Use Your Mind to Heal Your Body
Your body's best friend? Your brain! Cutting-edge research proves mind/body techniques can ease aches, illness, insomnia and more. A skeptic's guide to thinking yourself well —Erin BriedMORE FROM THIS STORY
There's a good reason you feel like a goddess when you walk out of yoga class, and it's not because you finally got your money's worth out of your gym. It's because yoga and similar mind-quieting methods have the potential to work as well as many medications at treating what ails you. "We now have compelling scientific proof that the mind can heal the body," says Herbert Benson, M.D., director emeritus of the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital and author of Relaxation Revolution. The latest promises:Your body dials down stress. Dr. Benson's research has found that mind/body practices—meditation, yoga, tai chi, deep breathing, visualization—all elicit the relaxation response, quelling the release of stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline. Your heart slows, blood pressure falls and digestion eases.Your immunity soars. The relaxation response causes cells to release micropuffs of nitric oxide, a gas that dilates blood vessels and stabilizes the immune system, Dr. Benson reported in Medical Science Monitor. Mind/body methods worked as well as drugs designed to do the same thing, without the side effects.Your brain grows. As you get older, your brain begins to shrink. But in a study in NeuroReport, researchers discovered that the prefrontal cortex and the anterior right insula, areas linked to attention and sensory processing, were thicker and more robust in those who meditate. "It's like exercise for the brain, making it stronger," says Rick Hanson, Ph.D., a neuropsychologist in San Rafael, California, and author of Buddha's Brain.Your genes change. Here's the real slap-your-forehead news: In a study in PLoS ONE, Dr. Benson compared the genes of 38 people, half of whom meditated regularly and half of whom never did. Controlling for other factors, he found that genes associated with stress-related illness behaved differently in the two groups. "These genes control not only stress but also premature aging and inflammation," he says. It seems meditators' genes were essentially telling their body to stress less and age more slowly.Despite the powerful evidence, 45 percent of you remain skeptical of mind/body medicine, according to a Self.com poll, and 2 percent say it's out-and-out baloney. Read on and we guarantee you'll change your mind—and your body, too.
Your relaxation RxWhich mind/body treatments have the most rock-solid science backing them up? Brent Bauer, M.D., director of the Complementary and Integrative Medicine Program at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, provides the big picture.Back painYogaHigh cholesterolQigongDepressionMusic therapy, qigong, yogaEating disordersMeditation, yogaFertilityVisualization, yogaHeart healthDeep breathing, qigong, yogaImmunityBreathing, chants, meditation, qigongInsomniaAcupuncture, visualization, yogaJoint painMusic therapy, qigong, yogaMigrainesAcupuncture, yoga
The #1 health habit you're not doing…yetOnly 13 percent of SELF readers meditate regularly, but two thirds of you say you'd be willing to give it a try. What's holding you back? Avoid your biggest roadblocks to inner peace and find your way om.Roadblock 1: "I don't know how."
Twenty-nine percent of you merely need instruction, so here goes: Pick something simple and recurring to focus on, a mantra. "It could be your breath, a prayer or a saying, like, 'May this be a good day,'" says Hanson, who teaches meditation. Then repeat it in your head as long as you can, up to 20 minutes. "If you get distracted, that's OK," he says. Gently refocus until the mantra has recaptured your attention.Roadblock 2: "I have no time."
Stop everything to do nothing? No can do, say 18 percent of you. Luckily, you may get benefits from meditating for as little as five minutes. If even that's a stretch, you can reduce stress simply by doing daily chores more mindfully. "Staying steadily, attentively present with everyday tasks such as doing the dishes or brushing your teeth can be a calming, informal kind of meditation," Hanson says.Roadblock 3: "I can't sit still."
Patience is the issue for 36 percent of you. Instead of fostering a quiet mind, meditation sets off a mental ticker tape of to-do and should-have-done lists. If you're a fidgety or anxious type, try a walking meditation, Hanson says. As you stroll, focus on the sensation of breathing or on your footfalls. Walking not active enough? Yoga, tai chi and jogging can all elicit the relaxation response.
