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Complementary Medicine, In the News, Neuroscience, Stanford News

Using meditation to train the brain

Using meditation to train the brain

BF meditation

Previous research has shown that practicing meditation regularly can induce positive changes in the body and can help reduce stress, improve heart health and boost the immune system. A piece today on the Huffington Post explores findings from image studies, including research done here, showing how meditation can also be used to do things like alter the brain’s structure and function and increase an individual’s empathy:

Research at Stanford University’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education made some incredible findings last year. Neuroeconomist Brian Knutson hooked up several monks’ brains to MRI scanners to examine their risk and reward systems. Ordinarily, the brain’s nucleus accumbens experiences a dopamine rush when you experience something pleasant — like having sex, eating a slice of chocolate cake, or finding a $20 bill in your pocket. But Knutson’s research, still in the early stages, is showing that in Tibetan Buddhist monks, this area of the brain may be able to light up for altruistic reasons.

“There are many neuroscientists out there looking at mindfulness, but not a lot who are studying compassion,” Knutson told the San Francisco Chronicle. “The Buddhist view of the world can provide some potentially interesting information about the subcortical reward circuits involved in motivation.”

[University of Wisconsin neuroscientist Richard J.] Davidson’s research on… monks also found that meditation on compassion can produce powerful changes in the brain. When the monks were asked to meditate on “unconditional loving-kindness and compassion,” their brains generated powerful gamma rays that may have indicated a compassionate state of mind, Wired reported in 2006. This suggests, then, that empathy may be able to be cultivated by “exercising” the brain through loving-kindness meditation.

Previously: How meditation can influence gene activity, How mindfulness-based therapies can improve attention and health, Stanford scientists examine meditation and compassion in the brain and Study shows mindfulness may reduce cancer patients’ anxiety and depression 
Photo by Bliss Flow Yoga

Complementary Medicine, In the News, Mental Health, Research, Stanford News

Exploring the science of hypnosis with Stanford’s David Spiegel

Exploring the science of hypnosis with Stanford's David Spiegel

Are you hypnotizable? Chantell Williams, with National Geographic’s Youth Radio, recently sought that answer about herself and turned to Stanford’s David Spiegel, MD, for help.

A psychiatrist who uses hypnosis to treat patients for things like pain and phobias, Spiegel published an imaging study last year showing how the areas of the brain associated with executive control and attention tend to have less activity in people who can’t be put into a hypnotic trance compared to those who can be. This means, Spiegel told me then, that hypnotizability is “less about personality variables and more about cognitive style.”

Noting that hypnosis is “literally the oldest western conception of a psycho-therapy,” Spiegel discusses his work and the science behind the therapy in a podcast with Williams. As for whether Williams had success with self hypnosis, you’ll just have to listen.

Previously: David Spiegel discusses the healing properties of hypnosis, Not everyone can be hypnotized – and researchers are one step closer to understanding why, Easing pain and improving recovery with hypnosis and More patients turning to hypnosis to help ease symptoms
Photo by SantaRosa OLD SKOOL

Complementary Medicine, NIH, Nutrition, Public Health

A web-based tool to search ingredient information for dietary supplements

A web-based tool to search ingredient information for dietary supplements

The latest data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that more than half of adults in the United States regularly take some sort of dietary supplement, such as vitamins or herbal remedies.

In an effort to help Americans and researchers easily find product and ingredient information for dietary supplements, the National Institutes of Health launched the Dietary Supplement Label Database today.

The database contains information on about 17,000 dietary supplements, and developers plan to update it regularly to expand its listing to include the more than 55,000 commercial products available for purchase in the U.S. The database can also be accessed on mobile devices using the My Dietary Supplements (MyDS) app.

Paul Coates, PhD, director of the NIH Office of Dietary Supplements, commented on how the database will benefit researchers and the public in a release:

This database will be of great value to many diverse groups of people, including nutrition researchers, healthcare providers, consumers, and others. For example, research scientists might use the Dietary Supplement Label Database to determine total nutrient intakes from food and supplements in populations they study.

Features of the database include:

  • Quick Search: Search for any ingredient or specific text on a label.
  • Search for Dietary Ingredients: An alphabetical list of ingredients is also provided.
  • Search for Specific Products: An alphabetical list of products is also provided.
  • Browse Contact Information: Search by supplement manufacturer or distributor.
  • Advanced Search: Provides options for expanding a search by using a combination of search options including dietary ingredient, product/brand name, health-related claims, and label statements.

