Mindfulness-based strategies are drawn from ancient Buddhist practices and have found acceptance as one of the major behavioral medicine techniques of today (Hilton et al, 2016; Khazan, 2013). Throughout this blog the term mindfulness will refer broadly to a mental state of paying total attention to the present moment, with a non-judgmental awareness of inner and outer experiences (Baer, Smith, & Allen, 2004; Kabat-Zinn, 1994). This approach is the common core for many stress management approaches (Peper, Harvey, & Lin, 2019).
Transcendental meditation (TM), a form of concentrative meditation involving repetition of a sacred word or phrase known as a mantra, was a popular meditation technique introduced in the United States from India and participants reported improvement of mental and physical health (Wallace, 1970; Paul-Labrador et al, 2006; Rainforth et al, 2007; Hawkins, 2003). To make TM more acceptable for the western audience, Herbert Benson, MD, adapted and simplified the TM process and then labelled a core element, the ‘relaxation response’ (Benson, Beary, & Carol, 1974; Benson & Clipper, 1992). Instead of giving people a secret mantra and part of a spiritual tradition, he recommend using the word “one” as the mantra. Since that time numerous studies have demonstrated that when patients practice the relaxation response, many clinical symptoms were reduced.
In 1979, Jon Kabat-Zinn introduced a manual for a standardized Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center (Kabat-Zinn, 1994; Kabat-Zin, 2003). The eight-week program combined mindfulness as a form of insight meditation with mindful yogic movement exercises designed to focus awareness on body sensations, thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. Mindfulness based programs have become a predominant approach used in behavioral medicine.
Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) and mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) combine mindfulness meditation training with cognitive therapy and is a useful approach to reduce a variety of mental and physical conditions such as stress, anxiety, depression, addiction, disordered eating, chronic pain, sleep disturbances, and high blood pressure (Andersen et al., 2013; Carlson, Speca, Patel, & Goodey, 2003; Fjorback, Arendt, Ørnbøl, Fink, & Walach, 2011; Greeson, & Eisenlohr-Moul, 2014; Hoffman et al., 2012; Marchand, 2012; Baer, 2015; Demarzo et al, 2015; Khoury et al, 2013; Khoury et al, 2015; Teasdale, Segal, & Williams, 1995; Kabat-Zinn, 1994; Kabat-Zin, 2003; Zimmermann, Burrell, , & Jordan, 2018). Although in most cases, MBSR is helpful, in some cases meditation can evoke negative physical and/or psychological outcomes and inhibit prosocial behavior (Kreplin et al, 2018; Lindahl et al, 2017). Based on this encouraging research, many people are learning to meditate on their own using meditation apps. However, there are many questions that can arise for people new to meditation – such as what is meditation, how do I do it, what are the challenges, and how is it helpful? Some people also develop misconceptions about what meditation is and can become discouraged.
Watch the outstanding presentation by Professor Jennifer Daubenmier presented for the Holistic Health Lecture Series, in which she discusses meditation myths and pragmatic tips for practice.
Andersen, S. R., Würtzen, H., Steding-Jessen, M., Christensen, J., Andersen, K. K., Flyger, H., … & Dalton, S. O. (2013). Effect of mindfulness-based stress reduction on sleep quality: Results of a randomized trial among Danish breast cancer patients. Acta Oncologica, 52(2), 336-344. https://doi.org/10.3109/0284186X.2012.745948
Baer, R., Smith, G., & Allen, K. (2004). Assessment of mindfulness by self-report: The Kentucky Inventory of Mindfulness Skills. Assessment, 11, 191–206. https://doi.org/10.1177/1073191104268029
Benson, H., Beary, J. F., & Carol, M. P. (1974).The Relaxation Response. Psychiatry, 37(1), 37-46. https://www.tandfonline.com/loi/upsy20
Benson, H. & Clipper, M.Z. (1992). The Relaxation Response. Wings Books.
Carlson, L. E., Speca, M., Patel, K. D., & Goodey, E. (2003). Mindfulness‐based stress reduction in relation to quality of life, mood, symptoms of stress, and immune parameters in breast and prostate cancer outpatients. Psychosomatic Medicine, 65(4), 571-581. https://doi.org/10.1097/01.psy.0000074003.35911.41
Demarzo, M. M., Montero-Marin, J., Cuijpers, P., Zabaleta-del-Olmo, E., Mahtani, K. R., Vellinga, A., Vicens, C., López-del-Hoyo, Y., & García-Campayo, J. (2015). The Efficacy of Mindfulness-Based Interventions in Primary Care: A Meta-Analytic Review. Annals of family medicine, 13(6), 573–582. https://doi.org/10.1370/afm.1863
Fjorback, L. O., Arendt, M., Ørnbøl, E., Fink, P., & Walach, H. (2011). Mindfulness‐Based Stress Reduction and Mindfulness‐Based Cognitive Therapy–A systematic review of randomized controlled trials. Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavica, 124(2), 102-119. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1600-0447.2011.01704.x
Greeson, J., & Eisenlohr-Moul, T. (2014). Mindfulness-based stress reduction for chronic pain. In R. A. Baer (Ed.), Mindfulness-Based Treatment Approaches: Clinician’s Guide to Evidence Base and Applications, 269-292. San Diego, CA: Academic Press. https://www.academia.edu/8092878/Mindfulness_Based_Stress_Reduction_for_Chronic_Pain
Hawkins, M. A. (2003). Effectiveness of the Transcendental Meditation program in criminal rehabilitation and substance abuse recovery, Journal of Offender Rehabilitation, 36(1-4), 47-65. https://doi.org/10.1300/J076v36n01_03
Hilton, L., Hempel, S., Ewing, B. A., Apaydin, E., Xenakis, L., Newberry, S., …Maglione, M. A. (2016). Mindfulness meditation for chronic pain: Systematic review and meta-analysis. Annals of Behavioral Medicine, 51(2), 199-213. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12160-016-9844-2
Hoffman, C. J., Ersser, S. J., Hopkinson, J. B., Nicholls, P. G., Harrington, J. E., & Thomas, P. W. (2012). Effectiveness of mindfulness-based stress reduction in mood, breast-and endocrine-related quality of life, and well-being in stage 0 to III breast cancer: A randomized, controlled trial. Journal of Clinical Oncology, 30(12), 1335-1342. https://doi.org/10.1200/JCO.2010.34.0331
Kabat-Zinn, J. (1994). Wherever you go, there you are: Mindfulness meditation in everyday life. New York: Hyperion.
Kabat-Zinn, J. (2003). Mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR). Constructivism in the Human Sciences, 8, 73–107. https://www.proquest.com/openview/fef538e3ed2210c1201ef2a946faed43/1?pq-origsite=gscholar&cbl=29080
Khazan, I. Z. (2013). The clinical handbook of biofeedback: A step-by-step guide for training and practice with mindfulness. John Wiley & Sons.
Khoury, B., Lecomte, T., Fortin, G., Masse, M., Therien, P., Bouchard, V., Chapleau, M., Paquin, K., & Hofmann, S. G. (2013). Mindfulness-based therapy: A comprehensive meta-analysis. Clinical Psychology Review, 33(6), 763-771. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cpr.2013.05.005
Khoury, B., Sharma, M., Rush, S. E., & Fournier, C. (2015). Mindfulness-based stress reduction for healthy individuals: A meta-analysis. Journal of Psychosomatic Research, 78(6), 519-528. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jpsychores.2015.03.009
Lindahl, J. R., Fisher, N. E., Cooper, D. J., Rosen, R. K, & Britton, W. B. (2017) The varieties of contemplative experience: A mixed-methods study of meditation-related challenges in Western Buddhists. PLoSONE, 12(5): e0176239. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0176239
Marchand, W. R. (2012). Mindfulness-based stress reduction, mindfulness-based cognitive therapy, and Zen meditation for depression, anxiety, pain, and psychological distress. Journal of Psychiatric Practice, 18(4), 233-252. https://doi.org/10.1097/01.pra.0000416014.53215.86
Paul-Labrador, M., Polk, D., Dwyer, J.H. et al. (2006). Effects of a randomized controlled trial of Transcendental Meditation on components of the metabolic syndrome in subjects with coronary heart disease. Archive of Internal Medicine, 166(11), 1218-1224. https://doi.org/10.1001/archinte.166.11.1218
Peper, E., Harvey, R., & Lin, I-M. (2019). Mindfulness training has themes common to other technique. Biofeedback. 47(3), 50-57. https://doi.org/10.5298/1081-5937-47.3.02
Rainforth, M.V., Schneider, R.H., Nidich, S.I., Gaylord-King, C., Salerno, J.W., & Anderson, J.W. (2007). Stress reduction programs in patients with elevated blood pressure: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Current Hypertension Reports, 9(6), 520–528. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11906-007-0094-3
Teasdale, J. D., Segal, Z., & Williams, J. M. (1995). How does cognitive therapy prevent depressive relapse and why should attentional control (mindfulness) training help? Behaviour Research and Therapy, 33, 25–39. https://doi.org/10.1016/0005-7967(94)e0011-7
Wallace, K.W. (1970). Physiological Effects of Transcendental Meditation. Science, 167 (3926), 1751-1754. https://doi.org/10.1126/science.167.3926.1
Erik Peper and Elyse Shafarman
After taking Alexander Technique lessons I felt lighter and stood taller and I have learned how to direct myself differently. I am much more aware of my body, so that while I am working at the computer, I notice when I am slouching and contracting. Even better, I know what to do so that I have no pain at the end of the day. It’s as though I’ve learned to allow my body to move freely.
