4 Oct 2018
Mindfulness in Cancer Care
4 Oct 2018
Naturopathic doctors have a unique role in the management of health and disease.
Essentially, our goal is to shift the environment in the body. This certainly means the physical body in terms of nutrition, exercise, and the use of supplements and herbs. But it also means the mental-emotional environment – the level of stress, a person’s perspective on their situation, and even family dynamics and communication. And really, that mental-emotional environment affects the physical environment in a very substantial way!
Mindfulness, deep breathing, cognitive therapy and other types of mental-emotional supports are so vital in the cancer journey. These practices can pull us out from a fight-or-flight, high stress, high cortisol place, even temporarily, and are beneficial overall. Research on deep breathing shows a regular practice stimulates immune system function, balances blood sugar, decreases inflammation, and improves mood and energy. When we look at the pathways that promote cancer progression – lowered immune system response, high blood sugar and poor insulin control, and inflammation – we can understand why this is so valuable. Pair that with improved sleep quality, decreased anxiety, and improved outlook, plus the fact that a deep breathing practice is something that is free and available to everyone, and it is hard to see how it should not be recommended to every cancer patient.
Yoga as a mindfulness practice has been linked to some impressive results as well. A 2017 study of men receiving radiation for prostate cancer found that yoga twice a week improved fatigue and decreased urinary and sexual dysfunction. And a meta-analysis of 10 studies looking at Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) techniques found a number of benefits to the practice, from reduced depression and fear, to lower cortisol and blood pressure, lower inflammatory markers, and improved natural killer cell activity.
The most interesting aspect for me is the effect these mindfulness practices have on our genetic expression. Yes, deep breathing, yoga, and stress reduction actually change how your genes function! One inflammatory and cancer-promoting gene that is turned off with mindfulness practices is nuclear factor kappa beta. This is the same pathway that is targeted by strong anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer supplements like curcumin.
And as far as actually affecting the structure of your brain, mindfulness practices increase hippocampal volume in the brain. A decrease in the size of the hippocampus is seen with aging, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder. It is also linked to “chemo brain”, or that forgetfulness and cognitive impairment some patients experience through chemotherapy. Mindfulness practices can help prevent or treat these chemo-induced changes.
So how do we get started? An easy way is using a guided meditation app like Insight Timer or Headspace to develop a deep breathing practice. It creates a framework for setting aside ten or twenty minutes in your day to focus on breathing, relaxing, and shifting that internal environment. If you need something that keeps you more accountable, signing up for a yoga class once or twice a week is a great option. And if you’ve recognized that stress and anxiety are definitely in the driver’s seat in your life, seeing a counsellor or naturopathic doctor can give you more structured guidance around reducing stress, supporting your nervous system, and creating more balance throughout your cancer journey.
Dr. Aleksandra Gasinski, ND
- Yoga breathing for cancer chemotherapy-associated symptoms and quality of life: results of a pilot randomized controlled trial. J Altern Complement Med. May 18(5): 473-9. 2012.
- Effect of Eischens yoga during radiation therapy on prostate cancer patient symptoms and quality of life: a randomized phase II trial. Int J Radiat Onc Biol Phys. Aug 1;98(5):1036-44. 2017.
- Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction. Ledesma D and Kumano H. Psychooncology. 18:571. 2009.
- What is the molecular signature of Mind Body Interventions? A systemic review of gene expression changes induced by meditation and related practices. Front Immunol. Jun 16;8:670. 2017.
- Reduced interference working memory following mindfulness training is associated with increases in hippocampal volume. Brain Imaging Behav. Mar 17. 2018.
- Image: Photo by Natalia Figueredo on Unsplash
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