Breathing lessonsThere may be no quicker way to trigger the magical relaxation response (and all the good genetic changes that come with it) than by controlling your breath. Not only will deep breathing lower your blood pressure, but recent research shows sucking wind, as it were, can also increase antioxidant levels in your blood, helping protect you from oxidative stress and all the dastardly conditions associated with it, including heart disease, hypertension, Alzheimer's disease and plain ol' aging. It's sort of silly to think you'd need instructions on how to breathe, but trust us and try this exercise from Dr. Bauer, who is also the author of the Mayo Clinic Book of Alternative Medicine. Do it twice a day, and you'll feel better.1. With eyes closed and shoulders relaxed, inhale through your nose for six counts. Expand your belly, not your chest.2. Try to hold your breath for four counts.3. Exhale through your mouth for a count of six. Repeat the sequence three to five times.
It's not all in your headBut a heck of a lot of it is. Tap into the amazing power of placebo.52 percent of you feel wholeheartedly that mind/body medicine works—and that belief alone may make it true. A study inThe Journal of Neuroscience shows that if you are feeling discomfort and are given a placebo you believe to be a painkiller, your mind will instruct your body to release feel-good endorphins. And the effect is lasting:79 percent of depressed people who responded to a mere placebo had avoided relapse even after 12 weeks, the Journal of Psychiatric Research reports. The studies used sham pills as a placebo, but you can use mind/body methods for yours. But do note: Research says folks who get real meds, plus a placebo, feel the most relief. Dr. Benson's take? "Use your innate powers and the pills."
Wait. Yoga can help cure that?Those Sun Salutations, Downward Dogs and Chaturangas are your ticket to much more than sexy curves and a lean body. Choose the right method and you can pose your way out of…Back pain
What we know People who attended only one 90-minute yoga class a week for 16 weeks reduced their back pain by two thirds and their pain medication usage by 88 percent, according to one study in the aptly named journal Pain.How it works One of many theories: Pressing into the floor activates your pressure receptors, blocking the neural pathways that signal pain, suggests Tiffany Field, Ph.D., director of the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami.Which type to try Skip the hard-core yoga and emphasize meditation and stretching. "Tight muscles can be a factor in pain, and calming your nervous system will help relax them," says Timothy McCall, M.D., author of Yoga as Medicine.Migraines
What we know Still more proof of yoga's power to alleviate ouches: Migraine sufferers who took up the habit for three months reported fewer and less intense headaches, a 2007 study in the journal Headache shows.How it works For starters, yoga reduces cortisol by relaxing you. "Nasty stress hormones only aggravate pain," Field says. Yoga also promotes better sleep, and the more soundly you snooze, the fewer pain chemicals your brain secretes.Which type to try As with treating back pain, pick a calming practice, Dr. McCall advises. Zenning out in a long Savasana (Corpse pose) at the end of class will help. So will focusing on exhalations. If it feels good, make each twice as long as your inhalations.Depression
What we know People on antidepressants who added thrice-weekly yoga for two months said they felt less depressed, anxious and angry, University of California Los Angeles research notes. In 65 percent, their depression went into remission.How it works Your hormones are at work here, too. "Yoga helps your body produce serotonin, a natural antidepressant, and helps lower cortisol levels, which are elevated in people with depression," Field says.Which type to try If you're in a slump (but still fairly fit), energizing poses such as Sun Salutations may lift you out of it. "There's a misconception that yoga is only about relaxation," Dr. McCall says. "Some practices can stimulate you."Eating disorders
What we know Could a yogi heal your eating issues? In a recent study of 50 adolescent girls with eating disorders, scientists found that an hour of yoga a week for eight weeks reduced subjects' symptoms and their overall preoccupation with food.How it works Anxiety and depression pop up more often in people with eating problems, says study coauthor Amber Frye-Johnson, a research scientist at Abbott Northwestern Hospital in Minneapolis. Yoga fans have lower rates of both.Which type to try "All yoga makes people more accepting and loving toward themselves and their body," Dr. McCall says. You may need a relaxing or energizing class based on symptoms. Consult your doctor andYogaAlliance.org to find the right one.