The Alexander Technique is one of the somatic techniques that optimize health and performance (Murphy, 1993). Many people report that after taking Alexander lessons, many organic and functional disorders disappear. Others report that their music or dance performances improve. The Alexander Technique has been shown to improve back pain, neck pain, knee pain walking gait, and balance (Alexander technique, 2022; Hamel, et al, 2016; MacPherson et al., 2015; Preece, et al., 2016). Benefits are not just physical. Studying the technique decreases performance anxiety in musicians and reduces depression associated with Parkinson’s disease (Klein, et al, 2014; Stallibrass et al., 2002).
The Alexander Technique was developed in the late 19th century by the Australian actor, Frederick Matthias Alexander (Alexander, 2001). It is an educational method that teaches students to align, relax and free themselves from limiting tension habits (Alexander, 2001; Alexander technique, 2022). F.M Alexander developed this technique to resolve his own problem of becoming hoarse and losing his voice when speaking on stage.
Initially he went to doctors for treatment but nothing worked except rest. After resting, his voice was great again; however, it quickly became hoarse when speaking. He recognized that it must be how he was using himself while speaking that caused the hoarseness. He understood that “use” was not just a physical pattern, but a mental and emotional way of being. “Use” included beliefs, expectations and feelings. After working on himself, he developed the educational process known as the Alexander Technique that helps people improve the way they move, breathe and react to the situations of life.
The benefits of this approach has been documented in a large randomized controlled trial of one-on-one Alexander Technique lessons which showed that it significantly reduced chronic low back pain and the benefits persisted a year after treatment (Little, et al, 2008). Back pain as well as shoulder and neck pain often is often related to stress and how we misuse ourselves. When experiencing discomfort, we quickly tend to blame our physical structure and assume that the back pain is due to identifiable structural pathology identified by X-ray or MRI assessments. However, similar structural pathologies are often present in people who do not experience pain and the MRI findings correlate poorly with the experience of discomfort (Deyo & Weinstein, 2001; Svanbergsson et al., 2017). More likely, the causes and solutions involve how we use ourselves (e.g., how we stand, move, or respond to stress). A functional approach may include teaching awareness of the triggers that precede neck and back tension, skills to prevent the tensing of those muscles not needed for task performance, resolving psychosocial stress and improving the ergonomic factors that contribute to working in a stressed position (Peper, Harvey & Faass, 2020). Conceptually, how we are use ourselves (thoughts, emotions, and body) affects and transforms our physical structure and then our physical structure constrains how we use ourselves.
Watch the video with Alexander Teacher, Elyse Shafarman, who describes the Alexander Technique and guides you through practices that you can use immediately to optimize your health while sitting and moving.
See also the following posts:
Alexander, F.M. (2001). The Use of the Self. London: Orion Publishing. https://www.amazon.com/Use-Self-F-M-Alexander/dp/0752843915
Alexander technique. (2022). National Health Service. Retrieved 19 April, 2022/. https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/alexander-technique/
Deyo, R.A. & Weinstein, J.N. (2001). Low back pain. N Engl J Med., 344(5),363-70. https://doi.org/10.1056/NEJM200102013440508
Hamel, K.A., Ross, C., Schultz, B., O’Neill, M., & Anderson, D.I. (2016). Older adult Alexander Technique practitioners walk differently than healthy age-matched controls. J Body Mov Ther. 20(4), 751-760. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jbmt.2016.04.009
Klein, S. D., Bayard, C., & Wolf, U. (2014). The Alexander Technique and musicians: a systematic review of controlled trials. BMC complementary and alternative medicine, 14, 414. https://doi.org/10.1186/1472-6882-14-414
Little, P. Lewith, W G., Webley, F., Evans, M., …(2008). Randomised controlled trial of Alexander technique lessons, exercise, and massage (ATEAM) for chronic and recurrent back pain. BMJ, 337:a884. https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.a884
MacPherson, H., Tilbrook, H., Richmond, S., Woodman, J., Ballard, K., Atkin, K., Bland, M., et al. (2015). Alexander Technique Lessons or Acupuncture Sessions for Persons With Chronic Neck Pain: A Randomized Trial. Ann Intern Med, 163(9), 653-62. https://doi.org/10.7326/M15-0667
Preece, S.J., Jones, R.K., Brown, C.A. et al. (2016). Reductions in co-contraction following neuromuscular re-education in people with knee osteoarthritis. BMC Musculoskelet Disord 17, 372. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12891-016-1209-2
Stallibrass, C., Sissons, P., & Chalmers. C. (2002). Randomized controlled trial of the Alexander technique for idiopathic Parkinson’s disease. Clin Rehabil, 16(7), 695-708. https://doi.org/10.1191/0269215502cr544oa
Svanbergsson, G., Ingvarsson, T., & Arnardóttir RH. (2017). [MRI for diagnosis of low back pain: Usability, association with symptoms and influence on treatment]. Laeknabladid, 103(1):17-22. Icelandic. https://doi.org/10.17992/lbl.2017.01.116
Tuomilehto, J., Lindström, J., Eriksson, J.G., Valle, T.T., Hämäläinen, H., Ilanne-Parikka, P., Keinänen-Kiukaanniemi, S., Laakso, M., Louheranta, A., Rastas, M., et al. (2001). Prevention of type 2 diabetes mellitus by changes in lifestyle among subjects with impaired glucose tolerance. N. Engl. J. Med., 344, 1343–1350. https://doi.org/10.1056/NEJM200105033441801
Uusitupa, Mm, Khan, T.A., Viguiliouk, E., Kahleova, H., Rivellese, A.A., Hermansen, K., Pfeiffer, A., Thanopoulou, A., Salas-Salvadó, J., Schwab, U., & Sievenpiper. J.L. (2019). Prevention of Type 2 Diabetes by Lifestyle Changes: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Nutrients, 11(11)2611. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu11112611
Most people breathe 22,000 breaths per day. We tend to breathe more rapidly when stressed, anxious or in pain. While a slower diaphragmatic breathing supports recovery and regeneration. We usually become aware of our dysfunctional breathing when there are problems such as nasal congestion, allergies, asthma, emphysema, or breathlessness during exertion. Optimal breathing is much more than the absence of symptoms and is influenced by posture. Dysfunctional posture and breathing are cofactors in illness. We often do not realize that posture and breathing affect our thoughts and emotions and that our thoughts and emotions affect our posture and breathing. Watch the video, A breath of fresh air: Breathing and posture to optimize health, that was recorded for the 2022 Virtual Ergonomics Summit.
The purpose of this blog is to describe how a university class that incorporated structured self-experience practices reduced self-reported anxiety symptoms. This approach is different from a clinical treatment approach as it focused on empowerment and mastery learning (Peper, Miceli, & Harvey, 2016).
As a result of my practice, I felt my anxiety and my menstrual cramps decrease. — College senior
When I changed back to slower diaphragmatic breathin, I was more aware of my negative emotions and I was able to reduce the stress and anxiety I was feeling with the deep diaphragmatic breathing.– College junior
More than half of college students now report anxiety (Coakley et al., 2021). In our recent survey during the first day of the spring semester class, 59% of the students reported feeling tired, dreading their day, being distracted, lacking mental clarity and had difficulty concentrating.
