Could your own brain help you in the fight against Parkinson’s? More and more often, patients are turning to mindfulness-based treatments like yoga, deep breathing and meditation to help curb stress and anxiety, which in turn can help make a chronic disease like Parkinson’s a little more manageable. In a recent study published in BMC Neurology, for example, researchers studied the impact of a six-week mindfulness program in an assisted living community of adults with stage 2 Parkinson’s disease. As part of the mindfulness program, patients met once a week for two hours and practiced “attention to breath” and “letting go of negative thoughts.” Participants were also encouraged to “explore personal meaning” in their lives and were given a guided meditation CD to use over the course of the program, according to the study synopsis.
At the end of the course, researchers tracked the patients’ progress and found, six months after treatment, that the patients were more mindful and less anxious, and were even choosing healthier behaviors (like added fruit intake) as compared with the control group. In an earlier study, where patients underwent a similar mindfulness-based lifestyle program, some Parkinson’s patients actually had improved motor performance and lessened tremors.
In his own practice, Jerome P. Lisk, neurologist and director of Movement Disorders at CHRISTUS® Trinity Mother Frances Health System, has noticed how a patient’s mood can affect his condition—for better or for worse.
“The patients who have more anxiety and more stress do worse in this disease than the ones who don’t,” says Lisk. “Many patients will complain that when they’re stressed, they feel like that worsens their condition. They have a reactivation of old symptoms.”
Tremors and muscle stiffness, for example, can worsen when patients are anxious or depressed, he notes. On the other hand, experiencing a deep sense of joy or peace causes the secretion of a chemical in the brain called dopamine, which is responsible for regulating mood and improving motor function. Mindfulness-based activities like yoga, gentle stretching, deep breathing, or meditation can all potentially release dopamine by blocking outside stressors and focusing the patient on the present moment. “We doctors don’t really use the word ‘mindfulness.’ We say ‘stress reduction,’ ” Lisk jokes. “If people are meditating and they improve their stress level, then it improves their health, absolutely.”
Lisk recommends that mindfulness therapies be used in conjunction with other treatments, like antianxiety medications or antidepressants, for best results. It’s also important to talk to your doctor. In the end, anything that improves a patient’s mood will help the patient overall, says Lisk.
“The better you feel about yourself,” he explains, “the better you are.”
Originally printed in MoreThanMotion, Spring 2017