Scientists estimate there are about 35 trillion cells in the human body. At any given moment, millions of cells are being created or destroyed – a process which constantly contributes to your development. As humans continue to evolve, so do the diseases and afflictions that accompany us. The medical world works frantically to keep up, develop new diagnostic and treatment strategies and explore preventative ways to keep us healthy and striving. What resources do we have as individuals to contribute to our own healthy growth and wellness?
My previous posts focused on the mind-body connection and the powerful impact this relationship can have on our overall health. We reviewed the most relevant components of the nervous system and explored some breathing exercises aimed at activating the relaxation response via the parasympathetic branch. We also discussed how yoga combines breathing exercises, physical postures and meditation as a healing system focused on the mind-body kinship.
Now, let’s look at what the actual medical literature says about this mind-body connection and its benefits.
Health: as officially defined by the World Health Organization – a state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being, not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.
Each day we have opportunities to nurture our own mind-body association. Taking ownership of our health, making productive choices and having accountability over our actions helps strengthen this connection and better prepares us for the inevitable health challenges that come our way.
Recall my bottom line: The more connected you are with your body, the more optimally it functions.
Research on mindfulness based practices such as yoga, meditation, and mindful-based stress reduction (MBSR) has really evolved in the past decade or so. What has been widely regarded as a general positive practice is now being recognized as an evidence-based adjunct to medical treatments for various conditions.
We have previously discussed how practicing mindfulness, yoga and breath work can help reduce stress and manage anxiety. The benefits of connecting with our breath and influencing our hormonal milieu via activation of the parasympathetic nervous system may be vital in the treatment of other mental health conditions.
Stress and a sedentary lifestyle are major risk factors for cardiovascular disease. Evidence has shown that yoga may be beneficial in lowering blood pressure and cholesterol, stabilizing blood sugar and encourage healthier habits (like smoking cessation). Wow! Imagine a medication that had such wide-ranging benefits. Would you take it if prescribed?
Even further, yoga has been found to improve health-related quality of life by reducing fatigue, sleep disturbances, anxiety and depression among patients with certain types of cancer. Studies have shown that meditation increases gray matter (the part of the brain that governs memory and learning) while regular yoga practice in elderly practitioners has demonstrated positive effects on attention, memory, executive function, processing speed and general cognition. Did you know there is something called “smile therapy”? Research has shown that muscle activation when smiling lowers stress and cortisol levels after a stressful event – even if you’re not happy.
According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) approximately 1 in 4 adults in the US suffers from daily pain. This is a significant area of study among medical researchers and we have learned that chronic pain is more than a physical diagnosis. The medical community recognizes that pain has a mind-body connection and can only be described subjectively. Yoga has been proven to provide benefits for some chronic pain sufferers both physically and emotionally by helping them tune into that relaxation response which lowers inflammation and stress leading to less pain and suffering.
Keep in mind that yoga is just one type of mindfulness-based practice. It is generally considered a safe form of physical activity for healthy people when performed properly and under the guidance of a qualified instructor. It is not a panacea, but part of one’s overall approach to health.
To summarize, there is expanding medical evidence to suggest that yoga and other mindfulness practices can lower blood pressure, lower cholesterol, stabilize blood sugar, reduce fatigue and sleep disturbances, help depression and anxiety, act as a positive adjunctive cancer therapy and alleviate chronic pain. Western medicine is continuing to expand its horizon and incorporate Eastern traditions and other alternative therapies to aid in treatments for common diseases, especially when bolstered by legitimate research.
No matter how astute we are, we get sick, catastrophes happen, we feel defeated. Stress, anxiety, illness are all universal things and part of being human. Taking time to check-in and connect to the self is a practice that may prove lifesaving in the long run. Yoga teaches us to foster that mind-body connection which may help us acknowledge the red flags before they become stop signs. Using breathing techniques to cultivate the parasympathetic relaxation response helps us to accept and respond to challenges instead of rejecting and reacting to change.
I encourage you to learn more about your body. Pay attention to its intricacies and appreciate its evolving physicality.
Thank you for joining me again on this beautiful journey.
Be kind. Be mindful. Smile.
Laura M. Hays MD, FACEP
Laura is a board-certified emergency physician, assistant professor at Campbell University School of Medicine and a registered yoga instructor based in Charlotte, NC. Her ongoing practice focuses on body awareness and the exploration of how breathing techniques, meditation practice and physical postures can work together to help alleviate symptoms of common ailments. One of her main passions is helping people manage stress and anxiety by cultivating their own mind-body connection.
“I believe in the power of the pause. When the journey seems hectic and the world is moving so fast around you, take a moment to pause – breath, reconnect and find your intention. As a mom, an emergency physician and well, a human, I find this challenging at times. Yoga helps remind me to focus on the present, move with intention and stay balanced. As we navigate through life’s amazing journey it is essential that we practice introspection, open-mindedness and show kindness and gratitude to others and to ourselves.”