections, the microbiome/gut, and environment—the formulaic composition of the autoimmune system—interact collectively create environments that promote either disease or health. Though genes cannot technically be altered, they can easily be influenced, and manifest themselves differently through the microbiome, infections, and environment.

Autoimmune diseases are the third leading cause of morbidity in the industrialized world, surpassed only by cancer and heart disease. Several researchers are proponents of a framework that uses scientifically based targeted nutritional therapies to address the underlying systemic imbalances of these diseases.

This approach, rooted in Functional Medicine, concentrates on the body holistically, as a whole, rather than a collection of separate entities and organs. Because autoimmune diseases can be influenced through food and nutrition, and the gastrointestinal track ‘controls’ between 70 and 80% of the body’s immune cells, certain dietary changes can both feed the microbiome and reduce inflammation: ultimately lessening allergies and autoimmunity.

The gut is the gateway to health, as it houses 80% of the immune system, and it is impossible to have a healthy immune system without a healthy gut. Research from Alessio Fassano confirms that if you have an autoimmune disease, your gut has become leaky, meaning the tight junctions that typically hold gut lining together have become loose, allowing undigested food particles, microbes, toxins, and more to escape your gut and enter your bloodstream.

All of these particles are recognized by the immune system as foreign invaders, sending the immune system into high alert and triggering an extreme spike in inflammation. This continual strain on the immune system ultimately causes it to go haywire, and it ends up attacking the body’s own tissues by mistake.

Moreover, gluten contributes to autoimmune disease in three key ways. It is the primary cause of leaky gut because gluten triggers the release of zonulin in the intestines, a chemical that tells gut lining to “open up.” Gluten is also highly inflammatory, causing stress to the immune system. Additionally, the gluten protein has a similar chemical structure to some of the body’s tissues (specifically the thyroid), which can lead to molecular mimicry: wherein the body mistakes its own tissues for gluten and attacks them.

Toxic molds, like mycotoxins, and heavy metals such as mercury are the two primary toxins found in those with autoimmune conditions. Mycotoxins are volatile compounds produced by toxic molds that wreak havoc on the immune system. We are exposed to heavy metals like mercury in different ways: mercury amalgam fillings in teeth, fish consumption, and the environment–yet mercury is toxic to the human body.

Some other interventions include eating more plant foods, particularly fermented foods such as kefir, kimchi, and kombucha; removing cow’s milk and adding supplements and vitamins can also help fight disease—rather than feed it. If you are interested in comprehensive metabolic, functional, and nutritional approaches to gastrointestinal dysfunction and diseases, sign up for our Module IV: Gastroenterology, taking place in Nashville, Tennessee from September 27-30, 2018. 

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The Cost of Chronic Disease

The primary issue that consumes the majority of the burden of healthcare costs in the United States is preventable chronic disease: while the most prevalent health conditions are simultaneously the most avoidable, they continue to cost the country’s budget billions of dollars. While overall numbers have decreased since 2010, when chronic disease cost the U.S. a total of $315 billion, morbid obesity rates have continued to rapidly spike—a condition that leads to a range of critical health issues including heart disease, diabetes, and stroke.

Primary care providers have long faced the struggle of determining how to implement best practice care for patients diagnosed with chronic diseases. Recent studies indicate that almost half of the entire U.S. population has at least one chronic health condition—including heart disease, cancer, diabetes, obesity, or arthritis. Statistics designate these health care treatments costs to account for 86% of cumulative national healthcare spending, and the CDC reports that chronic conditions are the leading causes of death and disability in the country.

Yet the past decade has seen the advent and proliferation of digital health technology, spurring the generation of new techniques and strategies for healthcare professionals to utilize in chronic disease management. These types of technology vary in terms of accessibility and usability, but include remote monitoring, mobile health apps installable on phones, and wireless wearables—which serve as activity trackers.

A series of interviews conducted by Medical News Today demonstrate a bright future for the potential of new technology, and its ability to spur and provide high-quality care. Suzanne Falck, MD, an associate professor of internal medicine at the University of Illinois College of Medicine, noted that a highly successful digital tool is currently in use for the management of heart failure: an implanted sensor immediately transmits data to a healthcare practitioner, who then analyzes the data in order to make medical recommendations. Further clinical trials and studies indicate that remote monitoring is more cost-effective than traditional, conventional management.

Moreover, the burgeoning popularity of medical apps signifies that mobile technology can make a hugely positive impact on chronic disease management. There are currently approximately 259,000 medical health apps available to purchase; over half are aimed at targeting consumers with chronic conditions. Clinical trials have repeatedly shown that patients with type 2 diabetes who utilized an app to monitor their blood glucose levels showed greater benefits than those who did not. A recent article in Diabetes Technology & Therapeutics states that the prognosis in patients with diabetes is ‘strongly influenced by the degree of control of their disease,’ which reinforces the effectiveness of self-management support through mobile apps.

Another innovative and exciting development is wearable technology and devices, which are currently being studied in a variety of clinical research settings. Many healthcare providers believe that the ‘potential of this technology is endless,’ as they can improve access to care while simultaneously enhancing convenience—and likely patient compliance.

Most importantly, being conscious of medicinal needs and treatments requires a consistently high level of responsibility and awareness. Healthcare experts urge patients to take active, informed roles in managing their health: online workshops have been developed to offer chronic disease self-management programs, which have been proven to significantly improve health statuses. Moreover, healthcare practitioners and professionals must collectively work together and utilize the new landscape of digital medical technology to their patients’ benefits.

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