Previously: NIH hosts Facebook chat on science and safety of herbal supplements, Caution advised for cancer patients who take herbal supplements, Roughly 9 percent of U.S. moms give infants herbal supplements and Older adults increasingly turning to complementary medicine
Photo by Lauren Silverman

Complementary Medicine, NIH, Public Health, Public Safety

NIH hosts Facebook chat on science and safety of herbal supplements

Herbal supplements have grown in popularity over the past few years as people turn to natural remedies hoping to lose weight, reduce arthritis symptoms, relieve depression or treat a range of other health conditions. But recent studies and a Congressional investigation have shown that such products can contain trace amounts of lead and other contaminants, or may cause dangerous side effects when mixed with certain medications.

To answer questions about contaminants or potentially harmful side effects of herbal remedies, the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) at the National Institutes of Health is hosting a Facebook chat about the science and safety of herbal supplements. The chat will be held on Thursday at 12 noon Pacific Time.

Joining the conversation will be Craig Hopp, PhD, a program officer at NCCAM involved in ensuring products are safely and properly characterized, and John Williamson, PhD, who works with Hopp in overseeing the portfolio of grants relating to natural products and ethnomedicine. In addition to fielding questions, Hopp and Williamson will share information from agency’s Herbs at a Glance series, which is now available for download as an eBook.

Previously: Caution advised for cancer patients who take herbal supplements and Roughly 9 percent of U.S. moms give infants herbal supplements
Photo by thegarethwiscombe

Complementary Medicine, Mental Health, Research, Stanford News

The promise of yoga-based treatments to help veterans with PTSD

The promise of yoga-based treatments to help veterans with PTSD

A close friend recently told me about the post-traumatic stress disorder research of Stanford’s Emma Seppala, PhD, whom she knows from the yoga community in Madison, Wisc. (Seppela did her postdoctoral work there.) It was amazing stuff, I was told (and what a small world, I thought.)

And so, I was eager to hear yesterday about one of Seppala’s studies, which found that yoga-based breathing exercises dramatically decreased PTSD in veterans – and that the effect lasted a full one year after the study period.

As Brooke Donald reports:

Twenty-one male veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars participated. Half took part in the intervention, a seven-day workshop that emphasized a set of breathing techniques from the Sudarshan Kriya Yoga practice. The rhythmic breathing patterns exercised during this practice are meant to relax participants physically and mentally, and reduce symptoms of anxiety, depression and stress.

“Some people think of it as yoga, but it’s really more breathing – an active breathing intervention,” Seppala explained.

Before and after the workshop, which lasted three hours a day, the veterans completed questionnaires about how they were feeling. They also underwent cognitive and physiological tests to measure how they responded to loud noises and other startling stimuli.

The questionnaires were given and the tests were taken again a month after the workshop, then a year after.

Seppala called the results “extraordinary.”

Traditional PTSD is not effective for a large chunk of veterans, Seppala said, and this study provides numbers to back up anecdotal evidence that yogic breathing techniques can be helpful. She hopes that “having the data will help move this kind of treatment forward in a more substantial way” and will garner the attention of policymakers.

Seppala, the associate director of the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education here, is now preparing the study for publication. Her work and that of University of Wisconsin’s Richard Davidson, PhD, was recently featured in the documentary “Free the Mind.”

Previously: Using mindfulness therapies to treat veterans’ PTSD, As soldiers return home, demand for psychologists with military experience grows, Stanford and other medical schools to increase training and research for PTSD, combat injuries and Can training soldiers to meditate combat PTSD?
Photo of veteran Adam Burn practicing yogic breathing techniques by Linda Cicero

Complementary Medicine, Genetics, Mental Health

How meditation can influence gene activity

How meditation can influence gene activity

A growing body of scientific evidence shows that mindful-based therapies, such as meditation, can lower psychological stress and boost both mental and physical health. Now findings recently published in PLoS One suggest that such practices may also change gene activity.

In the small study, researchers recruited individuals who had no prior meditation experience and examined participants’ genetic profile prior to their adoption of a basic daily relaxation practice. The 10- to 20-minute routine included reciting words, breathing exercises and attempts to exclude everyday thought. The New Scientist reports:

After eight weeks of performing the technique daily, the volunteers gene profile was analysed again. Clusters of important beneficial genes had become more active and harmful ones less so.

