Apps, Digital medicine, Integrative Medicine, Meditation, mHealth, MInd-Body, Mobile Health, Yoga

From iOS to OM: When High Tech Meets High Touch

A few weeks ago, ABC News gathered together a group of yogis, meditators and researchers for a Twitter chat on yoga and meditation.  Tweeting away were Dr. Josephine Briggs (head of NCCAM), Senator Tim Ryan (a proponent of mindfulness in government), and experts from medical institutions nationwide (Harvard, Mayo, and UCSF, to name a few).  As we sat around the modern-day campfire that is Twitter, we swapped ideas and shared nuggets of wisdom and data.  I was struck by the irony of that moment.  Ancient modalities spoken through modern soundbytes. Technology was blurring the once-distinct boundary between holistic and futuristic.

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The digital age has made its way into every industry, and integrative medicine is no exception.  With its burgeoning cadre of smartphone apps for meditation and yoga, the mHealth movement in integrative medicine stands firmly at the crossroads where high tech meets high touch. And for those of us who prescribe wellness, this could be a welcome addition to our doctor’s bag of tricks.

One of the greatest challenges of promoting healthy living is behavior change. The gap between knowledge and practice is vast.  For most of us, when it comes to stress, exercise, or nutrition…um, well, but [insert your personal explanation here].  It is these ums, wells and buts that the mHealth movement aims to tackle.  Through user engagement, apps are making getting healthy almost…fun.  In high-brow research terms, this is called the gamification of health behavior.  And early studies suggest some promise in motivating behavior change.  

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Harnessing patient motivation is a big theme in healthcare right now, with health coaching and motivational interviewing being the buzzwords du jour.  And your smartphone, never more than an arm’s length away, might be a powerful health motivator.  The mHealth movement hopes to leverage this sense of personalized proximity to change health behavior.

But can the innovative spirit of mHealth fully integrate into a conventional medical system mired in its molasses-slow protocols? Will mHealth be able to partner with doctors, a group traditionally thought of as risk-averse, slow-adopters? And can it help patients become more intentional and thoughtful in their daily behaviors, ultimately changing health outcomes?

Big questions, many answers. (Wish there was an app for that.)

@AditiNerurkar

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Gene expression, Genetics, Genomics, Integrative Medicine, Meditation, MInd-Body, Telomerase, Telomeres

Can Meditation Change Your Genes?

“CHANGE YOUR GENES! THROUGH MEDITATION!”

It really does sound like an infomercial, doesn’t it? Another gimmicky health ad from Ms. HydroxyCut or Mr. 5-Hour-Energy.  But before you roll your eyes, consider this.

It might be true.

Emerging research suggests a relationship between the practice of meditation and genetic changes.  Let’s consider the evidence.  

Exhibit A:

In 2009, researchers at UCSF began thinking about the link between meditation and our genes.  They focused on the genetic area called telomeres.  Found at the ends of our DNA, telomeres serve as a bumper for our genetic cargo.  The longer your telomeres, the better-protected your DNA is from the occasional biologic fender-bender, and the longer the cell can survive.  Telomeres are the marker of cellular longevity.  Not surprisingly, they adapt to environmental stimuli.  The researchers wondered aloud: If chronic stress, depression and other negative psychological states can shorten telomeres, could something proven to improve mood, like meditation, help keep telomeres long and healthy?

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Exhibit B:

In 2010, Nobel laureate Elizabeth Blackburn and her colleagues published the first study on the effects of meditation on genetic activity.  They looked at enzyme levels of telomerase, which manages telomere length.  Enzyme activity was higher in the group of 30 meditators compared to the 30 non-meditators, and the researchers concluded that meditation may increase enzyme activity, thereby protecting telomere length.

Exhibit C:

In April 2013, Elizabeth Hoge and her colleagues at Harvard took the research a step farther by studying actual telomere length and meditation.  They compared the telomere length of 15 experienced meditators to 22 non-meditators, and found that meditators had longer telomeres.  Their takeaway was that meditation offers the intriguing possibility of altering telomere length, and consequently, a cell’s longevity.

Exhibit D:

The most recent study on genetic changes with meditation was published last week by the Benson-Henry Institute.  They compared the big-picture genetic profiles of 26 first-time meditators to 26 experienced meditators, and found that different sets of genes were expressed.  And in experienced meditators, just one session of meditation changed cellular activity.  The researchers concluded that meditation may change big-picture genetic profiles and cellular activity.

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The Verdict:

Meditation does change your genes.  Its no gimmick.  The field of mind-body genomics offers fascinating discoveries and much promise.  But what do these genetic changes mean clinically? And how do they impact disease prevention and treatment?

On that, the jury is still deliberating….

@AditiNerurkar

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