“There’s no doubt in my mind that spending a few minutes breathing calmly in a
quiet space on a daily basis will improve my patients’ health.”
Once perceived as flaky or new-agey, meditation is becoming mainstream. There has been an explosion of interest in meditation among doctors and other medical practitioners, neuroscientists, psychologists, and mental health care providers of all stripes. In particular, mindfulness meditation has become a popular and successful intervention over the past three decades, largely due to the pioneering efforts of Jon Kabat-Zinn and the Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts medical school. Kabat-Zinn and colleagues developed the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program that is now taught at hospitals, clinics, and universities worldwide.
For some insight into the integration of mindfulness and mindfulness meditation in contemporary medicine, the Numinus Clinic’s Sarah Roberts sat down with Dr. Adam Gavsie, a family physician who practices integrative medicine at the state-of-the-art Montreal Centre for Integrative Medicine. A McGill medical school graduate and faculty lecturer in family medicine at McGill University, Dr. Gavsie has trained extensively in Integrative and Holistic Medicine and Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, as well as hatha yoga and restorative yoga.
Dr. Gavsie practices mindfulness meditation and teaches it to his patients. He graciously answered our questions about his medical and meditation practices:
SR: What is integrative medicine and how is it different from traditional medicine?
Dr. G: Integrative Medicine is a healing-oriented medicine that takes into account the whole person (body, mind, and spirit), including all aspects of lifestyle. It emphasizes the therapeutic relationship between doctor and patient and makes use of all appropriate therapies, both conventional and complementary/alternative. We focus on health promotion and illness prevention; that is, we’d rather prevent illness than treat it after it develops. We try to use natural and non-invasive interventions wherever possible, and base all our interventions in good science.
SR: What is complementary and alternative medicine (CAM)?
Dr. G: I like the definition from the US National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine: CAM are a group of diverse medical and health care systems, practices, and products that aren’t presently considered to be conventional medicine. Some healthcare providers (e.g., doctors, nurses, psychologists, physical therapists) practice both CAM and conventional medicine.
Complementary medicine is generally used together with conventional medicine, for example using aromatherapy therapy (in which the scent of essential oils from flowers, herbs, and trees is inhaled to promote health and well-being) to decrease a patient’s discomfort following surgery. Alternative medicine is used in place of conventional medicine, for example using a mind-body intervention such as meditation to treat hypertension, before starting a patient on pharmacotherapy. There’s scientific evidence to support some CAM therapies, but for most, there are still key questions about safety and efficacy that have yet to be answered through well-designed scientific studies.
SR: You said that Integrative Medicine takes into account the mind, body, and spirit. How does the mind affect body functions and symptoms?
Dr. G: There’s a lot of evidence that the mind affects the body. Just conjure a sexual thought and watch what happens. During stressful periods, thoughts cause an increase in cortisol and adrenaline, which in turn increases blood flow to the muscles. When this stress response is maintained for a prolonged period, the body produces free radicals and inflammation. In contrast, when we think happy and loving thoughts, our body’s increase production of dopamine and serotonin–the body’s feel-good hormones–and oxytocin, which dilates blood vessels, neutralizes free radicals, and lowers blood pressure.
SR: Does meditation fall into the category of CAM?
Dr. G: Meditation is classified as a mind-body intervention modality according to the National Center for CAM (NCCAM) in the United States. There is a great deal of evidence for meditation under the banner of mindfulness based stress reduction (MBSR). Most of the research on MBSR comes from the University of Massachusetts Center for Mindfulness, headed by Jon Kabat Zinn and Saki Santorelli. MBSR is widely used as a CAM modality for conditions such as hypertension, anxiety, depression, and chronic pain.
SR: We heard you trained with Jon Kabat-Zinn. Can you tell us about that?
Dr. G: In 2005, I spent a week on a meditation retreat in California with Jon Kabat-Zinn and Saki Santorelli from the U Mass Center for Mindfulness. The retreat was a 7-day intensive immersion into the 8-week MBSR program they run for patients. There were multiple sessions each day of the various elements of the MBSR program, including sitting meditation, walking meditation, the body scan, and yoga. There was also a 36-hour silent portion that included five silent meals. It was intense, but I felt like I left feeling like my mind was completely cleansed.
SR: Do you have a meditation practice these days?
Dr. G: I think about meditation every day but actually get to do it formally a few times a week. I am constantly striving for the daily practice and am hoping that it will soon stick and become part of my daily routine.
SR: Do you teach your patients to meditate? How do you think meditation can help them?
Dr. G: I teach many of my patients how to meditate. It can often be as simple as teaching a few breathing techniques and helping them to create the time and space to do it on a regular basis. But then there’s motivating them to do it: I tell my patients about all the research that says that regular meditation can lower blood pressure, decrease some tension-related pain, increase serotonin production (improving mood and behaviour), improve immune system functioning, and increase energy–and it’s still a challenge!
It’s not easy to meditate every day but I know I get clear benefits when I meditate and my patients report the benefits it affords them when they are able to do it regularly. There’s no doubt in my mind that spending a few minutes breathing calmly in a quiet space on a daily basis will improve my patients’ health.