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Mindfulness: How It Affects Your Physical and Mental Health

Amanda Venti McLain, MD, discusses how mindfulness impacts both physical and mental health. She shares what mindfulness entails, examples of mindfulness exercises, and how people can benefit from undertaking a more mindful approach to life.
Mindfulness: How It Affects Your Physical and Mental Health
Featuring:
Amanda Venti McLain, MD
Dr. McLain is an internal medicine physician with Emerson Primary Care Associates of Bedford. She has received additional training through Massachusetts General Hospital's Benson-Henry Institute to teach stress management techniques and teaches mindfulness programs at Emerson's Steinberg Wellness Center. 

Learn more about Amanda Venti McLain, MD
Transcription:

Deborah Howell (Host):   So, how important is mindfulness in physical and mental health? What do you need to know about being mindful? Let’s find out with Dr. Amanda Venti McLain, an internal medicine physician with Emerson Primary Care Associates of Bedford. This is Healthworks Here, the podcast from Emerson Hospital. I'm Deborah Howell. Dr. McLain, you teach mindfulness programs at Emerson’s Steinberg Wellness Center. So, of course, my first question is what is mind body medicine?

Amanda Venti McLain, MD (Guest):   So mind body medicine is really one part of a larger field that we would refer to as integrative medicine. That’s an attempt to really integrate, as the name would suggest, conventional types of medicine with more complementary approaches. Really trying to coordinate those two approaches in a holistic sort of patient centered way. Then within that context mind body medicine is medicine with a focus on the interactions among brain and mind and body and how all of those contribute to overall health. So it really takes into account all of the emotional, mental, social, spiritual factors that have an effect on our health. So that would include things like meditation, yoga, tai chi. A lot of these practices are really appealing to a big portion of the population right now. We’ve seen a huge increase in interest, which is great because they're incredibly helpful in helping people maintain good health. I think there was research that showed as of 2007, one in five Americans were using some sort of mind body technique or therapy. So this is really getting traction now, which is great, again, because it really has a profound impact on overall health.

Host:   And the whole person. We love it. How does stress impact physical and mental health?

Dr. Venti McLain:   Yeah. Stress, obviously, has a really big impact on both our physical and our mental wellbeing. If you look at it from a purely evolutionary perspective, we know that stress response, if you will, evolved or is designed in a sense to help us cope with physical threats. So dangers to our person that were encountered in earlier human environments. So things like predators or injury or infection. Most people are familiar with this whole idea of a fight, flight, or freeze response. There’s a real physiology behind that. There's activation of certain parts of the neuroendocrine system and also aspects of the immune system that come into play when we’re launched into that fight, flight, or freeze response in response to stress. The problem is that even though that stress response is well adapted to some of those more common threats in earlier environments, they're not particularly adaptive in the face of a lot of our more modern stressors. So those tend to be more psychological in nature and also more chronic in nature. So things like work stress, relationship stress, concerns about health actually. So because of that, we eventually can get wear and tear on the body from being under chronic levels of stress. That can contribute to dysregulation of some of these systems that can eventually result in physical or mental illness.

Host:   Absolutely. How can mind body techniques like meditation be used to counter the effects of stress and improve our overall health?

Dr. Venti McLain:   So meditation elicits what we would refer to as the relaxation response, right? So we have a stress response and then we want to try to buffer that with the relaxation response. So that whole concept was first introduced or study by Dr. Herbert Benson. He’s still at the Benson Henry Institute, which is the Massachusetts General Hospital’s mind body institute downtown Boston. So he studied practitioners of transcendental meditation in the 1960s, and he was the first one to really document the effects of meditation on the body. So things like decrease in heartrate, decrease in blood pressure. So we know that practices such as meditation really have an immediate physical impact and they also have an impact on the brain as well.

More and more we’re realizing that the brain is really a very malleable organ. Meditation can in a sense induce what we refer to neuroplasticity, which is simply this idea that the brain is constantly reorganizing itself. We’re forming new neural connections and others are getting pruned back. That’s a constant process that occurs throughout life. There’s more and more research showing that practices like meditation can actually have a positive effect on the brain at that level.

Host:   Well, you know some people still need convincing. So is there any research or scientific evidence to support the health benefits of meditation?

Dr. Venti McLain:   Yeah. So there's a lot of research being done more and more recently. Again, I think in keeping with the fact that there is so much interest both in the patient population and within the medical field as well. So some of the studies are based in neuroimaging techniques where they look at the brain in practitioners of meditation. They see differences in the thickness in certain brain regions, in cortical thickness of the brain. Then there’s other research coming now from the field of epigenetics. So really interesting studies showing that there are changes actually at the level of gene expression in response to practicing some of these mind body techniques. So things like, again, meditation and yoga, tai chi. So we see when people practice mind body techniques sometimes there's a down regulation of some of these inflammatory pathways. We know that a lot of chronic illnesses can be linked to inflammation. That has a huge impact on chronic disease and other types of illness as well.