Chanting with the stars (and more la-la moves)
Treatment Reiki for stress
What she says The former Spice Girl says Reiki—in which a healer lightly touches you, supposedly transferring energy—helped her cope during the delivery of her youngest daughter, now 3. "Sometimes you can create lots of panic and problems," she told British OK! "I think [Reiki] helped me relax."
What science says Try it if you'd like, but don't count on major results. A 2008 review in the International Journal of Clinical Practice found that there aren't enough solid studies to show that Reiki works. Still, the lying-still-for-30-to-90-minutes part of the therapy may help you chill out, which could lower your blood pressure and heart rate.
Treatment Acupuncture for the promotion of fertility
What she says Carey took up needling after a miscarriage in 2008. Happily, her first child is due this spring. "People who know me would be, like, 'You scheduled acupuncture at a certain time every day?'" she told Access Hollywood.
What science says Studies are mixed and subjects were women who exclusively used in vitro fertilization. (Carey says she didn't.) A 2008 review concluded acupuncture produced 65 percent better odds of pregnancy. Five months later, however, a larger review in the International Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology found needles had no effect.
Treatment Chanting for anxiety and depression
What she says Love has been known to spend two to three hours a day chanting repetitive prayers created by ancient yogis. "It kills anxiety and depression dead," she told The Telegraph.
What science says Dooo it. Dooo it. Chanting confers all the benefits of meditation and helps blood flow in two parts of the brain that regulate stress, Nuclear Medicine Communications reports. But no need to emulate Courtney (please!). A mere 12 minutes a day improves memory, energy and mood, says Dharma Singh Khalsa, M.D., medical director of the Alzheimer's Research and Prevention Foundation, in Tucson, Arizona.
Treatment Gemstone therapy for fatigue
What she says Thurman has reportedly donned an orange carnelian necklace to boost vitality. The idea is that gemstones embody energy that encourages cells to heal.
What science says "Can we say from a scientific standpoint that a gem can help your body? No," says Dr. Bauer of the Mayo Clinic. "That said, if you want to hang an amethyst in front of your breakfast bowl, I can't argue too much. It's pretty."
Get your qi onMore than half of you say you've never heard of qigong. But the ancient Eastern practice, also known as Chinese yoga, can ease a long list of ailments, including heart disease, bone loss, high cholesterol and type 2 diabetes. Try these moves from Samuel Barnes, star of the DVD Element: Tai Chi for Beginners. (Tai chi is a form of qigong.) "You'll strengthen your immune system and feel your energy surge," he says. Hooked? Find a teacher at QigongInstitute.org.
Lifting Hands Stand tall with your feet hip-width apart, knees slightly bent, hands hanging down in front of thighs. Inhale and lift both hands to chest level, leading with the wrists (as shown). Then exhale and bring hands back to thighs, "painting the wall" with fingertips. Repeat for two minutes.
Universal Post Stand with heels together, toes out at a 45-degree angle. Bend knees slightly; shift weight into center of left foot; step right, weightless, foot forward. Shoulders relaxed, pretend you're hugging a giant beach ball against your chest (as shown). Close eyes; breathe deeply for two minutes. Switch feet. Repeat.
Triple Heater Stimulator Feet together, clap hands in front of forehead and rub palms together for 10 seconds to create warmth (as shown). Next, clap and rub in front of heart, then repeat in front of navel. Inhale, bringing hands in prayer position to head. Tuck chin and hold breath as you rub lower back two to five seconds. Exhale.
"I tried it"Needles for blood pressure Acupuncture so terrified me that it should have made my blood pressure worse. Yet here I was, having a man perform a task that had the actual word puncture in it. I was in my second trimester of pregnancy, and my blood pressure read a worrisome 140/100 at my OB's office. I was willing to try anything to fix it.
I began seeing Jason twice a week. He adjusted pillows and blankets for me. He listened to my story and asked after my family. I swear I could hear a pop as he punctured (yes) my skin. But the room was warm and cozy. And when I returned to my OB, I was holding a scrap of paper showing a normal reading of 110/80.
