Complementary and alternative medicine

Yoga and meditation offer health care savings—and you can do them at home

Marlynn Wei, MD, JD
Marlynn Wei, MD, JD, Contributing Editor

Results from a recent study show that people enrolled in a mind-body relaxation program (that included yoga, meditation, mindfulness, and cognitive behavioral skills) used 43% fewer medical services than they did the previous year, saving on average $2,360 per person in emergency room visits alone. But you don’t need to participate in a formal program to reap the many benefits of these practices. Many of them can be learned and practiced at home.

Nutritional psychiatry: Your brain on food

Eva Selhub MD
Eva Selhub MD, Contributing Editor

Like an expensive car, your brain functions best when it gets “premium fuel” — that is, nutritious, minimally processed foods. The emerging field of nutritional psychiatry is finding that what you eat directly affects the structure of your digestive tract, the function of your brain, and, ultimately, your mood. Give “clean eating” a try and see how you feel.

Complementary therapies for neck pain

Robert Shmerling, M.D.
Robert Shmerling, M.D., Faculty Editor, Harvard Health Publications

Neck pain is a common, and often frustrating, condition. Although there are many causes of neck pain, in many cases, it can be hard to know the exact reason for the pain. There is no one treatment that is reliably helpful, and treatments can take a long time to work. But a new study suggests that two complementary therapies — acupuncture and the Alexander Technique — may offer a way for neck pain sufferers to find genuine and lasting relief.

Stress-busting mind-body medicine reduces need for health care

Daniel Pendick
Daniel Pendick, Former Executive Editor, Harvard Men's Health Watch

Anyone can develop better emotional and psychological resilience through practices such as rhythmic breathing, mindfulness meditation, yoga, tai chi, qi gong, or prayer. These practices not only improve mental health but have real physiological benefits. A recent study found that people who completed a program designed to help bolster resilience actually used fewer health care services compared with those who didn’t take the program, although more studies are needed to know whether such programs could help ease the burdens on the health care system.

A mindful worker is a happier worker

Ronald Siegel, PsyD
Ronald Siegel, PsyD, Contributing Editor

The mental health benefits of mindfulness meditation include greater engagement in your daily activities and a more positive outlook — which can in turn improve your concentration and sense of well-being. But can mindfulness practice really help employees’ mental health? A recent study says yes. Workers participating in mindfulness training found they experienced less stress, anxiety, and depression; improved sleep; fewer aches and pains; and fewer problems getting along with others.

Tai chi can improve life for people with chronic health conditions

Julie Corliss
Julie Corliss, Executive Editor, Harvard Heart Letter

Tai chi has become popular in the United States in recent years, thanks in part to growing evidence for its many health benefits. This ancient Chinese exercise not only improves balance and flexibility, it may prevent falls, ease pain, and even help your heart. A recent analysis of 33 studies of tai chi suggests that doing tai chi can help older adults with common, long-term health conditions move about more easily and enhance their quality of life. The quality of life improvements may stem from the meditative, mind-calming aspects of tai chi.

Cognitive behavioral therapy offers a drug-free method for managing insomnia

Julie Corliss
Julie Corliss, Executive Editor, Harvard Heart Letter

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 help their humans create friendships, find social support

Patrick J. Skerrett, Former Executive Editor, Harvard Health

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.

More than a stretch: Yoga’s benefits may extend to the heart

Julie Corliss
Julie Corliss, Executive Editor, Harvard Heart Letter

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.

Sauna use linked to longer life, fewer fatal heart problems

Beverly Merz
Beverly Merz, Executive Editor, Harvard Women's Health Watch

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.