Dr. Mardi Crane-Godrea, as assistant professor in the department ofMicrobiology and Immunology at Dartmouth College and Peter Payne, a Qigong teacher, spoke at DHMC on April 26th. Both have personal interests in the concept of conscious self-regulation and the positive health effects it has.
A number of activities are associated with improved outcomes in medicine such as yoga, tai chi, and qigong. The question is do these activities simply make people feel good or do they make changes in the neurologic, endocrine, and immune systems that influence the course of disease, healing, and wellness? Their presentation sought to connect the dots, not providing original research, but an overview of this unique field.
Crane-Godrea and Payne define self-regulation as “an action a person can take to help restore or maintain their mental, physical, or physiological health.” In other words, it is how to regulate or balance ourselves. The key stimulation that puts this system out of balance is stressors and stress responses.
There are a variety of different stressors: physical (such as cold, heat, noise, injury), physiological (such as infection, toxins, sleep deprivation), genetic DNA abnormalities, affect (emotion), and cognitive (negative thoughts or beliefs). Getting rid of a stressor is different from getting rid of stress. Stressors you can run away from, go on a vacation, or have a surgery. A stress response is what our bodies do in reaction.
There are three typical responses to these stresses. The first is the acute, typical response. A well-regulated system responds appropriately to these stressors to preserve balance. The response system will alternate between the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems so that every stress can be balanced and the body can relax once again. The second is chronic stress; the stress will keep coming so there is no time to come back to a balanced situation. The thirds is traumatic stress, a stress that is too extreme, too fast, and too soon. This activates the fight or flight reaction so intensely that the parasympathetic and sympathetic systems will both increase, rather than balance out as usual, and the subject will feel numbness. This can sometimes resolve itself, or lead to wild fluctuates of one and off, like in posttraumatic stress disorder. Other stress related diseases caused by this are FMS, IBS, migraines, depression, OCD, PTSS, and a compromised immune system.
Crane-Godrea then goes into a series of instances when meditation helped with these stress-related diseases. The first study showed that meditation training enhanced the immune system’s respond to the flu vaccine. The participants were trained only for eight weeks in meditation and show significant antibody responses to the vaccine. The second study pertained to a process called “interoception,” which is when internal sensation information is brought to our consciousness. This process is necessary for emotion and hunches; it essentially connections physiological factors and emotion. A study showed that meditation increased the capacity for interoception and physiologically gave the meditators more connections between posterior and anterior parts of the brain. In the experiment, subjects watched a series of sad films and those who underwent an eight week meditation course felt just as sad during the film, but less depressed afterwards.
In the last part of the presentation, the different methodologies of self-regulation were discussed: posture, movement, breathing, interoceptive stimuli, and mindfulness. Ties between posture, movement, and breathing were found to have positive effects on testosterone levels, cortisol levels, chemical balance, and Parkinson’s disease. Interoceptive stimuli were a more complicated effect of meditation to explore. A study of Tibetan Monks showed that when meditating on the image of a fire, they were able to raise their body temperature to the fever range. Another study with the Tibetan monks showed that if they meditated on a physical exercise to strengthen their pinky finger verses actually doing the exercise, the muscle was strengthened equally.
The last of the three methodologies was mindfulness or regulation of the mind. The majority of these studies explored the concept of rumination, when our mind aimlessly wanders, or the automatic churning of semi-conscious thoughts. Rumination has been identified as a significant factor in anxiety, depression, and stress. This is the default state of the brain 50% of the day. Specific regions of the brain have been shown to be active in this default mode, like the Wernicke and Broca areas where language is processed, since we are talking to ourselves. During meditation training this pattern shifts. Instead of the default mode, there is a whole different pattern with more involvement in different areas, more in the interoceptive system. Because of this, long-term meditators have a new default mode where they are far more present. Meditators have less continuous mind wandering, which is known a risk factor for depression.
In summary, Crane-Godrea and Payne believe that there are substantial indications that the techniques of conscious self-regulation used in Asian (qigong, yoga) and western (somatic) systems are amenable to explanation by neuroscience. Posture, movement, breathing, imagery, and attention may help regulate and affect autonomic activation and immune responses through known pathways. These methods offer a much better alternative to the usual methods of self-blame and the struggle for self-control. They hope to continue to create and find studies more specific studies to validate these claims, particularly studying the effects of qigong on disease.