Before the COVID pandemic nearly one-third of students had or developed moderate or severe anxiety or depression while being at college (Adams et al., 2021. The pandemic accelerated a trend of increasing anxiety that was already occurring. “The prevalence of major depressive disorder among graduate and professional students is two times higher in 2020 compared to 2019 and the prevalence of generalized anxiety disorder is 1.5 times higher than in 2019” As reported by Chirikov et al (2020) from the UC Berkeley SERU Consortium Reports.
This increase in anxiety has both short and long term performance and health consequences. Severe anxiety reduces cognitive functioning and is a risk factor for early dementia (Bierman et al., 2005; Richmond-Rakerd et al, 2022). It also increases the risk for asthma, arthritis, back/neck problems, chronic headache, diabetes, heart disease, hypertension, pain, obesity and ulcer (Bhattacharya et al., 2014; Kang et al, 2017).
The most commonly used treatment for anxiety are pharmaceutical and cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) (Kaczkurkin & Foa, 2015). The anti-anxiety drugs are usually benzodiazepines (e.g., alprazolam (Xanax), clonazepam (Klonopin), chlordiazepoxide (Librium), diazepam (Valium) and lorazepam (Ativan). Although these drugs they may reduce anxiety, they have numerous side effects such as drowsiness, irritability, dizziness, memory and attention problems, and physical dependence (Shri, 2012; Crane, 2013).
Cognitive behavior therapy techniques based upon the assumption that anxiety is primarily a disorder in thinking which then causes the symptoms and behaviors associated with anxiety. Thus, the primary treatment intervention focuses on changing thoughts.
Given the significant increase in anxiety and the potential long term negative health risks, there is need to provide educational strategies to empower students to prevent and reduce their anxiety. A holistic approach is one that assumes that body and mind are one and that soma/body, emotions and thoughts interchangeably affect the development of anxiety. Initially in our research, Peper, Lin, Harvey & Perez (2017) reported that it was easier to access hopeless, helpless, powerless and defeated memories in a slouched position than an upright position and it was easier to access empowering positive memories in an upright position than a slouched position. Our research on transforming hopeless, helpless, depressive thought to empowering thoughts, Peper, Harvey & Hamiel (2019) found that it was much more effective if the person first shifts to an upright posture, then begins slow diaphragmatic breathing and finally reframes their negative to empowering/positive thoughts. Participants were able to reframe stressful memories much more easily when in an upright posture compared to a slouched posture and reported a significant reduction in negative thoughts, anxiety (they also reported a significant decrease in negative thoughts, anxiety and tension as compared to those attempting to just change their thoughts).
The strategies to reduce anxiety focus on breathing and posture change. At the same time there are many other factors that may contribute the onset or maintenance of anxiety such as social isolation, economic insecurity, etc. In addition, low glucose levels can increase irritability and may lower the threshold of experiencing anxiety or impulsive behavior (Barr, Peper, & Swatzyna, 2019; Brad et al, 2014). This is often labeled as being “hangry” (MacCormack & Lindquist, 2019). Thus, by changing a high glycemic diet to a low glycemic diet may reduce the somatic discomfort (which can be interpreted as anxiety) triggered by low glucose levels. In addition, people are also sitting more and more in front of screens. In this position, they tend to breathe quicker and more shallowly in their chest.
Shallow rapid breathing tends to reduce pCO2 and contributes to subclinical hyperventilation which could be experienced as anxiety (Lum, 1981; Wilhelm et al., 2001; Du Pasquier et al, 2020). Experimentally, the feeling of anxiety can rapidly be evoked by instructing a person to sequentially exhale about 70 % of the inhaled air continuously for 30 seconds. After 30 seconds, most participants reported a significant increase in anxiety (Peper & MacHose, 1993). Thus, the combination of sitting, shallow breathing and increased stress from the pandemic are all cofactors that may contribute to the self-reported increase in anxiety.
To reduce anxiety and discomfort, McGrady and Moss (2013) suggested that self-regulation and stress management approaches be offered as the initial treatment/teaching strategy in health care instead of medication. One of the useful approaches to reduce sympathetic arousal and optimize health is breathing awareness and retraining (Gilbert, 2003).
Stress management as part of a university holistic health class
Every semester since 1976, up to 180 undergraduates have enrolled in a three-unit Holistic Health class on stress management and self-healing (Klein & Peper, 2013). Students in the class are assigned self-healing projects using techniques that focus on awareness of stress, dynamic regeneration, stress reduction imagery for healing, and other behavioral change techniques adapted from the book, Make Health Happen (Peper, Gibney & Holt, 2002).
82% of students self-reported that they were ‘mostly successful’ in achieving their self-healing goals. Students have consistently reported achieving positive benefits such as increasing physical fitness, changing diets, reducing depression, anxiety, and pain, eliminating eczema, and even reducing substance abuse (Peper et al., 2003; Bier et al., 2005; Peper et al., 2014).
This assessment reports how students’ anxiety decreased after five weeks of daily practice. The students filled out an anonymous survey in which they rated the change in their discomfort after practicing effortless diaphragmatic breathing. More than 70% of the students reported a decrease in anxiety. In addition, they reported decreases in symptoms of stress, neck and shoulder pain as shown in Figure 1.
Figure 1. Self-report of decrease in symptoms after practice diaphragmatic breathing for a week.
Most students also reported an increase in mental clarity and concentration that improved their study habits. As one student noted: Now that I breathe properly, I have less mental fog and feel less overwhelmed and more relaxed. My shoulders don’t feel tense, and my muscles are not as achy at the end of the day.
The teaching components for the first five weeks included a focus on the psychobiology of stress, the role of posture, and psychophysiology of respiration. The class included didactic presentations and daily self-practice
- Diadactic presentation on the physiology of stress and how posture impacts health.
- Self-observation of stress reactions; energy drain/energy gain and learning dynamic relaxation.
- Short experiential practices so that the student can experience how slouched posture allows easier access to helpless, hopeless, powerless and defeated memories.
- Short experiential breathing practices to show how breathing holding occurs and how 70% exhalation within 30 seconds increases anxiety.
- Didactic presentation on the physiology of breathing and how a constricted waist tends to have the person breathe high in their chest (the cause of neurasthemia) and how the fight/flight response triggers chest breathing, breath holding and/or shallow breathing.
- Explanation and practice of diaphragmatic breathing.
Students were assigned weekly daily self-practices which included both skill mastery by practicing for 20 minutes as well and implementing the skill during their daily life. They then recorded their experiences after the practice. At the end of the week, they reviewed their own log of week and summarized their observations (benefits, difficulties) and then met in small groups to discuss their experiences and extract common themes. These daily practices consisted of:
- Awareness of stress. Monitoring how they reacted to daily stressor
- Practicing dynamic relaxation. Students practiced for 20 minutes a modified progressive relaxation exercise and observed and inhibit bracing pattern
- Changing energy drain and energy gains. Students observed what events reduced or increased their subjective energy and implemented changes in their behavior to decrease events that reduced their energy and increased behaviors that increase their enery
- Creating a memory of wholeness practice
- Practicing effortless breathing. Students practiced slowly diaphragmatic abdominal breathing for 20 minutes per day and each time they become aware of dysfunctional breathing (breath holding, shallow chest breathing, gasping) during the day, they would shift to slower diaphragmatic breathing.
Almost all students were surprised how beneficial these practices were to reduce their anxiety and symptoms. Generally, the more the students would interrupt their personal stress responses during the day by shifting to diaphragmatic breathing the more did they experience success. We hypothesize that some of the following factors contributed to the students’ improvement.
- Learning through self-mastery as an education approach versus clinical treatment.
- Generalizing the skills into daily life and activities. Practicing the skills during the day in which the cue of a stress reaction triggered the person to breathe slowly. The breathing would reduce the sympathetic activation.
- Interrupting escalating sympathetic arousal. Responding with an intervention reduced the sense of being overwhelmed and unable to cope by the participant by taking charge and performing an active task.
- Redirecting attention and thoughts away from the anxiety triggers to a positive task.
- Increasing heart rate variability. Through slow breathing heart rate variability increased which enhanced sympathetic parasympathetic balance.
- Reducing subclinical hyperventilation by breathing slower and thereby increasing pC02.
- Increasing social support by meeting in small groups. The class discussion group normalized the anxiety experiences.
