Bringing Mindfulness to Medicine
I learned to meditate over 20 years ago, taught by my cousin who is a Zen Buddhist. It opened the doors for me to begin a lifelong practice of many different meditation techniques, including Vipassana, yoga, and all different kinds of spiritual exploration with wonderful teachers. As I practiced and practiced, I noticed that I was able to listen more deeply to both myself and my patients, and felt less stressed in my daily work as a medical doctor, treating people with complex chronic disease.
It wasn’t until 15 years ago when I began to work with the Center For Mind Body Medicine, that I learned the importance of teaching my patients these skills, too. Estimates are that stress is a contributing factor for 80% of all chronic illness in our country, and numerous studies have shown the power of various types of meditation and mind-body skills to reduce the effects of stress in the body, and in many cases, reverse illness. I talk at length about this in my book, The Immune System Recovery Plan, A Doctor’s 4-Step Program for Treating Autoimmune Disease. In fact, Part 2 is “Understanding The Stress Connection” and includes a workbook and guide that emphasizes the importance of learning tools for relaxation on healing your immune system.
But mindfulness has other applications in medicine, beyond just learning tools to manage stress. Meditation also cultivates a self-awareness that is a crucial part of any health program. Long gone are the days that you can just go to a doctor and get a pill to get “fixed.” Instead, each person becomes a partner in their own care, and must take responsibility for their health behavior, because you cannot reverse a chronic illness without a lifestyle change. What do I mean by lifestyle? This is where we address food, exercise, smoking, drinking, sleeping, and yes, stress management.
Lifestyle medicine is the foundation for Functional Medicine, the medical specialty that focuses on preventing and treating chronic illness. This approach has finally found a place in the conventional medical world and it’s about time. The challenge is that it is hard for people to change. And this is where mindfulness comes in. In addition to offering the education and training to make the necessary changes, I am always giving my patients homework that require them to be mindful. I call these self-awareness experiments, and the goal is to create an “ah ha!” moment so that each person can really feel the effects of their choices in their body.
Here’s an example: I believe nutrition programs need to be personalized. There is no “one size fits all.” This means that everyone needs to figure out which foods feel good, and which foods trigger symptoms—even something as simple as feeling tired, puffy and having difficulty concentrating. To do this, each person goes home, removes a given food like gluten or dairy, for 3 weeks, and then reintroduces it, paying close attention to how they feel. Without the mindfulness piece the changes in the body will remain unobserved and unnoticed, the experiment unsuccessful. On the other hand, if you notice that one of these foods trigger a symptom you’ve been having, what I call an “ah ha!” moment, the experiment has the power to result in permanent change and improvement in your health.
So remember, the mindfulness you are busy cultivating “on the mat” can be also important for you to learn about how to improve your health “off the mat.” Not only can this attention be brought to lifestyle choices, but also to any kind of medical decision you might have to make. When you go inside, the answers are there.