In the quest for new treatments, U.S. researchers are looking to traditional Chinese medicines, some of the oldest remedies in the world.
A recent discovery resulted in a better treatment for a type of leukemia that strikes about 1 in 250,000 people in the U.S. Another study found a potential new painkiller in China's medicine chest. Other researchers are studying a traditional medicinal plant called "thunder god vine" for its anti-cancer properties.
The approach has already had some success. The Chinese herbal medicine artemisinin, for instance, has gone on to become the most potent anti-malarial drug available.
Not all the leads have panned out, of course. But the old field has shown enough potential to keep interest high.
A better leukemia treatment drawn from an ancient medicine should give us hope for developing anti-cancer drugs, says Dr. Samuel Waxman, a co-author of the report and professor of medicine and cancer specialist at Mount Sinai Hospital. "It gives a lot of optimism of seeking other types of cancer medicines in the Chinese pharmacopedia, which many people are looking into," Waxman says.
The treatment uses arsenic trioxide, which has traditionally been used in Chinese medicine. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved arsenic trioxide (sold as Trisenox here) as a treatment in 2000, and later research showed that patients who received standard chemotherapy followed by arsenic trioxide did better than patients who just received standard chemotherapy.
But a big clinical test recently found that the drug, in combination with all-trans retinoic acid — another drug commonly used to treat acute promyelocytic leukemia (APL) — turned out to be more effective than the usual chemotherapy.
That results means arsenic trioxide should become the new standard for patients that can use it, says Dr. Richard Stone, director of the adult acute leukemia program at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.
"So this was a cure for leukemia without chemotherapy, really for the first time in a large randomized trial," says Stone. "We've got a patient in the hospital right now who's receiving that very therapy."
He says there are still side effects from the new regimen affecting the skin and heart, but for most people they're less of a problem than the hair loss, vomiting and diarrhea that can come with chemotherapy.
The arsenic trioxide treatment was developed by a Chinese doctor working in northern China during the Cultural Revolution, according to Mount Sinai's Waxman. This doctor couldn't use much Western medicine, so to treat his APL patients, he started giving them arsenic trioxide intravenously. He kept a journal for 10 years and noticed that it worked remarkably well. He eventually published his findings in 2001 with other collaborators.
"That was one of the first examples of a targeted treatment in all of cancer," Waxman says.
Other researchers are also studying triptolide, a natural product of a traditional Chinese medicinal plant called lei gong teng or "thunder god vine" as a possible anti-cancer drug. The product was effective against cancer in animal models and scientists in the West are now studying exactly how it works, says Jun Liu, one of the researchers and a professor of pharmacology and molecular sciences at Johns Hopkins University.
"Traditional medicine will always remain a useful source of new drugs. The question is, to what extent?" Liu says. "Drug discovery and development is a very lengthy and costly process and there are always failures."
Research into Chinese medicine is no different. Cancer reseachers at the University of Minnesota recently started an early clinical trial to study a drug that was developed from triptolide for treating pancreatic cancer, says Edward Greeno, associate professor of medicine at the University of Minnesota. He points out it took millions of dollars just to get to this point.
"It's easy to think, and normal to think, that if people are using it already then it shouldn't require a lot to develop it into a useful product. The problem is that our standard for what is safe and effective is very high, appropriately," Greeno says. "It looks like a pretty straight path but what you don't see are all the false starts and wrong turns that we make along the way."
Studying Chinese medicine for new treatments has had its share of wrong turns. Western scientists previously looked into treatments for the prevention of dementia, eczema, and bacteria that cause most types of stomach ulcers, but concluded they weren't particularly effective.
But the failures don't mean we should give up, says Brian Berman, a professor of medicine at the University of Maryland who served as the principal investigator of two Chinese medicine research initiatives funded by the National Institutes of Health.