The boosted genes had three main beneficial effects: improving the efficiency of mitochondria, the powerhouse of cells; boosting insulin production, which improves control of blood sugar; and preventing the depletion of telomeres, caps on chromosomes that help to keep DNA stable and so prevent cells wearing out and ageing.

Clusters of genes that became less active were those governed by a master gene called NF-kappaB, which triggers chronic inflammation leading to diseases including high blood pressure, heart disease, inflammatory bowel disease and some cancers.

Even more interesting was that researchers found evidence to suggest that such changes can occur quickly and that regularly meditating can have lasting health effects:

By taking blood immediately after before and after performing the technique on a single day, researchers also showed that the gene changes happened within minutes.

For comparison, the researchers also took samples from 26 volunteers who had practised relaxation techniques for at least three years. They had beneficial gene profiles even before performing their routines in the lab, suggesting that the techniques had resulted in long term changes to their genes.

Previously: How mindfulness-based therapies can improve attention and health, Study offers insights into how yoga eases stress, Stanford scientists examine meditation and compassion in the brain and Study shows meditation may alter areas of the brain associated with psychiatric disorders
Photo by Georgie Sharp

Complementary Medicine, Mental Health, Research

Using mindfulness therapies to treat veterans’ PTSD

Using mindfulness therapies to treat veterans' PTSD

Past research has suggested that teaching soldiers meditation exercises prior to their deployment can help them better cope with the trauma of war. Now, new findings show that mindfulness-based therapies can also be effective in helping treat veterans diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after they return home.

In the study (subscription required), researchers assigned veterans with chronic PTSD to either a mindfulness-based cognitive therapy group or traditional treatment program. Individuals in the mindfulness treatment groups completed  in-class exercises, such as “body scanning,” where they focused on pain, tension and other physical sensations in various parts of their bodies, and were instructed to perform activities at home. According to a story posted on PsychCentral today:

After eight weeks of treatment, 73 percent of patients in the mindfulness group displayed meaningful improvement compared to 33 percent in the treatment-as-usual groups.

[Anthony King, PhD, the study’s lead author said in a release] the most noticeable area of improvement for patients in the mindfulness group was a reduction in avoidance symptoms.

One of the main tenets of mindfulness therapy is a sustained focus on thoughts and memories, even ones that might be unpleasant.

“Part of the psychological process of PTSD often includes avoidance and suppression of painful emotions and memories, which allows symptoms of the disorder to continue,” King said. “Through the mindfulness intervention, however, we found that many of our patients were able to stop this pattern of avoidance and see an improvement in their symptoms.”

The findings are noteworthy considering the growing demand for PTSD treatment among soldiers returning from combat.

Previously: U.S. consortium launches effort to identify PTSD biomarkers to improve diagnosis and treatment, Using a mobile-based app to help manage PTSD and Stanford and other medical schools to increase training and research for PTSD, combat injuries
Photo by felicito rustique

Complementary Medicine, Men's Health, Research

How mindfulness-based therapies can improve attention and health

How mindfulness-based therapies can improve attention and health

There’s a thought-provoking feature story in the latest issue of Scientific American about the growing body of scientific evidence showing that mindfulness training lowers psychological stress and boosts both mental and physical health.

In the piece (subscription required), University of Miami psychologist Amishi Jha, PhD, systematically outlines the history of mindfulness research from the late 1970s when Jon Kabat-Zinn, PhD, began teaching the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program at the University of Massachusetts Medical School to present day. In the past three decades, have shown that mindfulness-based therapies can be useful in treating anxiety disorders, preventing recurrence of depression and easing chronic pain.

Jah writes in the piece that she and colleagues recently completed a study involving U.S. Marines that suggested mindfulness training can both sharpen focus and improve mood:

… [W]orking memory capacity shrinks under stress, which marines experience as they prepare for military deployment. Indeed, we found that marines who did not receive mindfulness training had lower working memory capacity, more itinerant minds and worse mood at the end of the eight weeks than they did when the study began. Marines who engaged in mindfulness exercises for 12 minutes or more every day, however, kept their working memory capacity, focus and mood stable over the eight weeks. The more an individual practiced, the better he or she fared, with those who practiced the most showing improvements in memory and mood by the end of the study. These results are in line with other findings that suggest that better control of attention is the most effective way to regulate mood.

