Bringing Mindfulness to Medicine

December 12, 2013

I learned to meditate over 20 years ago. It opened the doors to a lifelong practice of meditation techniques, including Vipassana and yoga, and spiritual exploration with wonderful teachers. As I practiced and practiced, I noticed that I was able to listen more deeply to both my patients and myself, and felt less stressed in my daily work as a medical doctor.

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. Stress is a contributing factor for 80% of all chronic illness in our country, and numerous studies have shown the power of meditation and mind-body skills to reduce the effects of stress and even reverse illness. I talk at length about this in my book, The Immune System Recovery Plan, A Doctors 4-Step Program for Treating Autoimmune Disease. At Blum Center for Health we teach these skills in Mind-Body Groups, following the model developed by The Center for Mind-Body Medicine.

But mindfulness has other applications in medicine, beyond just learning tools to manage stress. Meditation 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 his or her own care, and must take responsibility for their health behavior, because you cannot reverse a chronic illness without a lifestyle change — food, exercise, smoking, drinking, sleeping, and yes, stress management.

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 changes, I am always giving my patients homework that requires 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 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.

The mindfulness you are busy cultivating “on the mat” can be also important to improving your health “off the mat”. Not only can this attention be brought to lifestyle choices, but to any kind of medical decision you might have to make. When you search inside, the answers are there.