Mindfulness can make you feel calmer and more present, but did you know it can also help improve your health outcomes? Mindfulness as medicine is something students and staff at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA are learning to incorporate into their own lives, as well as their patients' lives.
Michael R. Irwin, MD, is at the forefront of this process, researching how mindfulness techniques can reverse stress and improve a person's psychological state. Mindfulness is as simple as being present and aware in the moment. Those new to mindfulness start by learning techniques to focus their breath and be aware of what's happening around them.
"These approaches are incredibly simple, but often not used," says Dr. Irwin, director of the Mindful Awareness Research Center at UCLA. Instead of being present in the moment, people's minds wander toward ruminations and fears, which activate stress pathways and increases inflammation. Mindfulness breaks that stress pathway and decreases the inflammation.
While some doctors may doubt the concept of mindfulness as medicine, "we have empirical data that this is efficacious, published in peer-reviewed journals like JAMA Internal Medicine. When you can see that you can improve sleep and decrease inflammation, that empirical data speaks volumes to physicians about whether something like this will work," Dr. Irwin says.
Physicians, of course, have limited time when treating a patient, which makes it challenging to ask a physician to teach a patient about mindfulness during a medical encounter. Instead, Dr. Irwin has identified specific symptoms physicians can target, such as sleep or depression, in which to use the mindfulness intervention and improve health outcomes.
Physicians don't have to teach mindfulness themselves, but can refer them to a class at UCLA. Some classes are available online, and patients can also watch them on TV while in the hospital. Many of the classes are free. "Patients love them," Dr. Irwin says. Research shows that as stress is alleviated through mindfulness, problems such as depression and insomnia will resolve, as biological measures relating to it — such as inflammation — diminish.
"We're impacting the patients' health through psychological approaches," he says.
To help physicians learn more about the process, Dr. Irwin and his staff meet with leaders throughout the UCLA healthcare system to integrate the mindfulness practices into the clinical setting. They're designing a study that will include residents first entering the training program, to evaluate how they benefit from mindfulness program exposure. "One way that you change behavior of clinicians is to provide them with opportunities to learn about these approaches and experience the firsthand benefit," he said. "They then take that and carry it into a patient population." All David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA students can take the classes for free, as part of the Healthy Campus Initiative.
Dr. Irwin wants to make sure that a wide swath of society can be helped by the mindfulness as medicine techniques. The program is being translated into Spanish, an important step to expanding its audience.
Mindfulness as medicine? It may be easier to integrate into a medical practice than at first glance.
By Deborah Abrams Kaplan