- Providing hope. The class lectures, assigned readings and videos provide hope; since, it included reports how other students had reversed their chronic disorders such as irritable bowel disease, acid reflux, psoriasis with behavioral interventions.
Although the study lacked a control group and is only based upon self-report, it offers an economical non-pharmaceutical approach to reduce anxiety. These stress management strategies may not resolve anxiety for everyone. Nevertheless, we recommend that schools implement this approach as the first education intervention to improve health in which students are taught about stress management, learn and practice relaxation and diaphragmatic breathing and then practice these skills during the day whenever they experience stress or dysfunctional breathing.
I noticed that breathing helped tremendously with my anxiety. I was able to feel okay without having that dreadful feeling stay in my chest and I felt it escape in my exhales. I also felt that I was able to breathe deeper and relax better altogether. It was therapeutic, I felt more present, aware, and energized.
See the following blogs for detailed breathing instructions
Adams. K.L., Saunders KE, Keown-Stoneman CDG, et al. (2021). Mental health trajectories in undergraduate students over the first year of university: a longitudinal cohort study. BMJ Open 2021; 11:e047393. https://doi.org/10.1136/bmjopen-2020-047393
Barr, E. A., Peper, E. & Swatzyna, R.J. (2019). Slouched Posture, Sleep Deprivation, and Mood Disorders: Interconnection and Modulation by Theta Brain Waves. Neuroregulation, 6(4), 181–189 https://doi.org/10.15540/nr.6.41.181
Bhattacharya, R., Shen, C. & Sambamoorthi, U. (2014). Excess risk of chronic physical conditions associated with depression and anxiety. BMC Psychiatry 14, 10 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1186/1471-244X-14-10
Bier, M., Peper, E., & Burke, A. (2005). Integrated stress management with ‘Make Health Happen: Measuring the impact through a 5-month follow-up. Poster presentation at the 36th Annual Meeting of the Association for Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback. Abstract published in: Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback, 30(4), 400. https://biofeedbackhealth.files.wordpress.com/2013/12/2005-aapb-make-health-happen-bier-peper-burke-gibney3-12-05-rev.pdf
Bierman, E.J.M., Comijs, H.C. , Jonker, C. & Beekman, A.T.F. (2005). Effects of Anxiety Versus Depression on Cognition in Later Life. The American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry,13(8), 686-693, https://doi.org/10.1097/00019442-200508000-00007.
Brad, J., Bushman, C., DeWall, N., Pond, R.S., &. Hanus, M.D. (2014).. Low glucose relates to greater aggression in married couples. PNAS, April 14, 2014. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1400619111
Chirikov, I., Soria, K. M, Horgos, B., & Jones-White, D. (2020). Undergraduate and Graduate Students’ Mental Health During the COVID-19 Pandemic. UC Berkeley: Center for Studies in Higher Education. Retrieved from https://escholarship.org/uc/item/80k5d5hw
Coakley, K.E., Le, H., Silva, S.R. et al. Anxiety is associated with appetitive traits in university students during the COVID-19 pandemic. Nutr J 20, 45 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12937-021-00701-9
Crane,E.H. (2013).Highlights of the 2011 Drug Abuse Warning Network (DAWN) Findings on Drug-Related Emergency Department Visits. 2013 Feb 22. In: The CBHSQ Report. Rockville (MD): Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (US); 2013-. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK384680/
Du Pasquier, D., Fellrath, J.M., & Sauty, A. (2020). Hyperventilation syndrome and dysfunctional breathing: update. Revue Medicale Suisse, 16(698), 1243-1249. https://europepmc.org/article/med/32558453
Gilbert C. Clinical Applications of Breathing Regulation: Beyond Anxiety Management. Behavior Modification. 2003;27(5):692-709. https://doi.org/10.1177/0145445503256322
Kaczkurkin, A.N. & Foa, E.B. (2015). Cognitive-behavioral therapy for anxiety disorders: an update on the empirical evidence. Dialogues Clin Neurosci. 17(3):337-46. https://doi.org/10.31887/DCNS.2015.17.3/akaczkurkin
Kang, H. J., Bae, K. Y., Kim, S. W., Shin, H. Y., Shin, I. S., Yoon, J. S., & Kim, J. M. (2017). Impact of Anxiety and Depression on Physical Health Condition and Disability in an Elderly Korean Population. Psychiatry investigation, 14(3), 240–248. https://doi.org/10.4306/pi.2017.14.3.240
Klein, A. & Peper, W. (2013). There is Hope: Autogenic Biofeedback Training for the Treatment of Psoriasis. Biofeedback, 41(4), 194–201. https://doi.org/10.5298/1081-5937-41.4.01
Lum, L. C. (1981). Hyperventilation and anxiety state. Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, 74(1), 1-4. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/014107688107400101
MacCormack, J. K., & Lindquist, K. A. (2019). Feeling hangry? When hunger is conceptualized as emotion. Emotion, 19(2), 301–319. https://doi.org/10.1037/emo0000422
McGrady, A. & Moss, D. (2013). Pathways to illness, pathways to health. New York: Springer. https://link.springer.com/book/10.1007/978-1-4419-1379-1
Peper, E., Gibney, K.H., & Holt, C.F. (2002). Make health happen: Training yourself to create wellness. Dubuque, IA: Kendall/Hunt Publishing Company. https://he.kendallhunt.com/make-health-happen
Peper, E., Harvey, R., & Hamiel, D. (2019). Transforming thoughts with postural awareness to increase therapeutic and teaching efficacy. NeuroRegulation, 6(3),153-169. doi:10.15540/nr.6.3.1533-1 https://www.neuroregulation.org/article/view/19455/13261
Peper, E., Lin, I-M., Harvey, R., & Perez, J. (2017). How posture affects memory recall and mood. Biofeedback.45 (2), 36-41. https://doi.org/10.5298/1081-5937-45.2.01
Peper, E., Lin, I-M, Harvey, R., Gilbert, M., Gubbala, P., Ratkovich, A., & Fletcher, F. (2014). Transforming chained behaviors: Case studies of overcoming smoking, eczema and hair pulling (trichotillomania). Biofeedback, 42(4), 154-160. https://doi.org/10.5298/1081-5937-42.4.06
Peper, E., MacHose, M. (1993). Symptom prescription: Inducing anxiety by 70% exhalation. Biofeedback and Self-Regulation 18, 133–139). https://doi.org/10.1007/BF00999790
Peper, E., Miceli, B., & Harvey, R. (2016). Educational Model for Self-healing: Eliminating a Chronic Migraine with Electromyography, Autogenic Training, Posture, and Mindfulness. Biofeedback, 44(3), 130–137. https://doi.org/10.5298/1081-5937-44.3.03
Peper, E., Sato-Perry, K & Gibney, K. H. (2003). Achieving Health: A 14-Session Structured Stress Management Program—Eczema as a Case Illustration. 34rd Annual Meeting of the Association for Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback. Abstract in: Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback, 28(4), 308. Proceeding in: http://www.aapb.org/membersonly/articles/P39peper.pdf
Richmond-Rakerd, L.S., D’Souza, S, Milne, B.J, Caspi, A., & Moffitt, T.E. (2022). Longitudinal Associations of Mental Disorders with Dementia: 30-Year Analysis of 1.7 Million New Zealand Citizens. JAMA Psychiatry. Published online February 16, 2022. https://doi.org/10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2021.4377
Shri, R. (2012). Anxiety: Causes and Management. The Journal of Behavioral Science, 5(1), 100–118. Retrieved from https://so06.tci-thaijo.org/index.php/IJBS/article/view/2205
Wilhelm, F.H., Gevirtz, R., & Roth, W.T. (2001). Respiratory dysregulation in anxiety, functional cardiac, and pain disorders. Assessment, phenomenology, and treatment. Behav Modif, 25(4), 513-45. https://doi.org/10.1177/0145445501254003
Pain is so different for each person. It can range from mildly distracting to totally debilitating. It can be the result from a medical procedure (post- surgical pain), a traumatic injury, disease, trauma or unknown causes. It is challenging to know what to do to reduce suffering and improve health and functioning. Should I take narcotics, have surgery, see a pain psychologist, have acupuncture, receive physical therapy, use biofeedback, change my diet, or get a massage? Should I exercise or rest? Should I follow my doctor’s recommendations?