Several groups of researchers have found that these improvements in performance correspond to tractable changes in brain structure and function. In the brain, a network of regions, including certain sections of the prefrontal and parietal cortex (at the front and top surface of the brain), support voluntary or top-down selective attention. Meanwhile other parts of the prefrontal and parietal cortex, together with the insula, form a network that monitors what is happening in a bottom-up fashion. In 2012 neuroscientist Eileen Luders and her colleagues at the University of California, Los Angeles, reported that certain parts of this bottom-up network—prominently the insula—are more intricately and tightly folded in people who have engaged in mindfulness training for an average of 20 years compared with otherwise similar untrained individuals. The additional folds are very likely to indicate more efficient communication among neurons in these regions, which may underpin better bottom-up attention.

The full article is worth a read.

Previously: Stanford scientists examine meditation and compassion in the brain, Study shows mindfulness may reduce cancer patients’ anxiety and depression and Rep. Tim Ryan visits Stanford to discuss how the U.S. can benefit from meditation-based practices
Photo by lululemon athletica

Chronic Disease, Complementary Medicine, Parenting, Pediatrics

Study shows complementary medicine use high among children with chronic health conditions

Research published today in Pediatrics finds that the use of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) is common among children, especially those who have been diagnosed with chronic health conditions such as asthma.

In the study, Canadian researchers surveyed 926 parents at two hospitals about their child’s CAM use. The pediatrics patients were being treated for health conditions in one of the following areas: cardiology, neurology, oncology, gastroenterology or respiratory health. Healthland reports:

… half said their children had used the therapies at the same time they were taking conventional drugs, while 10% tried alternative therapies before turning to conventional treatments and 5% used CAM in place of conventional medicine. Yet many parents weren’t telling pediatricians that their children were using CAM, which could increase the possibility of dangerous interactions.

The most commonly used CAM therapies included massage, faith healing, chiropractic and aromatherapy, while the most popular products to treat conditions ranging from cancer to asthma and inflammatory bowel disease were vitamins and minerals, herbal remedies and homeopathic medicines.

In the U.S., a recent survey found that one in nine children had used alternative therapies to treat a health condition. Vohra says parents’ own beliefs about and reliance on CAM therapies is a major factor behind its use in children, as is parents’ desire to provide their children with every possible health option. “For most parents, their number one priority is the health of their children so they’re interested in exploring all options to promote their children’s health,” says [Sunita Vohra, MD, lead author of the study.] “Many parents consider all products that are available and seek out not only conventional health care but also complementary health care.”

Previously: NIH to host Twitter chat on complementary medicine and children, Study shows meditation may lower teens’ risk of developing heart disease, New NIH series offers consumer-friendly tips on complementary health practices and Report highlights how integrative medicine is used in the U.S.
Photo by Wellcome Images

Complementary Medicine, Health and Fitness, Mental Health, NIH

NIH hosts Twitter chat on using mind and body practices for managing holiday stress and anxiety

NIH hosts Twitter chat on using mind and body practices for managing holiday stress and anxiety

Many of us, myself included, turn to yoga, meditation, tai chi or other mind body practices to reduce stress and relieve anxiety. While past studies provide insights into how these approaches can put us at ease, researchers are still working to understand exactly how such psychosocial interventions can lessen the adverse effects stress on our physical and mental health.

Tomorrow, the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) at the National Institutes of Health is hosting a Twitter chat on managing holiday stress and what recent research says about the safety and effectiveness of mind body practices for de-stressing. The chat will be held at 12:30 PM Pacific Time. To join participate in the discussion, use the hashtag #nccamchat or follow @NCCAM. Joining the conversation will be NCCAM program officer John Glowa, PhD, who oversees the center’s behavioral health research portfolio, and Daniel Pine, MD, from the  National Institute of Mental Health.

On a related note, the latest Ask Stanford Med Q&A features David Spiegel, MD, director of the Stanford Center for Stress and Health and medical director of the Stanford Center for Integrative Medicine, responding to questions about managing seasonal stress and depression. In the piece, Spiegel discusses the scientific evidence relating to the use of natural remedies, including fish oil and St. John’s wort, in treating holiday stress and depression.

Previously: Ask Stanford Med: David Spiegel answers your questions on holiday stress and depression, Report highlights how integrative medicine is used in the U.S., More hospitals offering complementary medicine and Meditate and call me in the morning: Study looks at doctors’ referrals for mind-body therapies
Photo by Toby Gray

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