Mind over matter: how to think yourself healthy
Kevin J. Tracey, MD, may have discovered the reason why Buddhist and Hindu monks tend to live longer and healthier lives. He recently spoke at a conference co-hosted by the Columbia University Integrative Medicine Program and Tibet House, discussing how advances in western medicine might explain what has been, until now, a mystical and religious phenomenon. The guest of honor at the conference was the Dalai Lama himself, who has been very cooperative in allowing the study of his religious followers for medical purposes.
This is not the first instance of western medicine and eastern traditions meeting. "The Art of Happiness" is a best-selling book that describes a series of interviews with the Dalai Lama, conducted by an American psychologist, Howard C. Cutler. It has provided advice on lifestyle, work and relationships that has proved very popular and instrumental in motivating interest in eastern traditions. Research suggests that that determined, long-term meditation can affect almost all aspects of human health and well being. Topping the list are health problems commonly linked with stress, such as high blood pressure and heart disease, as well as psychological problems such as repressed memories, depression and panic attacks. A study of meditation techniques by Hethe House states, "Control of hypertension is probably the most important [.] medical application of these techniques yet identified. Here, traditional practices seem more effective than modern attempts to mimic them."
Furthermore, meditation techniques have been used as a way to naturally provide pain relief. Recent studies suggest that meditation could affect a much larger scope of diseases and health problems; everything from drug addiction to pre-menstrual syndrome has been proposed. However, debate continues as to the actual extent of the effects, and it is difficult to prove absolutely that meditation works independently of other factors such as diet and hygiene. Also, meditation is usually but not always beneficial. There have been a few documented cases where people with psychiatric disorders before they began practicing intensive meditation later suffered from worsening of symptoms and mania. Some publications suggest that intensive meditation can cause anxiety, depression or confusion. Although these cases are rare, their existence may have important implications for the medicinal uses of meditation, should it ever find use as a large scale medical application.
Still, the studies conducted by Hethe House in Kent found that long-term meditation reduced insurance costs by an average of 50 percent across all diseases and reduced long term heart disease costs by 87 percent in "studies of long-term meditators engaged in busy professional lives". Biological age was measured and monks with more or less experience in meditation were compared. This was done by looking at the range of pitches the test subjects could hear, something known as auditory threshold, as well as near point of vision, to see if the monks still had the senses of younger men. Systolic blood pressure was also measured. The study revealed that the biological age, measured in these terms, was lower than the chronological age for subjects in the Buddhist and Vedic community with more experience in meditation. Both Buddhist and Hindu traditions have been carefully studied, and both produce similarly interesting effects on disease and general health.
Several discoveries studying meditation practitioners have led to the "inflammatory reflex" theory. It suggests a direct link between the mind and the body, specifically the immune system. The theory has far reaching implications. As Kevin Tracey put it himself, "the literature shows that for centuries, doctors, monks, shamans, priests, acupuncturists and even laymen believed that individuals' state of mind influenced their health. But nobody could explain how, until now". The vagus nerve winds through the whole body and goes through all the major organs. Dr. Tracey and his team of researchers now know that the brain can send messages via the vagus nerve to suppress certain immune responses, most especially the release of the molecule TNF.
TNF, tumor necrosis factor, is one weapon in the body's arsenal against foreign invaders, but one that occasionally does too good a job. It's unlikely to be one of your favorite molecules, as its main purpose is to cause things like pain and redness in response to a local infection. This is usually beneficial, as it stops the infection from spreading and makes you aware of it. It can also help make the body's other immune responses more effective. For example, it attracts immune cells called neutrophils and stimulates phagocytosis, the ingestion and then destruction of foreign invaders by immune cells. However, excessive release of TNF can shorten life expectancy and cause shock and death.
This is where the brain and Vagus nerve come into play. Dr. Tracey and his colleagues have discovered that the brain uses the vagus nerve as a conduit to send chemical messages designed to stop the release of TNF, potentially improving length and quality of life. This is the inflammatory reflex.
It may not be immediately obvious how this explains the incredible effects of meditation, yoga and similar techniques. After all, Buddhist monks don't spend their days trying to block the release of a certain molecule. Buddhism and Hinduism are religions, and meditation techniques are spiritual traditions, not healthcare techniques. What the inflammatory reflex does demonstrate is that there is a direct link between thought and immune response, and it suggests that it should be possible to "think yourself better". Meditation techniques have been shown to change both the structure of the brain and the amount of activity in certain regions, such as the frontal lobes. By altering brain chemistry and mental processes it may well be possible to affect the potency of medical phenomena like the inflammatory reflex. The theory is especially important in explaining low levels of diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis, peripheral vascular disease and Crohn's disease in those who meditate.
Altering brain activity may present an entirely new and exciting way of therapeutically targeting the effects of disease. It is not yet clear the extent to which is this is possible. It may be possible to inhibit the negative effects of almost all disease, as well as the effects of dangerous biological agents such as anthrax, using meditation techniques. It will require further research to find out whether the hopes of people like Kevin Tracey are well founded. Luckily, vagus nerve activity can be effectively measured, and scientist can now further probe ancient mysteries from the east for ways to help people the world over.