Before you do anything, first listen to this podcast by pain psychologist, Rachel Zoffness, PhD. In this podcast she will explain what pain is; how it works; and how thoughts, emotions, and sensations are always interconnected. You will also learn the fundamentals of treating chronic pain and helping patients living with it. As one of my close friends stated, “I only wished I could have listened to this before, it would have saved years of suffering.” The podcast is Ologies with Alie Ward and the episode is Dolorology. The link for the episode is:
Rachel Zoffness, PhD, a pain psychologist, Visiting Professor at Stanford, and Assistant Clinical Professor at the UCSF School of Medicine. She serves on the Board of Directors of the U.S. Association for the Study of Pain, and the Society of Pediatric Pain Medicine. She is the author of The Pain Management Workbook and The Chronic Pain and Illness Workbook for Teens. She is a 2021 Mayday Fellow and consults on the development of integrative pain programs around the world.
|Adapted from Peper, E., Covell, A., & Matzembacker, N. (2021). How a chronic headache condition became resolved with one session of breathing and posture coaching. NeuroRegulation, 8(4), 194–197. https://doi.org/10.15540/nr.8.4.194|
This blog describes the process by which a 32 year old woman student’s chronic headaches that she had since age eighteen was resolved in a single coaching session. The student suffered two or three headache per week a week which initially began when she was eighteen after using digital devices and encouraged her to slouch as she looked down. Although she describes herself as healthy, she reported having high level of anxiety and occasional depression. She self-medicated with 2 to 10 Excedrin tablets a week. It is possible that the chronic headaches could partially be triggered by caffeine withdrawal which get resolved by taking more Excedrins (Greben et al., 1980) since Excedrin contains 65 mg of caffeine as well as 250 mg of Acetaminophen which can be harmful to liver function (Bauer et al., 2021).
The behavioral coaching intervention
During the first day in class, the student approached the instructor and she shared that she had a severe headache. During their conversation, the instructor noticed that she was breathing in her chest without abdominal movement, her shoulders were held tight, her posture slightly slouched and her hands were cold. As she was unaware of her body responses, the instructor offered to guide her through some practices that may be useful to reduce her headache. The same strategies could also be useful for the other students in the class; since, headaches, anxiety, zoom fatigue, neck and shoulder tension, abdominal discomfort, and vision problems are common and have increased as people spent more time in front of screens (Charles et al., 2021; Ahmed et al., 2021; Bauer, 2021; Kuehn, 2021; Peper et al., 2021 ).
These symptoms may occur because of bad posture, neck and shoulder tension, shallow chest breathing, stress and social isolation (Elizagaray-Garcia et al., 2020; Schulman, 2002). When people become aware of their dysfunctional somatic patterns and change their posture, breathing pattern, internal language and implement stress management techniques, they often report a reduction in symptoms such as irritable bowel syndrome, acid reflux, neck and shoulder tension, or anxiety (Peper et al, 2017a; Peper et al, 2016a). Sometimes, a single coaching session can be sufficient to improve health.
Working hypothesis: The headaches were most likely tension headaches and not migraines and may be the result of chronic neck and shoulder tension which was maintained during chest breathing and the slouched head forward body posture. If she could change her posture, relax her neck and shoulders, and breathe diaphragmatically so that the lower abdomen widen during inhalation, most likely her shoulder and neck tension would decrease. Therefore, by changing posture from a slouched to upright position combined with slower diaphragmatic breathing, the muscle tension would be reduced and the headaches would decrease.
Breathing and posture changes
She was encouraged to sit upright so that the abdomen had space to expand (Peper et al., 2020). In addition, she needed to loosen the clothing around her waist to provide room for her abdomen to expand during inhalation instead of her chest lifting (MacHose & Peper, 1991). Allowing abdominal expansion can be challenging for many paticipants since they are self-conscious about their body image, as well holding their stomach in as an unconscious learned response to avoid pain after having had abdominal surgery, or as an automatic protective response to threat (Peper et al., 2015). The upright position also allowed her to sit tall and erect in which the back of head reaches upward towards the ceiling while relaxing and feeling gravity pulling her shoulders downward and at the same time relaxing her hips and legs.
With guided verbal and tactile coaching, she learned to master slower diaphragmatic breathing in which she gently and slowly exhaled by making a sound of pssssssst (exhaling through pursed lips) which tends to activate the transverse and oblique abdominal muscles and slightly tighten the pelvic floor muscles so that her lower abdomen would slightly constrict at the end of the exhalation (Peper et al., 2016). Then, by allowing the lower abdomen and pelvic floor relax so that the abdomen could expand in 360 degrees, inhalation occurred.
While practicing the slower breathing in this relaxed upright position, she was instructed to sense/imagine feeling a flow of down and through her arms and out her hands as she exhaled (as if the air could flow through straws down her arms). After a few minutes, she felt her headache decrease and noticed that her hands had warmed. After this short coaching intervention, she went back to her seat in class and continued to practice the relaxed effortless breathing while sitting upright and allowing her shoulders to melt downward.
The use of muscle feedback to demonstrate residual covert muscle tension
During class session, she volunteered to have her trapezius muscle monitored with electromyography (EMG). The EMG indicated that her muscles were slightly tense even though she reported feeling relaxed. With a few minutes of EMG biofeedback exploration, she discovered that she could relax her shoulder muscles by feeling them being heavy and melting.
Implementing home practice with a posture app
As part of the class homework, she was assigned a self-study for two weeks with the posture feedback app, Dario Desktop. The app uses the computer/laptop camera to monitor posture and provides visual feedback in a small window on the computer screen and/or an auditory signal each time she slouches as shown in Figure 1.
Figure 1. Posture feedback to signal to participant that the person is slouching.
To observe the effect of the posture breathing training, she monitored her symptoms for three days without feedback and then installed the posture feedback application on her laptop to provide feedback whenever she slouched. The posture feedback reminded her to practice better posture during the day while working on her computer and also do a few stretches or shift to standing when using the computer for an extended period of time. Each time the feedback signal indicated she slouched, she would sit up and change her posture, breathe lower and slower and relax her shoulders.
She also monitored what factors triggered the slouching. In additionally, she added daily reminders to her phone to remind her of her posture and to stretch and stand after each hour of studying. After two weeks she recorded her symptoms for three days for the post assessment without posture feedback.
The chronic headache condition which had been present for fourteen years disappeared and she has not used any medication since the first day of class. She reported after two weeks that her shoulder and back discomfort/pain, depression, anxiety and lack of motivation decreased as shown in Figure 2. At the fourteen week follow up, she continues to have no headaches and has not used any medication.
Figure 2. Changes in symptoms after implementing posture feedback for two weeks.
She used the desktop posture app every time she opened her laptop at home as often as 3-5 times per day (roughly 2-6 hours).In addition, when she felt beginning of discomfort or thought she should take medication, she would adjust her posture and breathe. While using the app, she identified numerous factors that were associated with slouching as shown in Figure 3.
Figure 3. Behaviors associated with slouching.
The decrease in depression, anxiety and increase in motivation may be the direct result of posture change; since, a slouched position tends to increase hopeless, helpless and powerless thoughts while the upright position tends to increase subjective felt energy and easier access to empowering and positive thoughts (Peper et al., 2017b; Veenstra et al., 2017; Wilson & Peper, 2004; Tsai et al., 2016). Most likely, a major factor that contributed to the elimination of her headaches was that she implemented changes in her behavior. One major factor was using posture feedback tool at home to remind her to sit tall and relax her shoulders while practicing slower diaphragmatic breathing. As she noted, “Although it was distracting to be reminded all the time about my posture, it did decrease my neck pain. With the pain reduction, I was able to sit at the computer longer and felt more motivated.”
The combination of slower lower abdominal breathing with the upright posture reversed her protective/defensive body position (tightening the muscle in the lower abdomen and pelvic floor and pressing the knees together while curling the shoulder forward for protection). The upright posture creates a position of empowerment and trust by which the lower abdomen could expand which supported health and regeneration. In addition, the upright posture allowed easier access to positive thoughts and reduced recall of hopeless, powerless, defeated memories. It is also possible that caffeine withdrawal was a co-factor in evoking headaches (Küçer, 2010). By eliminating the medication containing caffeine, she also eliminated the triggering of the caffeine withdrawal headaches.