Host:   This is all really exciting. What is the SMART program and how does it help patients improve their health and wellness?

Dr. Venti McLain:   So the SMART program was developed in it’s current form by, again, by the Benson Henry Institute downtown. We’ve been running the program in Emerson now since 2017. I think it’s a great program. It really integrates a lot of these things, the meditation we’ve been discussing as a means of helping people enter into this relaxation response which has physical and psychological benefits. It also draws from the field of cognitive behavioral therapy. We do some cognitive restructuring in the class to help people kind of watch their thoughts and how they may be impacting them in their stress level. We also talk about lifestyle modifications. So helping people to adopt healthier patterns with reference to nutrition and emphasizing the important of things like physical activity and good sleep habits, and just in general helping people become more aware of their own stress patterns and try to adopt a healthier lifestyle and cultivate more adaptive responses to their stressors. So we’re aware that life is going to have stress in it, right, and we can't always change the stressors as they come up, but we can certainly try to change our response to them. We can try to chose how we respond rather than being reactive in a sense.

Host:   Sure. Now a two part question for you doctor. Have you seen patients achieve health benefits derived from developing a meditation practice? Or what types of health issues generally respond to these techniques?

Dr. Venti McLain: So I think because stress does have such a huge impact on health, these techniques are broadly applicable meaning that a lot of different people with different types of illnesses will respond well to them. So I see a lot of people with chronic illnesses that have symptoms that will sort of wax and wane depending on what their stress level is at that particular time. I think a lot of people are aware of that actually who have a chronic illness. They’ll know that when their stress level increases they’ll see an exacerbation of their symptoms. So because of that when people are able to practice meditation, they’ll sometimes see a reduction in symptoms. So that can be anything from autoimmune disorders to gastrointestinal problems. Certainly people who have chronic pain issues or headaches. It doesn’t necessarily change the pain, but it can change the way that people relate to their pain.

We get a lot of people also struggling with insomnia or anxiety related symptoms, all of which I think respond really well to these techniques. Also people who are just, for whatever reason, at a stressful time in their lives. Either some sort of a transition or sometimes just coping with some of these other chronic health problems. Folks that are in some sort of a caregiver role and sort of the burdens that that entails. I think, again, these are very fundamental techniques that help people to just be a little more resilient in the face of these stressors as they arrive.

Host:   Absolutely. Okay. Now devil’s advocate question. I read the other day and I’d love to hear your response to this. It said playing games on your phone—puzzles, Words with Friends or whatever—for 20 minutes equaled the benefits of yoga for 20 minutes. What's your response to that?

Dr. Venti McLain:   Really?

Host:   Yeah.

Dr. Venti McLain:  I did not know. That’s interesting. It’s funny that you say that because I remember once. We do an exercise in the class where we use little biofeedback technique for people to see when their stress response is kicking in, when they're feeling more stressed. I recall someone once saying they hadn’t realized that when they played games on their phone that their stress level went up. So it’s interesting to me that there's some things that are saying they went down. I would say that techniques like meditation, you're trying to quiet that inner dialogue. It’s a different type of attention that you're really trying to hone with those practices. My feeling would be that that’s very different than something like playing a game on your phone, but I understand that there is probably—When people are doing that, it’s a way of trying to take a breath. My feeling would obviously be that it would be far more beneficial to take those five/ten minutes and just watch the breath, quiet the mind, and move into that relaxation response.

Host:   How about this. How about we play games, get the endorphin rush of getting 113 point word on Words with Friends, and then we put our phone down and do some mindfulness?

Dr. Venti McLain:   There you go. You could do that, yes. Or you could hop on your elliptical for those few minutes. I’ll make a plug for physical activity. Get your endorphins that way. It’s actually a great pairing to do some sort of physical activity and then to sit in meditation and quiet the mind for a few moments. I think people often feel like I need this huge amount of time to make a commitment to this. Something is always better than nothing is what I tell people. Even if you just have five minutes to watch the breath, you'll see that make a difference in your day to day life. This idea of mindfulness, a lot of people are really intrigued by that concept. That’s something that you can really bring to any task. You can fold a basket of laundry mindfully. It’s just a matter of being in that present moment, being aware of whatever that experience is and accepting of it in a non-judgmental way. That’s something that we can all weave into our day to day lives.

Host:   Well, it’s time for me to go mindfully go fold some laundry. So thank you so much for your time Dr. Venti McLain.

Dr. Venti McLain: Of course.  

Host:   That’s Dr. Amanda Venti McLain, an internal medicine physician with Emerson Primary Care Associates of Bedford. For more info or to schedule an appointment with Dr. Venti McLain or any Emerson physicians, please visit emersondocs.org. To register for a wellness class, visit emersonwellness.org. If you like what you’ve heard, please share if on your social channels and make sure to check out the full podcast library for topics that might interest you. This is Healthworks Here, the podcast from Emerson Hospital. I'm Deborah Howell. Thanks for listening, be mindful, and have yourself a terrific day.