Chinese medicine is one lead to consider, especially for chronic diseases that have yet to be cured. "The advantage you have when you look at some of the Chinese medicine therapies is that by and large, they are safe, as long as what you're getting doesn't have added ingredients," Berman says. "We need to look at what other cultures have to offer and then we need to put them through a scientifically rigorous test."
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This year's Nobel Prize went to three Chinese scientists. It was the first time China won a Nobel in science. The committee emphasized it was not giving the award to traditional Chinese medicine, just the scientist who applied her knowledge of it to her research.
While the award legitimates Chinese medicine in the eyes of some who have long believed in its benefits, others worry that the award dismisses the cultural heritage of Chinese medicine, instead rewarding the very narrow aspects of the work that satisfy a Western definition of what medicine should - and can be. It raises the question of how we judge the legitimacy of medicine.
Some people use Chinese medicine to alleviate chronic conditions that have not responded to mainstream medical treatment, such as pain. But it's not easy to prove effectiveness of these treatments, so many insurance policies won't cover it. Does the lack of research-based proof mean these treatments don't work or that we need a new way to measure success?
Hear SAR Board Co-President Vitaly Napadow in an NPR radio show about Chinese medicine:
Join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter.
Colin McEnroe and Chion Wolf contributed to this show.
“Reality is the leading cause of stress amongst those in touch with it.” – Jane Wagner
If the quote above strikes a chord with you, congratulations – you are human!
The reality is that we all deal with stress on a daily basis, whether we’re old or young, large or small, lofty thinkers or practical doers. Even the most practiced meditator and the yogi who simply radiates peace experience this inevitable portion of being human.
It’s inescapable, and it brings with it a host of uncomfortable and distracting symptoms.
Stress isn’t just a feeling or a mental state; if you don’t address it, it seeps into every aspect of your life.
A quick search for the symptoms of stress pulls up the WebMD page on this topic, where the list of possible symptoms includes:
Beyond these physical symptoms, stress can also have a big impact on your emotions and general mood.
Stress.org describes a few of the mental or emotional symptoms of mounting stress:
The 8 Most Popular MBSR Exercises and TechniquesThe website www.themindfulword.org provides an excellent outline of some of the most popular Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction exercises.
Mindfulness TechniquesAs expected, mindfulness is heavily featured in MBSR techniques. While it’s easy to think of mindfulness as one certain state of mind, there are actually several different ways to practice or engage in mindfulness, with varying areas of emphasis.
Focus MindfulnessPracticing mindfulness with an emphasis on focus involves looking inward to observe what is happening in your mind. It can be described as “eyes on the road” in that there is a singular focus on one experience. To keep your focus, it can be helpful to use a particular stimuli (like breath) to keep yourself grounded in the moment (The Mindful Word, 2012).
Awareness MindfulnessUnlike focusing, practicing awareness emphasizes the external instead of the internal. Awareness focuses on the mind as well, but from an outside perspective. When trying mindfulness from an awareness angle, try to view your mental activity as if it belonged to someone else.
In general, awareness mindfulness can be described as looking at your thoughts and feelings from outside of your usual self-centered experience, and observing your mind as a stream of consciousness without attaching judgment.
For an example of a simple awareness exercise, use the following guide:
“Start by taking your mind inwards for a moment by focusing on the breath. Take a few gentle deep breaths, from the belly. In and out. Re—lax… Let go…Continue to breathe for as long as you wish.
Now take your mind outwards. See your thoughts, feelings, moods, and sensations as objects floating down a stream, coming into view and vanishing from sight. Simply watch without judgment or analysis. Just watch them pass.
Now pluck an object from the stream and focus on it. Let the other sensations and thoughts go by in the background. Note any new thoughts or feelings that arise from observing this object. Sit with these thoughts and feelings for a moment.
Whenever you’re ready to leave this object behind, simply deposit it on a leaf and let it float downstream” (The Mindful Word, 2012).