This case example suggests that health care providers first rule out any pathology and then teach behavioral self-healing strategies that the clients can implement instead of immediately prescribing medications. These interventions could include slower and lower diaphragmatic breathing, upright posture feedback, muscle biofeedback training, hear rate variability training, stress management, cognitive behavior therapy and facilitating health promoting lifestyles modifications such as regular sleep, exercise and healthier diet. When students implement these behavioral changes as part of a five week self-healing program, many report significant decreases in symptoms such as headaches, anxiety, neck and shoulder pain, and gastrointestinal distress (Peper et al., 2016a).
Watch April Covell describe her experience with the self-healing approach to eliminate her chronic headaches.
See the following blogs for additional instructions how to breathe diaphragmatically.
Ahmed, S., Akter, R., Pokhrel, N. et al. (2021). Prevalence of text neck syndrome and SMS thumb among smartphone users in college-going students: a cross-sectional survey study. J Public Health (Berl.) 29, 411–416. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10389-019-01139-4
Bauer, A.Z., Swan, S.H., Kriebel, D. et al. (2021). Paracetamol use during pregnancy — a call for precautionary action. Nat Rev Endocrinol . https://doi.org/10.1038/s41574-021-00553-7
Charles, N. E., Strong, S. J., Burns, L. C., Bullerjahn, M. R., & Serafine, K. M. (2021). Increased mood disorder symptoms, perceived stress, and alcohol use among college students during the COVID-19 pandemic. Psychiatry research, 296, 113706. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.psychres.2021.113706
Elizagaray-Garcia, I., Beltran-Alacreu, H., Angulo-Díaz, S., Garrigós-Pedrón, M., Gil-Martínez, A. (2020). Chronic Primary Headache Subjects Have Greater Forward Head Posture than Asymptomatic and Episodic Primary Headache Sufferers: Systematic Review and Meta-analysis. Pain Med, 21(10):2465-2480. https://doi.org/10.1093/pm/pnaa235
Greden, J.F., Victor, B.S., Fontaine, P., & Lubetsky, M. (1980). Caffeine-Withdrawal Headache: A Clinical Profile. Psychosomatics, 21(5), 411-413, 417-418. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0033-3182(80)73670-8
Küçer, N. (2010). The relationship between daily caffeine consumption and withdrawal symptoms: a questionnaire-based study. Turk J Med Sci, 40(1), 105-108. https://doi.org/10.3906/sag-0809-26
Kuehn, B.M. (2021). Increase in Myopia Reported Among Children During COVID-19 Lockdown. JAMA, 326(11),999. https://doi.org/10.1001/jama.2021.14475
MacHose, M. & Peper, E. (1991). The effect of clothing on inhalation volume. Biofeedback and Self-Regulation 16, 261–265 (1991). https://doi.org/10.1007/BF01000020
Peper, E., Booiman, A., Lin, I-M, Harvey, R., & Mitose, J. (2016). Abdominal SEMG Feedback for Diaphragmatic Breathing: A Methodological Note. Biofeedback. 44(1), 42-49. https://doi.org/10.5298/1081-5937-44.1.03
Peper, E., Gilbert, C.D., Harvey, R. & Lin, I-M. (2015). Did you ask about abdominal surgery or injury? A learned disuse risk factor for breathing dysfunction. Biofeedback. 34(4), 173-179. https://doi.org/10.5298/1081-5937-43.4.06
Peper, E., Lin, I-M., Harvey, R., & Perez, J. (2017b). How posture affects memory recall and mood. Biofeedback. 45 (2), 36-41. https://doi.org/10.5298/1081-5937-45.2.01
Peper, E., Mason, L., Harvey, R., Wolski, L, & Torres, J. (2020). Can acid reflux be reduced by breathing? Townsend Letters-The Examiner of Alternative Medicine, 445/446, 44-47. https://www.townsendletter.com/article/445-6-acid-reflux-reduced-by-breathing/
Peper, E., Mason, L., Huey, C. (2017a). Healing irritable bowel syndrome with diaphragmatic breathing. Biofeedback. (45-4). https://doi.org/10.5298/1081-5937-45.4.04
Peper, E., Miceli, B., & Harvey, R. (2016a). Educational Model for Self-healing: Eliminating a Chronic Migraine with Electromyography, Autogenic Training, Posture, and Mindfulness. Biofeedback, 44(3), 130–137. https://doi.org/10.5298/1081-5937-44.3.03
Peper, E., Wilson, V., Martin, M., Rosegard, E., & Harvey, R. (2021). Avoid Zoom fatigue, be present and learn. NeuroRegulation, 8(1), 47–56. https://doi.org/10.15540/nr.8.1.47
Schulman, E.A. (2002). Breath-holding, head pressure, and hot water: an effective treatment for migraine headache. Headache, 42(10), 1048-50. https://doi.org/10.1046/j.1526-4610.2002.02237.x
Tsai, H. Y., Peper, E., & Lin, I. M.* (2016). EEG patterns under positive/negative body postures and emotion recall tasks. NeuroRegulation, 3(1), 23-27. https://doi.org/10.15540/nr.3.1.23
Veenstra, L., Schneider, I.K., & Koole, S.L. (2017). Embodied mood regulation: the impact of body posture on mood recovery, negative thoughts, and mood-congruent recall. Cogntion and Emotion, 31(7), 1361-1376. https://doi.org/10.1080/02699931.2016.1225003
Wilson, V.E. and Peper, E. (2004). The effects of upright and slumped postures on the generation of positive and negative thoughts. Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback, 29(3), 189–195. https://doi.org/10.1023/b:apbi.0000039057.32963.34
It is the time of year when we once again make New Year resolutions, “I plan to exercise every day,” “I will stop drinking,” “I will eat less processed foods and more fruits and vegetables.” We use our will power and positive thoughts to begin these new activities; however, our will power often fades out and we quickly fall of the wagon. The reason vary such as, I had planned to jog today; however it is raining, I was planning to eat more vegies; however, I had dinner with a friend and ate a juicy hamburger, I had planned to meditate; however, I needed to help my son. So many other things took priority and the motivation disappeared..
Yet it is possible to be successful with starting and then maintaining new health promoting habits. The key is to increase the friction for the behaviors that you want to reduce and decrease the friction for behaviors that you want to increase. Friction is the extra work you need to do in order to do the task. For example, to eat fewer cookies, increase the friction by not having them in the house (you now have to go to the store to buy them) or by placing them somewhere where it takes greater effort to get them such as the top shelf for which that you need a small ladder to reach them. The extra effort (increased friction) brings awareness to the automatic behavior. At that point, you can interrupt your unconscious eating pattern and choose to do something else. On the other hand, to increase eating fruits, decrease the friction by having the fruit right in front of you on the table so that you can take one without thinking.
The key is to interrupt the habit chain of behavior you want to reduce and automate the habit chains of behaviors you want to increase. The more you do a behavior and the more pleasurable it is, the more likely will the new behaviore become an automatic habit. To learn how to change friction and how to be successful in creating new habits, listen to Shankar Vedantam Hidden Brain’s Podcast, Creatures of Habit.
Andrea Castillo and Erik Peper
We are what we eat. Our body is synthesized from the foods we eat. Creating the best conditions for a healthy body depends upon the foods we ingest as implied by the phrase, Let food be thy medicine, attributed to Hippocrates, the Greek founder of western medicine (Cardenas, 2013). The foods are the building blocks for growth and repair. Comparing our body to building a house, the building materials are the foods we eat, the architect’s plans are our genetic coding, the care taking of the house is our lifestyle and the weather that buffers the house is our stress reactions. If you build a house with top of the line materials and take care of it, it will last a life time or more. Although the analogy of a house to the body is not correct since a house cannot repair itself, it is a useful analogy since repair is an ongoing process to keep the house in good shape. Our body continuously repairs itself in the process of regeneration. Our health will be better when we eat organic foods that are in season since they have the most nutrients.
Organic foods have much lower levels of harmful herbicides and pesticides which are neurotoxins and harmful to our health (Baker et al., 2002; Barański, et al, 2014). Crops have been organically farmed have higher levels of vitamins and minerals which are essential for our health compared to crops that have been chemically fertilized (Peper, 2017),
Even seasonality appears to be a factor. Foods that are outdoor grown or harvested in their natural growing period for the region where it is produced, tend to have more flavor that foods that are grown out of season such as in green houses or picked prematurely thousands of miles away to allow shipping to the consumer. Compare the intense flavor of small strawberry picked in May from the plant grown in your back yard to the watery bland taste of the great looking strawberries bought in December.
