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Mind Body Medicine and Thyroid Health

Published August 4th 2014

In my opinion there is no question that proper nutrition is the most important factor when it comes to achieving optimal health.  However, one can make the argument that mind body medicine (MBM) is just as important.  In fact, if you look at the institute of functional medicine matrix you’ll see that the mental, emotional, and spiritual components are very important factors in helping someone to achieve optimal health.

But what is mind body medicine?  When I took my masters in nutrition degree, one of the courses I had to take was called the Psychology of Wellness, which was taught by Dr. Deanna Minich.  One of the topics which was discussed was “the triad” of mind body medicine, which consists of the body, the mind, and the spirit.  Before I continue, I just want to make it clear that mind body medicine doesn’t necessarily relate to religion.  In other words, regardless of what your religious beliefs are you can still practice mind body medicine.  This probably is obvious to some people, but for others it might not be obvious, and so rather than assume that everyone knows that they can practice MBM regardless of their religious beliefs I figured I’d briefly mention this here.

In any case, in MBM, the body is the physical component which is able to experience physical sensations, such as pain and pleasure.  The spirit can be thought of as the “life force” of the body.  As for the mind, some consider this to be synonymous with the brain, while others consider both the mind and brain to be separate entities which work together.  Hippocrates described the connections between mental functions as we understand them as being the mind, and the structure that produces these connections as being the brain.  On the other hand, the British neurophysiologist Charles Scott Sherrington concluded that “The brain is the provider of the mind, and that the mental action lies buried in the brain…in that part most deeply recessed from the outside world, that is furthest from input and output”.

Examples of Mind Body Medicine Techniques

Meditation. This is perhaps the most well known type of MBM.  There are many different types of meditation, and most involve four elements (1) [1], including a quiet location, a specific position, a focus of attention, and an open attitude.  Many people practice meditation as a form of stress management, while others practice meditation for other reasons, such as pain management.  While taking the Psychology of Wellness course, one of the focuses was on something called Mindfulness meditation.  This is a form of meditation which helps us to pay more attention to our inner and outer experiences.  In other words, it helps us to be aware of all of the surrounding physical and mental activities.

There are numerous clinical trials involving meditation.  One randomized controlled trial showed that meditation may change brain and immune function in positive ways (2) [2].  Another randomized controlled trial examined the effects of a one-month mindfulness meditation versus somatic relaxation training reporting distress (3) [3].  The study showed that brief training in mindfulness meditation or somatic relaxation reduces distress and improves mood states.  Another study showed that the practice of meditation reduced psychological stress responses and improved cognitive functions (4) [4].  There is also the possibility that meditation can increase the length of telomeres by reducing cognitive stress and stress arousal and increasing positive states of mind (5) [5].  Telomeres are the protective caps at the ends of chromosomes, and as we age telomeres decrease, yet there is evidence that diet, exercise, and stress reduction can potentially increase telomere length and thus increase our lifespan.

How can you learn to meditate?  Well, there are plenty of books on meditation, or you can also watch some videos on YouTube.  Some cities have meditation groups you can join, and so this is something to consider.  You might also want to consider visiting the website www.getsomeheadspace.com, where you can get ten free ten-minute lessons on how to meditate.

Yoga. Yoga is another type of MBM.  There are many different yoga techniques, and I’d be lying if I told you I was an expert in all of these techniques.  Hatha yoga is the most commonly practiced type in the United States and Europe, and some of the major styles of hatha yoga are Iyengar, Ashtanga, Vini, Kundalini, and Bikram yoga (6) [6].  There are certain yoga postures that can help improve thyroid health, such as a shoulder stand position known as sarvangasana.  Although some people are able to learn how to do yoga by visiting YouTube and watching videos, it might be best to learn this in person from a certified yoga instructor.  Fortunately many cities have yoga studios, and there might even be a yoga class offered at your local YMCA.

There is plenty of evidence which shows how yoga can help with stress.  A review looked at 35 clinical trials which addressed the effects of yoga on anxiety and stress, and 25 of these noted a significant decrease in stress and/or anxiety symptoms (7) [7].  Although larger studies probably are needed than the ones conducted, I don’t think there is any question that practicing yoga can help with anxiety and stress.  Another systematic review analyzed the effectiveness of yoga for low back pain (8) [8].  The review found strong evidence for short-term effectiveness and moderate evidence for long-term effectiveness of yoga for chronic low back pain.  There is also evidence that yoga can benefit people with chronic neck pain (9) [9].

