What’s in your Medicine Cabinet for the Cold and Flu Season?
By: Claire Edmonds, Ph.D.

The flu season is upon us and we are all interested in protecting our health. We all have our favourite strategies; hand washing, flu shots, vitamin C, and herbal teas. How about adding meditation to your arsenal?

On November 24, there was an article in the Globe and Mail describing a randomized trial that compared the effects of an 8-week standardized Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction program with an 8-week standardized exercise program (Barrett et al. 2012). About 150 people were randomized into three groups; meditation, exercise and a waiting list control group. The incidence of acute respiratory infections (colds and flu) were assessed over a three month period and compared to the control group. By the end of the study, the exercise group reported significantly fewer ARIs (acute respiratory infections); a result supported by previous research (Chubak et al.,2006). The surprise in the Barrett study was that the meditation group experienced an even greater benefit, experiencing less illness than both the exercise group and the control group. Further, the severity of illness in the members of the meditation group who did develop the flu was significantly lower than members of the exercise group, with the control group experiencing the worst symptoms. Even more striking, the number of sick days taken was 48% lower for the exercise group than the controls and a remarkable 76% lower for the meditation group! Other researchers have demonstrated that meditation can enhance immune parameters and that there are measurable shifts in brain activity related to increases in feelings of calm and peace (Davidson et al., 2003). However, to my knowledge, the Barrett study is the first to directly compare meditation to exercise in a controlled trial.

Another psychological intervention, journaling, has also produced positive effects on health in students as well as subjects coping with chronic illness. Students writing about distressing thoughts and feelings for 6 weeks made fewer visits to the university health services over the following 6 months compared to students who recorded their daily events in a day timer (Pennebaker & Beal, 1986; Pennebaker, 1990). Similar results have also been seen in medical populations. Patients with arthritis demonstrated increased joint mobility after 6 weeks of journaling compared to controls writing in a day timer, an outcome also found in patients with bronchial asthma who experienced improved lung capacity after journaling (Smythe et al., 1999). Both rheumatoid arthritis and bronchial asthma are mediated by the immune system.

While all these studies have examined the effects of behavioural strategies on the immune system, they have not been tested on cancer specifically. However, research has shown that meditation, journaling and exercise are effective ways to reduce stress, improve quality of life and enhance wellbeing (Cunningham & Edmonds, 1996, 1999; Gill et al, 2013). Perhaps adding these strategies to your own self care repertoire may help you feel better, both emotionally and physically. Wellspring has many programs that offer you the chance to learn these skills. The Cancer Exercise Program offers an individualized 30-week exercise program. The Healing Journey Program presents a broad range of coping strategies including meditation and journaling as well as healthy thought management, imagery and spiritual strategies. Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction classes are available as well as Writing for the Health of It. Of course, if you do catch a cold or flu, please rest at home and forgo your Wellspring Programs until you feel better. That’s a healing practice for everyone!

 

References

Chubak J., McTeirnan A, Sorenson B et al. (2006). Moderate intensity exercise reduces incidence of colds among post-menopausal women. Am J Med. 206;26(2):128-139.

Cunningham, A.J. and Edmonds, C.V.I. (1996). Group psychological therapy for cancer patients: a point of view, and discussion of the hierarchy of options. Int. J. Psychiatry in Med., 26:51-82.

Cunningham, A.J. and Edmonds, C.V.I. (1999). Delivering a very brief psycho-educational program to cancer patients and family members in a large group format. Psycho-oncology, 8:177-182.

Davidson R, Kabat-Zinn J, Schumacher J, et al. (2003). Alterations in brain and immune function produced by mindfulness meditation. Psychosom Med. Jul-Aug;65(4):564-70.

Gill DL, Hammond CC, Reifsteck EJ, et al. (2013). Physical Activity and Quality of Life. J Prev Med Public Health. 46(Suppl 1): S28–S34.

Pennebaker, J.W., Beale, S. (1986). Confronting a traumatic event: towards an understanding of inhibition and disease. J of Abnormal Psychology 95:274-281

Pennebaker, J.W. (1990). Opening Up: The healing power of expressing emotions. Guilford Press: New York.

Smyth, J.M., Stone, A.A., Hurewitz, A. & Kaell, A. (1999). Effects of writing about stressful experiences on symptom reduction in patients with asthma or rheumatoid arthritis. JAMA, 281(14):1304-1309.