The seasonality of food
It’s the middle of winter. The weather has cooled down, the days are shorter, and some nights feel particularly cozy. Maybe you crave a warm bowl of tomato soup so you go to the store, buy some beautiful organic tomatoes, and make yourself a warm meal. The soup is… good. But not great. It is a little bland even though you salted it and spiced it. You can’t quite put your finger on it, but it feels like it’s missing more tomato flavor. But why? You added plenty of tomatoes. You’re a good cook so it’s not like you messed up the recipe. It’s just—missing something.
That something could easily be seasonality. The beautiful, organic tomatoes purchased from the store in the middle of winter could not have been grown locally, outside. Tomatoes love warm weather and die when days are cooler, with temperatures dropping to the 30s and 40s. So why are there organic tomatoes in the store in the middle of cold winters? Those tomatoes could’ve been grown in a greenhouse, a human-made structure to recreate warmer environments. Or, they could’ve been grown organically somewhere in the middle of summer in the southern hemisphere and shipped up north (hello, carbon emissions!) so you can access tomatoes year-round.
That 24/7 access isn’t free and excellent flavor is often a sacrifice we pay for eating fruits and vegetables out of season. Chefs and restaurants who offer seasonal offerings, for example, won’t serve bacon, lettuce, tomato (BLT) sandwiches in winter. Not because they’re pretentious, but because it won’t taste as great as it would in summer months. Instead of winter BLTs, these restaurants will proudly whip up seasonal steamed silky sweet potatoes or roasted brussels sprouts with kimchee puree.
When we eat seasonally-available food, it’s more likely we’re eating fresher food. A spring asparagus, summer apricot, fall pear, or winter grapefruit doesn’t have to travel far to get to your plate. With fewer miles traveled, the vitamins, minerals, and secondary metabolites in organic fruits and vegetables won’t degrade as much compared to fruits and vegetables flown or shipped in from other countries. Seasonal food tastes great and it’s great for you too.
If you’re curious to eat more of what’s in season, visit your local farmers market if it’s available to you. Strike up a conversation with the people who grow your food. If farmers markets are not available, take a moment to learn what is in season where you live and try those fruits and vegetables next time to go to the store. This Seasonal Food Guide for all 50 states is a great tool to get you started.
Once you incorporate seasonal fruits and vegetables into your daily meals, your body will thank you for the health boost and your meals will gain those extra flavors. Remember, you’re not a bad cook: you just need to find the right seasonal partners so your dinners are never left without that extra little something ever again.
Sign up for Andrea Castillo’s Seasonal, a newsletter that connects you to the Bay Area food system, one fruit and vegetable at a time. Andrea is a food nerd who always wants to know the what’s, how’s, when’s, and why’s of the food she eats.
Baker, B.P., Benbrook, C.M., & Groth III, E., & Lutz, K. (2002). Pesticide residues in conventional, integrated pest management (IPM)-grown and organic foods: insights from three US data sets. Food Additives and Contaminants, 19(5) http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/02652030110113799
Barański, M., Średnicka-Tober, D., Volakakis, N., Seal, C., Sanderson, R., Stewart, G., . . . Leifert, C. (2014). Higher antioxidant and lower cadmium concentrations and lower incidence of pesticide residues in organically grown crops: A systematic literature review and meta-analyses. British Journal of Nutrition, 112(5), 794-811. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0007114514001366
Cardenas, E. (2013). Let not thy food be confused with thy medicine: The Hippocratic misquotation,e-SPEN Journal, I(6), e260-e262. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.clnme.2013.10.002
Peper, E. (2017). Yes, fresh organic food is better! the peper perspective. https://peperperspective.com/2017/10/27/yes-fresh-organic-food-is-better/
Erik Peper, PhD and Richard Harvey, PhD
The number of hospitalizations and deaths from COVID-19 are decreasing as more people are being vaccinated. At the same time, herd immunity will depend on how vaccinated and unvaccinated people interact with one another. Close-proximity, especially indoor interactions, increases the likelihood of transmission of coronavirus for unvaccinated individuals. During the summer months, people tend to congregate outdoors which reduces viral transmission and also increases vitamin D production which supports the immune system (Holick, 2021)..
Most likely, COVID-19 disease will become endemic because the SARS-CoV-2 virus will continue to mutate. Already Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla stated on April 15, 2021 that people will “likely” need a third dose of a Covid-19 vaccine within 12 months of getting fully vaccinated. Although, at this moment the vaccines are effective against several variants, we need to be ready for the next COVID XX outbreak.
To reduce future infections, the focus of interventions should 1) reduce virus exposure, 2) vaccinate to activate the immune system, and 3) enhance the innate immune system competence. The risk of illness may relate to virus density exposure and depend upon the individual’s immune competence (Gandhi & Rutherford, 2020; Mukherjee, 2020) which can be expressed in the following equation.
Reduce viral load (hazardous exposure)
Without exposure to the virus and its many variants, the risk is zero which is impossible to achieve in democratic societies. People do not live in isolated bubbles but in an interconnected world and the virus does not respect borders or nationalities. Therefore, public health measures need to focus upon strategies that reduce virus exposure by encouraging or mandating wearing masks, keeping social distance, limiting social contact, and increasing fresh air circulation.
Wearing masks reduces the spread of the virus since people may shed viruses one or two days before experiencing symptoms (Lewis et al., 2021). When a person exhales through the mask, a good fitting N95 mask will filter out most of the virus and thereby reduce the spread of the virus during exhalation. To protect oneself from inhaling the virus, the mask needs be totally sealed around the face with the appropriate filters. Systematic observations suggest that many masks such as bandanas or surgical masks do not filter out the virus (Fisher et al., 2020).
Fresh air circulation reduces the virus exposure and is more important than the arbitrary 6 feet separation (CDC, May 13, 2021). If separated by 6 feet in an enclosed space, the viral particles in the air will rapidly increase even when the separation is 10 feet or more. On the other hand, if there is sufficient fresh air circulation, even three feet of separation would not be a problem. The spatial guidelines need to be based upon air flow and not on the distance of separation as illustrated in the outstanding graphical modeling schools by Nick Bartzokas et al. (February 26, 2021) in the New York Times article, Why opening windows is a key to reopening schools.
The public health recommendations of sheltering-in-place to prevent exposure or spreading the virus may also result in social isolation. Thus, shelter-in-place policies have resulted in compromising physical health such as weight gain (e.g. average increase of more than 7lb in weight in America according to Lin et al., 2021), reduced physical activity and exercise levels (Flanagan et al., 2021) and increased anxiety and depression (e.g. a three to four fold increase in the self-report of anxiety or depression according to Abbott, 2021). Increases in weight, depression and anxiety symptoms tend to decrease immune competence (Leonard, 2010). In addition, the stay at home recommendations especially in the winter time meant that individuals are less exposed to sunlight which results in lower vitamin D levels which is correlated with increased COVID-19 morbidity (Seheult, 2020).
Increase immune competence
Vaccination is the primary public health recommendation to prevent the spread and severity of COVID-19. Through vaccination, the body increases its adaptive capacity and becomes primed to respond very rapidly to virus exposure. Unfortunately, as Pfizer Chief Executive Albert Bourla states, there is “a high possibility” that emerging variants may eventually render the company’s vaccine ineffective (Steenhuysen, 2021). Thus, it is even more important to explore strategies to enhance immune competence independent of the vaccine.
Public Health policies need to focus on intervention strategies and positive health behaviors that optimize the immune system capacity to respond. The research data has been clear that COVID -19 is more dangerous for those whose immune systems are compromised and have comorbidities such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease, regardless of age.
Comorbidity and being older are the significant risk factors that contribute to COVID-19 deaths. For example, in evaluating all patients in the Fair Health National Private Insurance Claims (FH NPIC’s) longitudinal dataset, researchers identified 467,773 patients diagnosed with COVID-19 from April 1, 2020, through August 31, 2020. The severity of the illness and death from COVID-19 depended on whether the person had other co-morbidities first as shown in Figure 1.