I've heard of white coat syndrome, in which vitals get worse simply because you are in the company of a doctor. I think part of what made my pressure drop in Jason's office was the opposite—a sort of kindness syndrome, in which a medical professional gives you the time you need, puts his hands on you, looks you in the eyes and tries to understand you. I'm glad that acupuncture helped my blood pressure. But I'm even more grateful that for those few hours, over those few months, it helped me. —Taffy Brodesser-Akner
Qigong for cancerI was 32 years old and five months pregnant when doctors told me I had colon cancer. At that time, in 1996, it felt like a death sentence. Still, I told them I wanted to deliver the baby and then focus on the cancer—I had gone through eight miscarriages, and this time, I was really having a baby. That's all I wanted to think about.
After my son was born, I had a six-hour surgery to remove my colon. But six months later, I learned the cancer had spread: I had a huge tumor in my liver. Surgery was difficult—40 percent of my liver was resected. Doctors offered up chemo but said they honestly didn't know if it would help. I told them, 'I've spent too much time in hospitals, away from my son. I don't want it.'
Then I met Shane. He was an incredible athlete who had never smoked yet had lung cancer. He told me about qigong, and I went to our local wellness center and joined a class called Chi-Lel Qigong. The master taught us to direct life energy: We used meditation and hand movements to direct the qi to our body parts. The point is to use your mind to overcome your 'matter.' It was calming, while also making me feel present and alert. The energy 20 people gave off was so positive. You could feel it!
The instructor told me this is not a once-in-a-while thing; to heal myself, Qigong would have to be part of my life. And it has been for 13 years. I am cancer-free, and my liver regenerated. I go in yearly for blood work, and the oncologists says that's all I need to do. I'm so grateful that I've been able to stay and watch my son grow. Who knows why people really get better? But this is what worked for me. —Cris Epstein, as told to Elizabeth DeVita-Raeburn
Hypnosis for stomachacheThe gnawing pain in my abdomen arrived one morning and wouldn't quit. When one specialist after another failed to help, my therapist suggested hypnosis. I sat on her couch, my eyes closed. "Feel how the couch supports your body," she intoned. I felt lighter, as I let the couch, not my muscles, hold me up. In the same monotone, she instructed me to relax my body. I imagined a flickering flame as I fell into oblivion.
Yet I could still hear her talking. About a mental dial I could turn down. About a word I could choose that, when I said it later, would dull the pain. After 45 minutes, she counted backward from 10 and I was out of it. The agony was not gone, but it was dulled.
My therapist told me I could do the same exercise at home—self-hypnosis. I used it until, after five years of pain, a new doctor finally pinpointed the cause: an intestinal parasite. A few antibiotics later, I was well.
I still use self-hypnosis, now and again, when I want to quiet my mind. I like that awake-falling-asleep feeling. And I like, too, having a tool that I can wield to help myself when medicine can't—or when I don't like what medicine has to offer. —Elizabeth DeVita-Raeburn
Paradise in 1 minute flatGet comfy, take a few breaths, and picture yourself on a beach. Feel the soft, pink sand, and listen to the steel drums. Visualization takes you on vacation: "When you imagine a serene image, the optic cortex is activated in the same way as when you really see the vista," Dr. Bauer says. The brain relays your bliss to the endocrine and autonomic nervous systems, lowering your heart rate and blood pressure and goosing immunity. Imagine that.
Reboot your iPod: Now it's a painkiller!For headaches or joint pain, groove out. Chronic pain sufferers who listened to music for an hour a day for seven days reduced their hurt by 20 percent, according to a study by Sandra L. Siedlecki, Ph.D., senior nurse researcher at the Cleveland Clinic. The key is to choose tunes that recall a time when you were happy and free from pain. "Usually, we listen to music to validate how we feel. That's why we play sad songs after a breakup," Siedlecki says. "But to use music therapeutically, you need to listen to songs that make you feel the way you want." Fill out this cheat sheet to create an ouch-ending playlist.
The song I've requested of every wedding deejay I've ever encountered:
I dance naked in my bedroom to ________________________
I cannot not bop my head along to ______________________
The tune I'm most likely to belt out at the top of my lungs on a road trip: ____________________________________
The song that has occasionally been known to inspire me to do the Robot: ____________________________________
I'm not at all embarrassed to tell you that I know every word to _________________________________________________
My prom* theme song: __________________________________
My no-fail seduction song: ______________________________
The song that puts me to sleep (in a good way): __________
*If you had a good time!