Complementary and alternative medicine
Many people with insomnia turn to sleeping pills, which often have unwanted side effects. Few of them know about an equally effective therapy that targets the root cause of insomnia without medications. Called cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia, or CBT-i, this short-term talk therapy teaches people to change the unproductive thinking patterns and habits that get in the way of a good night’s sleep. While this therapy can’t “cure” insomnia, it does provide tools to better manage it. In a review article in this week’s Annals of Internal Medicine, researchers found that people treated with CBT-i fell asleep almost 20 minutes faster and spent 30 fewer minutes awake during the night compared with people who didn’t undergo CBT-i. These improvements are as good as, or better than, those seen in people who take prescription sleep medications such as zolpidem (Ambien) and eszopiclone (Lunesta). And unlike medications, the effects of CBT-i last even after the therapy ends.
Pets can provide their owners with more than companionship. A new study, published online in the journal PLoS One, shows that pets can also help create human-to-human friendships and social support, both of which are good for long-term health. The effect isn’t limited to dogs. Other kinds of pets, including cats, rabbits, and snakes, can also be catalysts for making friends and finding social support. In a survey of residents of four cities, being a pet owner was the third most common way that respondents said they met people in their neighborhoods. Pet owners were 60% more likely than non–pet owners to get to know people in their neighborhoods they hadn’t known before. They were also more likely to have reported befriending someone they met through a pet-related connection or getting social support from them. As described in Get Healthy, Get a Dog, a Special Health Report from Harvard Medical School, pet ownership has many direct physical and mental health benefits.
Yoga is good for the muscles and the mind. New research suggests that it may also be good for the heart. A review of yoga and cardiovascular disease published in the European Journal of Preventive Cardiology indicates that yoga may help lower heart disease risk as much as conventional exercise, such as brisk walking. It can help people lose weight, lower blood pressure and cholesterol, and ease stress. Each of those changes works to prevent heart disease, and can help people who already have cardiovascular problems.
Sitting in a sauna is one way to chase away the cold. A new report in JAMA Internal Medicine makes this pastime even more appealing: regularly spending time in a sauna may help keep the heart healthy and extend life. Among 2,300 middle-aged Finnish men, those who took a sauna bath four or more times a week were less likely to have died over a 20-year period than those who took a sauna once a week or less. Frequent visits to a sauna were also associated with lower death rates from cardiovascular disease and stroke. Sauna baths are generally safe and likely beneficial for people with well-controlled coronary artery disease or mild heart failure, but may not be so hot for those with unstable angina or a recent heart attack. The high temperature in a sauna can boost the heart rate to a level often achieved by moderate-intensity physical exercise. Is sitting in a sauna the equivalent of exercising? No. But exercising and then taking a sauna seems like a very healthy routine.
Worrying about a problem or a long to-do list at bedtime can be a recipe for insomnia. Mindfulness meditation — a mind-calming practice that focuses on breathing and awareness of the present moment — can help, according to a report in JAMA Internal Medicine. Mindfulness meditation involves focusing on your breathing and then bringing your mind’s attention to the present without drifting into concerns about the past or future. It helps you break the train of your everyday thoughts and relax. In addition to calling on mindfulness meditation at night to fight insomnia, it’s a good idea to practice it during the day, too, so it’s easier to evoke the relaxation response at night when you can’t sleep.
Probiotics, the beneficial bacteria found in yogurt and other cultured foods, have long been touted for their ability to ease digestive woes. The strongest evidence for probiotics is in treating diarrhea caused by a viral infection or from taking antibiotics. Do probiotics also work for the opposite problem — constipation? A report from King’s College in London showed that taking probiotics can help soften stools, making them easier to pass, and can increase the number of weekly bowel movements. What we don’t know is which probiotic species and strains are most effective, how much to take, and for how long.
Dietary supplements are big business, even though few of the 85,000 products on the market have proven benefits. An article in JAMA Internal Medicine highlights a bizarre case of supplement overuse: a man, worried about memory loss, was spending nearly $3,000 a month on more than 50 supplements recommended by his “anti-aging” physician, plus hundreds of dollars more on other products he chose himself. Most of the products had no proven benefit on memory, and some may have contributed to the memory loss he was so worried about. had possible negative effects on brain function. People often assume that dietary supplements are effective, because of the claims they make, and are harmless, because they are “natural.” Not so. Unlike pharmaceuticals, which undergo extensive testing to prove they’re effective and safe before they can be sold, dietary supplements can be sold with without proof of effectiveness, safety, or purity.
Many people practice meditation in hopes of staving off stress and stress-related health problems, even though the evidence for doing so is spotty. A new study that analyzed the results of nearly 50 solid clinical trials of meditation shows that mindfulness meditation can help ease psychological stresses like anxiety, depression, and pain. One way it does this is by training you to experience anxious thoughts or stresses in completely different and less emotionally disturbing ways. Mindfulness-based stress reduction training, developed by Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn at the University of Massachusetts Medical School in Worcester, MA, is now widely available in cities throughout the United States. You can also learn it yourself from books or online recordings. Or try this short meditation, from the Zen Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hahn: “Breathing in, I calm my body. Breathing out, I smile. Dwelling in the present moment, I know this is a wonderful moment.”
It isn’t every day that an effective new treatment for some Parkinson’s disease symptoms comes along. Especially one that is safe, causes no adverse side effects, and may also benefit the rest of the body and the mind. That’s why a report in the New England Journal of Medicine showing that tai chi may improve balance and prevent falls among people with Parkinson’s disease is so exciting. This and earlier studies are significant because they suggest that tai chi can be used as an add-on to current physical therapies and medications to ease some of the key problems faced by people with Parkinson’s disease. Since the appearance of the New England Journal of Medicine study, tai chi classes specifically for Parkinson’s disease patients have sprung up across the country, and the benefits of tai chi for Parkinson’s disease have been endorsed by the National Parkinson’s Foundation.