Healthy Living and the Body-Mind-Spirit Connection

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Healthy Living and the Body-Mind-Spirit Connection

Dr. Rob Rutledge is a Radiation Oncologist in Halifax, Nova Scotia, specializing in breast, prostate and pediatric cancers, and an Associate Professor in the Faculty of Medicine at Dalhousie University.

Rob is also the co-founder of the Healing and Cancer Foundation which freely offers educational videos, documentaries, and webcasting seminars, and he is co-author of a book called The Healing Circle, which captures the teachings and inspirational stories from the cancer weekend support groups. (The healing circle is available as a fundraiser through CBCN…)

Between new work responsibilities as a manager in a telecom company, and increasingly take care of her elderly parents, Jan had let her healthy lifestyle slip. She had gained weight and found herself puffing up the stairs at home. After her mammogram showed a suspicious change, she quickly took a proactive role in her medical care, and underwent breast conserving surgery, radiotherapy, and has started five years of hormone treatment. Given time to reflect with time off work, Jan also views her diagnosis as an opportunity to help reclaim a healthy lifestyle, empower her body, and to heal her life from a bigger perspective.

Jan is giving herself the best chance of recovery from her diagnosis by receiving ‘Complete Breast Cancer Care’ – the integration of conventional medicine with healthy life style choices and wisdom-based healing techniques. The non-medical components of complete care can be artificially divided into care for body, mind and spirit. It may seem that healthy lifestyle choices would fall into the category of care of the body, but the reality is that care at any one level can profoundly influence healing on the other levels. This article outlines how the body-mind-spirit connection can be applied to the choices she makes every day.

Bringing Spirit into the Body

Jan knows the data that shows that her lifestyle choices actually influence the chance of whether her cancer will recur. For instance, a trial of 1490 breast cancer survivors showed the women who exercised for 30 minutes /day six times a week and who ate five or more servings of fruits and vegetables per day had a 5% improvement in survival at 10 years compared with the women who didn’t practice both healthy choices. The survival advantage held up even for the women who were overweight. (1) In another study women randomized to program teaching them how to decrease the fat in their diet to 20g/day decreased the chance breast cancer recurrence by 2.6% at 5 years compared to a control group (2). Other trials show that being overweight at diagnosis or gaining weight afterwards is a risk factor for recurrence. Though this knowledge is useful, it may not result in Jan maintaining a healthy lifestyle over the long-term.

Drawing on the body-mind-spirit connection to facilitate physical healing may seem unnecessary because Jan could simply force herself to exercise and eat a low-fat diet (high in fruits and vegetables) for fear that her cancer will recur. But as frequently happens, Jan’s motivation to maintain a healthy lifestyle may wane as her anxieties subside. She may easily fall into old habits, and stir the cycle of guilt and worry about her choices.

Bringing a spiritual perspective into self-care can increase the chance of long-term change because the motivation to heal is fostered by love and will continue to grow over time. At the core of the authentic spiritual teachings is an awareness of the sacredness of life. To experience this human life (to love, to give, to cherish, and to receive) is so precious and yet we often lose perspective because of the busyness and distractions in our lives. When we slow down and contemplate the sacredness of life, we can then see that our bodies are sacred too. Our bodies are these amazing media that allow us to go out into the world to connect with others. Our bodies allow us to extend a hand, or to give and receive a hug.

When we honour the body and see how special it is, we can begin to pay close attention to its needs. We can listen to how we feel when take care of it - getting adequate exercise, practicing relaxation and restoring ourselves with restful sleep. When we look at our bodies with great kindness, we no longer need to think about ‘being on a diet’, but instead, can lovingly choose the foods that will nurture us throughout the day. We are bringing the spirit of love right down into our every cell.

The Power of Mindfulness

Jan joined an 8-week mindfulness-based stress reduction program to learn one of the most powerful skills in promoting healing. Mindfulness simply means to bring our attention to the here and now with acceptance. It is both a skill that brings us clearly to the present moment, and a window into the spiritual depths of who we truly are.

As a catalyst for physical healing the power of mindfulness is that it reintegrates our mind with the wisdom of our body. For instance at mealtime we can bring our attention to the selection and preparation of our foods to answer the question ‘what is it that my body truly needs right now?’ As we eat, we can slow down and truly appreciate our food and the beauty of being alive. Bite by bite, we can continue to be present to the needs of our body. Being mindful of how our bodies feel in the hours after mealtimes provides the ongoing feedback we can draw on to make future decisions. Jan noticed that she could no longer eat a many fast food dishes without feeling bloated and tired for hours.

Mindfulness also provides us with the feedback to guide our choices about exercise. Jan noticed the high she felt in the hours after her brisk walk or a workout at the gym. It was also a pleasant surprise when her energy and concentration at work began to improve in the late afternoon at work, a time when she’d usually being struggling to be productive. Through mindfulness of her body she also noticed when she pushed herself too hard and felt depleted for the ensuring day.

The second skill that Jan continues to practice after the mindfulness course is meditation. She uses a simple technique to focusing on her breath and increasing the awareness of the sensations in her body, her breath, and the constant stream of thoughts and feelings that come and go. Her meditation practice is not about getting into some altered state, but instead, coming to know and love all of herself. On the days she spends fifteen minutes meditating first thing in the morning, she feels happier and calmer, and is more patient with her colleagues. Remarkably, it’s as if meditation has uncovered a deep well of compassion she has for herself and for all of life. With this feeling she wants to take better care of herself, including making the effort to go to the gym when she can.

The other advantage of meditation is that it reinforces the relaxation response. Practicing a relaxation technique is a skill often forgotten on the list of healthy lifestyle choices. Yet, the health benefits settling the mind and relaxing the body remain indisputable. When we let go of being chronically stressed, every cell in our body gets the signal to repair itself – and immune function improves. Simple exercises like meditation, visualization, or breath-based techniques literally change the chemistry in the blood stream, and change the pathways used by our brains. Practicing relaxation can make us feel happier, think more clearly, and allow us to enjoy our life to the fullest.

Lastly, Jan sought out a counselor to help mentor her on her healing journey. The emotional issues which were driving her poor lifestyle choices were finally being addressed directly. Her core beliefs of “not feeling good enough” and the more painful memories of psychological abuse were blocking her healthy outer transformation. Learning to be kind towards herself, Jan is reclaiming the already existing wholeness of her life.

Yoking the body

Nurturing the body through healthy lifestyle choices can also have a powerful effect on our spiritual life. Jan discovered a Yoga class which she thinks has made the most difference in her recovery. Yoga, like Qi Gong, or Tai Chi are age-old healing practices which have been developed with great wisdom over thousands of years. The benefits go far beyond the improved strength, flexible, and the relaxation response Jan gets by the end of each class. When we practice with attention and a spirit of appreciation, the body can become the vehicle which unites the infinite to the finite. The feeling of bringing life energy or even a higher consciousness right down into the body, is a lived experience that cannot be explained by the western perspective. We can use our body to connect us with something much larger than ourselves – perhaps an inexplicable joy, or a heartfelt compassion for all of life.

1 - Greater Survival After Breast Cancer in Physically Active Women With High Vegetable-Fruit Intake Regardless of Obesity. J Pierce et al. J Clin Oncol 25:2345-2351.

2 – Dietary fat reduction and breast cancer outcome: interim efficacy results from the Women’s Intervention Nutrition Study. Chlebowski RT et al. J Natl Cancer Inst 2006;98(24):1767-76

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