Shifting from Focus to AwarenessFor switching from focus mindfulness to awareness mindfulness, try these tips:
Watch the stream of consciousness, dispassionately
Pluck something from the stream and deliberately focus on it (e.g. a dream imagine, a memory, a pain)
Mindfulness ExercisesThe Mindful Word outlines several popular mindfulness exercises, including:
The BreathThe exercise described above is one such exercise that facilitates mindfulness by focusing on the breath.
Body ScanLie with your back to the floor or bed and your eyes closed. Move your awareness through your body, focusing on one area at a time. Stop whenever you find an area that is unusually tight or sore and focus your breath on this area until it relaxes. You can use a calm and healing visualization at this point as well (e.g., a ball of white light melting into the sore spot).
For an extended guide to practicing the body scan, click here.
Object MeditationHold an object that is special or interesting to you. Focus all of your senses on it and note the information your senses feed back to you, including its shape, size, color, texture, smell, taste, or sounds it makes when manipulated.
Mindful EatingLike the previous exercise, this exercise can be completed with all of your senses while you focus on a food. Eat slowly, noticing the smell, taste, and feel of the food.
Walking MeditationTake a leisurely walk at a gentle, but familiar pace. Observe how you walk, and pay attention to the sensations in your body as you walk. Notice how your shoulders feel (Tight? Loose? Strong?), the sensations in your feet as they meet the ground, the swing of your hips with each stride. Match your breathing to your footsteps.
Mindful StretchingYou can practice mindful stretching with any set of stretches that you like, but if you want a guided practice you can give yoga a try (more on that in the next section).
Awareness ExercisesThe Mindful Word also describes two awareness exercises in addition to the six mindfulness exercises above.
If you’d like to try an exercise improving your awareness, try one of the following exercises:
Simply WatchingThis exercise involves only you and your thoughts. Instead of focusing on your thoughts as they rise to the surface, let them pass by like clouds in the sky. Refrain from attaching value judgments to your thoughts (e.g., “I’m terrible for thinking that” or “What a kind thought! I am a good person.”). If it helps, you can identify or even vocalize each thought, feeling, or sensation as they come up (i.e., “sore neck, pizza, best friend, anger, tingling, empty stomach, pizza again, grandma, I miss her”; The Mindful Word, 2012).
Worry or Urge “Surfing”View your thoughts and feelings as “surfing” on a wave. Turn your awareness to the warning signs of a negative feeling like worry, anxiety, or anger approaching. Imagine the negative emotion coming at you like a wave that gets bigger and bigger as it approaches, then crests as it reaches you, and finally falls as it moves away. Imagine “riding” that wave as it passes, and let the negative emotion go with it. Make sure to celebrate your ability to let the emotion go, but acknowledge that more will come eventually and remember to “ride the wave” again when they do (The Mindful Word, 2012).
For more detailed explanations of each exercise, visit The Mindful Word website here.
Yoga and Mindfulness-Based Stress ReductionAs noted earlier, yoga can be an excellent way to reduce stress and practice mindfulness. Several studies have shown the benefits of practicing yoga for people from all walks of life.
For example, a study of mental health professionals and yoga practice showed that yoga significantly reduced work-related stress and enhanced their ability to adapt and react to stress (Lin, Huang, Shiu, & Yeh, 2015).
Yoga can also help school employees enhance their levels of calmness, comfort, and cheerfulness, as well as decrease their cognitive and body stress (Nosaka & Okamura, 2015).
Veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can also benefit from yoga. Yoga has proven effective for veterans in improving PTSD-related symptoms and quality of sleep (Staples, Hamilton, & Uddo, 2013). Female veterans in particular showed a reduction of PTSD-related symptoms and substance abuse behavior when they participated in a 12-session yoga treatment (Reddy, Dick, Gerber, & Mitchell, 2014).
Even children can enjoy the benefits of yoga. One study found that a regular 10-week yoga class decreased cortisol, a stress-related hormone, in second graders (Butzer et al., 2015). It also contributed to a decrease in behavior problems for second and third graders. Another study showed that yoga can decrease academic-related stress in children (Venkataramana, Poomalil, & Shobhasree, 2008).