Figure 1. The distribution of patients with and without a comorbidity among all patients diagnosed with COVID-19 (left) and all deceased COVID-19 patients (right) April-August 2020. Reproduced by permission from: https://www.ajmc.com/view/contributor-links-between-covid-19-comorbidities-mortality-detailed-in-fair-health-study
Each person who died had about 2 or 3 types of pre-existing co-morbidities such as cardiovascular disease, hypertension, diabetes, obesity, congestive heart failure, chronic kidney disease, respiratory disease and cancer (Ssentongo et al., 2020; Gold et al., 2020). The greater the frequency of comorbidities the greater the risk of death, as shown in Figure 2.
Figure 2. Across all age groups, the risk of COVID-19 death increased significantly as a patient’s number of comorbidities increased. Compared to patients with no comorbidities. Reproduced by permission from https://s3.amazonaws.com/media2.fairhealth.org/whitepaper/asset/Risk%20Factors%20for%20COVID-19%20Mortality%20among%20Privately%20Insured%20Patients%20-%20A%20Claims%20Data%20Analysis%20-%20A%20FAIR%20Health%20White%20Paper.pdf
Although the risk of serious illness and death is low for young people, the presence of comorbidity increases the risk. Kompaniyets et al. (2021) reported that for patients under 18 years with severe COVID-19 illness who required ICU admission, mechanical ventilation, or died most had underlying medical conditions such as asthma, neurodevelopmental disorders, obesity, essential hypertension or complex chronic diseases such as malignant neoplasms or multiple chronic conditions.
Consistent with earlier findings, the Fair Health National Private Insurance Claims (FH NPIC’s) longitudinal dataset also showed that the COVID-19 mortality rate rose sharply with age as shown in Figure 3.
Figure 3 Percent mortality among COVID-19 patients by age, April-August 2020. Reproduced by permission from: https://s3.amazonaws.com/media2.fairhealth.org/whitepaper/asset/Risk%20Factors%20for%20COVID-19%20Mortality%20among%20Privately%20Insured%20Patients%20-%20A%20Claims%20Data%20Analysis%20-%20A%20FAIR%20Health%20White%20Paper.pdf
Optimize antibody response from vaccinations
Assuming that the immune system reacts similarly to other vaccinations, higher antibody response is evoked when the vaccine is given in the morning versus the afternoon or after exercise (Long et al., 2016; Long et al., 2012). In addition, the immune response may be attenuated if the person suppresses the body’s natural immune response–the flulike symptoms which may occur after the vaccination–with Acetaminophen (Tylenol (Graham et al, 1990).
Support the immune system with a healthy life style
Support the immune system by implementing a lifestyle that reduces the probability of developing comorbidities. This means reducing risk factors such as vaping, smoking, immobility and highly processed foods. For example, young people who vape experience a fivefold increase to become seriously sick with COVID-19 (Gaiha, Cheng, & Halpern-Felsher, 2020); similarly, cigarette smoking increases the risk of COVID morbidity and mortality (Haddad, Malhab, & Sacre, 2021).
There are many factors that have contributed to the epidemic of obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease and other chronic diseases. In many cases, the environment and lifestyle factors (lack of exercise, excessive intake of highly processed foods, environmental pollution, social isolation, stress, etc.) significantly contribute to the initiation and development of comorbidities. Genetics also is a factor; however, the generic’s risk factor may not be triggered if there are no environmental/behavioral exposures. Phrasing it colloquially, Genetics loads the gun, environment and behavior pulls the trigger. Reducing harmful lifestyle behaviors and environment is not simply an individual’s responsibility but a corporate and governmental responsibility. At present, harmful lifestyles choices are actively supported by corporate and government policies that choose higher profits over health. For example, highly processed foods made from corn, wheat, soybeans, rice are grown by farmers with US government farm subsidies. Thus, many people especially of lower economic status live in food deserts where healthy non-processed organic fruits and vegetable foods are much less available and more expensive (Darmon & Drewnowski, 2008; Michels, Vynckier, Moreno, L.A. et al. 2018; CDC, 2021). In the CDC National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey that analyzed the diet of 10,308 adults, researchers Siegel et al. (2016) found that “Higher consumption of calories from subsidized food commodities was associated with a greater probability of some cardiometabolic risks” such as higher levels of obesity and unhealthy blood glucose levels (which raises the risk of Type 2 diabetes).
Immune competence is also affected by many other factors such as exercise, stress, shift work, social isolation, and reduced micronutrients and Vitamin D (Zimmermann & Curtis, 2019). Even being sedentary increases the risk of dying from COVID as reported by the Kaiser Permanente Southern California study of 50,000 people who developed COVID (Sallis et al., 2021).
People who exercised 10 minutes or less each week were hospitalized twice as likely and died 2.5 times more than people who exercised 150 minutes a week (Sallis et al., 2021). Although exercise tends to enhance immune competence (da Silveira et al, 2020), it is highly likely that exercise is a surrogate marker for other co-morbidities such as obesity and heart disease as well as aging. At the same time sheltering–in-place along with the increase in digital media has significantly reduced physical activity.
The importance of vitamin D
Low levels of vitamin D is correlated with poorer prognosis for patients with COVID-19 (Munshi et al., 2021). Kaufman et al. (2020) reported that the positivity rate correlated inversely with vitamin D levels as shown in figure 4.
Figure 4. SARS-CoV-2 NAAT positivity rates and circulating 25(OH)D levels in the total population. From: Kaufman, H.W., Niles, J.K., Kroll, M.H., Bi, C., Holick, M.F. (2020). SARS-CoV-2 positivity rates associated with circulating 25-hydroxyvitamin D levels. PLoS One. 15(9):e0239252. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0239252
Vitamin D is a modulator for the immune system (Baeke, Takiishi, Korf, Gysemans, & Mathieu, 2010). There is an inverse correlation of all-cause, cardiovascular, cancer, and respiratory disease mortality with hydroxyvitamin D concentrations in a large cohort study (Schöttker et al., 2013). For a superb discussion about how much vitamin D is needed, see the presentation, The D-Lightfully Controversial Vitamin D: Health Benefits from Birth until Death, by Dr. Michael F. Holick, Ph.D., M.D. from the University Medical Center Boston.
Low vitamin D levels may partially explain why in the winter there is an increase in influenza. During winter time, people have reduced sunlight exposure so that their skin does not produce enough vitamin D. Lower levels of vitamin D may be a cofactor in the increased rates of COVID among people of color and older people. The darker the skin, the more sunlight the person needs to produce Vitamin D and as people become older their skin is less efficient in producing vitamin D from sun exposure (Harris, 2006; Gallagher, 2013). Vitamin D also moderates macrophages by regulating the release, and the over-release of inflammatory factors in the lungs (Khan et al., 2021).
Watch the interesting presentation by Professor Roger Seheult, MD, UC Riverside School of Medicine, Vitamin D and COVID 19: The Evidence for Prevention and Treatment of Coronavirus (SARS CoV 2). 12/20/2020. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ha2mLz-Xdpg
What can be done NOW to enhance immune competence?
We need to recognize that once the COVID-19 pandemic has passed, it does not mean it is over. It is only a reminder that a new COVID-19 variant or another new virus will emerge in the future. Thus, the government public health policies need to focus on promoting health over profits and aim at strategies to prevent the development of chronic illnesses that affect immune competence. One take away message is to incorporate behavioral medicine prescriptions supporting a healthy lifestyle into treatment plans, such as prescribing a walk in the sun to increase vitamin D production and develop dietary habits of eating organic locally grown vegetable and fruits foods. Even just reducing the refined sugar content in foods and drinks is challenging although it may significantly reduce incidence and prevalence of obesity and diabetes (World Health Organization, 2017. The benefits of such an approach has been clearly demonstrated by the Pennsylvania-based Geisinger Health System’s Fresh Food Farmacy. This program for food-insecure people with Type 2 diabetes and their families provides enough fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and lean proteins for two healthy meals a day five days a week. After one year there was a 40 percent decrease in the risk of death or serious complications and an 80 percent drop in medical costs per year (Brody, 2020).
The simple trope of this article ‘eat well, exercise and get good rest’ and increase your immune competence concludes with some simple reminders.
- Increase availability of organic foods since they do not contain pesticides such as glyphosate residue that reduce immune competence.
- Increase vegetable and fruits and reduce highly processed foods, simple carbohydrates and sugars.
- Decrease sitting and increase movement and exercise
- Increase sun exposure without getting sunburns
- Master stress management
- Increase social support
For additional information see: https://peperperspective.com/2020/04/04/can-you-reduce-the-risk-of-coronavirus-exposure-and-optimize-your-immune-system/
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