Biofeedback. Biofeedback is a mind–body technique in which individuals learn how to modify their physiology for the purpose of improving physical, mental, emotional and spiritual health (10) [10].  This intervention requires specialized equipment to convert physiological signals into meaningful visual and auditory cues (10) [10].  There have been some smaller studies showing the effectiveness of biofeedback.  For example, one study assessed whether a self-directed, computer-guided meditation training program is useful for stress reduction in hospital nurses (11) [11].  The results of the study showed that this program helped hospital nurses reduce their stress and anxiety.  Another study showed that heart rate variability biofeedback decreases blood pressure in prehypertensive subjects (12) [12].

Although many types of biofeedback devices are utilized at clinician’s offices, there are devices which you can use at home.  An example is the emwave2 from Heart Math, and this is what I utilize to help manage stress.  The emwave2 measures something called heart rate variability (HRV).  Heart rate variability involves a variation in the interval between heartbeats.  It is a measure of the autonomic nervous system functioning and reflects an individual’s ability to adaptively cope with stress (13) [13].  For more information I would recommend visiting www.heartmath.com, as they have some videos and articles which discusses HRV in greater detail, and how their programs can help.  One study looked at the effects of heart rate variability biofeedback in subjects with stress-related chronic neck pain, and showed an improvement in perceived health over a 10 week intervention (14) [14].

Hypnotherapy. Hypnotherapy is also considered to be a type of mind body medicine.  Hypnosis is a state of deep concentration, and can be used to help people with many different conditions.  Hypnosis can be used not only for stress and anxiety (15) [15] (16) [16], but might also help with depression (17) [17], sleep disorders (18) [18], and irritable bowel syndrome (19) [19] (20) [20].

Other MBM Techniques. In addition to the ones mentioned above, there are other MBM techniques.  Some of these others include music therapy, visualization, tai chi, quigong, and reiki. These are just some of the more well known MBM techniques,  but there are others as well.  So when I recommend for someone to choose one or more techniques to focus on stress management, any of these can greatly help.  However, although MBM can help greatly to manage one’s stress levels, it can also help with other conditions, such as with pain, high blood pressure, and depression.  Of course one way it helps with many conditions is by lowering the cortisol levels, and so essentially helping the person to manage stress will in turn help with many different conditions.

The Science Behind Mind Body Medicine

There is plenty of evidence which shows the benefits of mind body medicine.  For example, when taking my masters in nutrition degree I wrote a paper on mind body medicine and depression.  And there were numerous studies which showed the benefits of meditation and yoga on depression.  To no surprise, most of the clinical trials pertaining to mind body medicine relate to the positive effects it has on stress.  But of course stress is a big factor for most people with thyroid and autoimmune thyroid conditions, and so incorporating MBM techniques to help with stress management can be a key component to restoring one’s health back to normal, and then maintaining one’s health thereafter.

Mind Body Medicine and Autoimmunity

Although most of the evidence with regards to MBM relates to helping with stress, there is evidence that MBM can help to modulate immune system function.  In past articles and blog posts I have discussed how pro-inflammatory cytokines are a factor with autoimmune conditions such as Graves’ Disease and Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis.  In most cases I have discussed how certain nutrients can lead to a reduction in these cytokines.  However, there is some evidence which show that certain MBM techniques can reduce pro-inflammatory cytokines.  For example, one study found reduced TNF-α levels following 10 weeks of relaxation therapy among patients with tinnitus (21) [21], and other studies have reported reduced IL-1  following sessions of hypnosis and relaxation (22) [22] (23) [23].  These admittedly are smaller studies, and more research is needed in this area.

This doesn’t mean that MBM techniques alone can suppress the autoimmune response.  After all, I think it’s safe to say that if someone eats poorly, then they can practice MBM for a few hours each day and they will never achieve optimal health.  On the other hand, combining good nutrition with mind body medicine can play a very important role in someone reversing the autoimmune process.

So hopefully you now understand how important mind body medicine is when someone is trying to restore their health back to normal.  Too many people focus on eating well, eliminating toxins, and other factors, but don’t pay enough attention to mind body medicine.  I’m sure some people reading this will feel like they don’t need to incorporate mind body medicine into their life, but the truth is that this really isn’t optional for someone who is looking to achieve optimal health.  Once again, doing mind body medicine alone usually won’t be sufficient.  On the other hand, combining MBM with other lifestyle changes can have a profound impact on your health.