If you’re interested in giving yoga a try, the Mindful Yoga Academy is an excellent resource for learning about and practicing yoga in interest of mindfulness based stress reduction.
According to Jon Kabat-Zinn’s work on MBSR, there are seven foundational attitudes that are integral to the practice of mindfulness for the purpose of stress reduction. The Mindful Yoga Academy embraces these foundational attitudes, but adds a Hippocratic Oath-like injunction to do no harm and a foundation of compassion for the self to the list:
For more information on these foundational attitudes, see the PDF on the MBSR standards of practice attached here. To learn more about how the Mindful Yoga Academy puts these foundations to practice, check out their website here.
Meditation and MBSRMeditation has been shown to
How Meditation Reduces StressMeditation is not an easy button to press that immediately relieves you of your stress, but it may be the closest thing to it.
When we meditate, we take responsibility for our mental states and learn to alter our reactions to the experiences we have in order to produce more positive outcomes (Wildmind, 2007). Regularly practicing meditation facilitates awareness of our thought patterns, our emotions, and how we experience stress. Once we have become aware of problematic patterns or processes, we have the ability to change them.
How to Practice Meditation to Reduce StressMeditation PostureYour first concern when beginning a meditation practice is figuring out how to position your body. You want to be comfortable, but you also want to be sure your posture is contributing to the right frame of mind.
Meditation can be practiced sitting, standing, crouching, kneeling, or in just about any other position. The position does not matter as much as the fundamentals.
To make sure your posture is conducive to successful meditating, refer to this list:
Breathing MeditationTo practice a breathing-based meditation, get into a comfortable position that meets the standards in the list above.
Next, prepare your breath. This exercise does not manipulate the breath in any way, but it can help to take a few deep breaths to prepare for the meditation.
After you are prepared, move into the first stage by counting your breath. Do not attempt to change your breath, just count.
Use this counting method: one inhale, one exhale, count.
Continue counting your breath for about five minutes. If you find your mind wandering, gently bring it back to the sensation of breathing.
The next stage of breathing meditation is essentially the same as the first stage, except you count your inhales instead of your exhales. This is a slight change that can lead to a distinctly different experience.
For this stage, use this counting method: count, one inhale, one exhale.
As with the previous stage, count for at least a few minutes, gently bringing your mind back to your breath if it gets mischievous.
Instead of counting, simply allow your breath to come naturally, and pay attention to the sensations of breathing. Focus specifically on the transitions from inhale to exhale and back again, since these transitions are when you are most likely to get distracted. Try to see breathing as a continuous process rather than a series of inhales and exhales.
This stage calls for a narrowing of your awareness. Try to focus on how you are feeling as you breathe. Notice the tiny sensations that come with each breath, like the slight breeze on your lip from each breath, or the feel of air moving down your throat and into your lungs (Wildmind, 2007).
Meditation Exercise for Countering AngerMetta Bhavana, or lovingkindness meditation, can be a useful tool to counter chronic anger. It involves learning to cultivate patience, kindness, acceptance, and compassion for ourselves.
You can prepare for practicing lovingkindness meditation by cultivating emotional awareness.
To begin lovingkindness meditation, assume your usual meditation posture. You will work through this meditation in five stages.
From here, widen your circle to include more friends, more neutral people, and more difficult people. Widen the circle again to include all friends, all neutral people you know, and all difficult people you know. Continue this process until your circle includes all sentient beings, and wish for happiness and joy for all of them. One wish covering all sentient beings that I have heard is the simple “May all beings everywhere be happy and free.” Feel free to use this wish, or invent your own to make it feel more personal.
To see these stages covered in more detail or to learn about other meditation exercises, see www.wildmind.org.
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M.Om., Dipl. Acu (NCCAOM) L.Ac.
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