Decoding the science of breath for modern times
We breathe without giving it a second thought and take this particular bodily function for granted. Yet, scientists are now telling us that giving each breath a thought might actually lead us to deep and lasting happiness and health. According to neuroscience, the act of breathing consciously paves the way to enhanced immunity, inhibits fight-or-flight response to stress, induces a state of relaxation, creates emotional stability, improves cardiovascular and respiratory health, is the perfect antidote to depression even when drugs have not worked out entirely and helps in the drug-free management of pain. This list of effects is by no means comprehensive; it is just the tip of the iceberg.
Pranayama is a technique in yoga that puts control over breathing back into your hands. Literally, the word means ‘extension of life force’, and the practice engages you with the nuances of breathing. This special and ancient yogic technique switches the light back in the dark spaces—the places in your body and mind that may have otherwise remained inaccessible. Pranayama vastly improves the mechanics of the nervous system because it affects what we always thought was beyond our influence.
Conscious breathing stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system through the vagus nerve which runs from the base of the brain all the way to the abdomen. This nerve is responsible for managing the nervous system responses and reducing the heart rate, to name only two of its most important functions. The neurotransmitter acetylcholine is released by the vagus nerve and plays a pivotal role in increasing calmness and focus.
Therefore, the more you stimulate the vagus nerve, the more acetylcholine it releases, directly lowering anxiety levels.
Adults who experience higher levels of vagal tone (activity in the vagal nerve), also experience enhanced feelings of connectedness and positive emotions which further amplifies the vagal tone. Consistent practice of conscious breathing can reduce blood pressure and calm the heart. This, in turn, scientists say, increases the life span of the blood vessels. Regular and long-term practice of pranayama can, therefore, prevent diseases of the nervous system such as stroke, migraines and Parkinson’s.
Another benefit of pranayama is that it stops grey cells from diminishing with age; your ability to perform at your best remains relatively intact as you grow older. Your memory and focus also improve in the process. An interesting scientific finding on the benefits of pranayama is that the expression of genes involved in stress response can be changed in a way that can potentially slow down the body-mind’s reactivity to stress.
This improves immune functions, metabolic activity and insulin secretion.
Pranayama is a great example of how matter can be influenced through the subtle act of awareness or objective observation. Your entire biology can be influenced by simply becoming aware of your breath and then manipulating it to move the controls from the primitive brain to the pre-frontal cortex—a direct effect of infusing the breath with your conscious attention. For example, emotions come under the authority of the pre-frontal cortex, as do many other mental and emotional aspects of being. Therefore, when you focus your consciousness around your breath, your consciousness is able to alter your body-mind for optimum wellness.
Meditation has been shown to sustain the health of our telomeres, the caps on the ends of chromosomes which determine longevity, to a certain extent. “Telomeres sit on the end of chromosomes (like the plastic tips on the end of shoelaces), stopping them from fraying and scrambling the genetic codes they contain. In healthy people, telomeres shorten progressively throughout life, more than halving in length from infancy to adulthood, and halving again in the very elderly,” writes the BMJ editorial. Latest research in the field of ‘epigenetics’ seems to suggest that genes have the capacity for both, normal and abnormal, responses to an environment. If one wants to derive maximum benefit from these practices, one has to be consistent and practise these with dedication and sincerity.
As in all such practices, what matters most are lifestyle changes in keeping with the eight core principles of Patanjali’s yoga.
(Professor Dr BM Hegde, a Padma Bhushan awardee in 2010, is an MD, PhD, FRCP (London, Edinburgh, Glasgow & Dublin), FACC and FAMS.)
Smoking is suicide by instalment plan. Giving up smoking should be a New Year resolution for 2015 for all smokers
With a few hours to go before 2014 ends, it is time to reflect on that most regularly violated new year resolution and is it possible to stick by it. We are talking of course of tobacco.
Each one of us has a different story as to how we got into it in the first place. But the fact remains that smoking has now become an integral part of our life and one of habits that tags along in whatever we do.
It is also well recognised that the smoker at home is causing "passive" smoking among others at home, including the wife, children and elderly parents.
Every now and then, we do talk against smoking to one and all, particularly our growing children, pleading, cajoling and sometimes threatening them not to smoke. But we ourselves must smoke. When protests become strong enough, we tend to sneak out to the terrace, outside and occasionally take a puff or two inside bathrooms. A little commotion follows and then we carry on with our smoking. Since smoking is usually banned in the office, we manage to find some outdoor chores, so that we can "enjoy" our smoke uninterrupted.
Parents who are smokers tend to closely observe their children's routines. Do they now stand at a distance when they speak to you? Do they visit the bathroom frequently to brush up? Do they show any signs of fatigue, panting and breathlessness when they have to climb up or down the stairs? Or do they cough frequently?
Or, most alarmingly, do you find missing sticks in your cigarette pack, which you left lying here, there or everywhere?
The only way to stop the spread of this habit is to lead by your own example. Although there are so many methods advocated, nothing seems to work.
A visit to the Treatment4addiction website would be revealing and useful. If a person smokes 20 cigarettes a day it would literally wipe off 10 years of your life. In simple terms, it would mean that every cigarette smoked would knock off 14 minutes of your life. Is it worth while taking the step to “enjoy” a smoke, when you know full well that you are slowly committing suicide by instalment? At 14 minutes for every smoke?
Why not making a new beginning in 2015? Save your life and others' by giving up smoking from midnight, tonight!
(AK Ramdas has worked with the Engineering Export Promotion Council of the ministry of commerce. He was also associated with various committees of the Council. His international career took him to places like Beirut, Kuwait and Dubai at a time when these were small trading outposts; and later to the US.)
Medical developments from around the world
The Ebola story changing daily?
In the sordid saga on ebola, governments and the science establishments seem to be in cahoots. At one point, they announced that the virus was losing its power; the next day, reports said that a new outbreak was expected. There is a big debate about its spread because very little is known, or understood, about the virus. Although the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says that it does not spread through air, some stray reports suggest cases of airborne contagion.
Weight in Early Pregnancy and Outcomes in Early Infancy
A team of Swedish and American researchers wanted to test the hypothesis that obese mothers are a bad influence on their offspring. They studied all the births in the Swedish Birth Registry between 1992 and 2010, which totalled 1.8 million.
The study’s results have upheld the hypothesis. The fatter the mother during pregnancy, the higher was the infant mortality. The authors of the study said: “Causes of death included congenital anomalies, birth asphyxia, infections and sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) and results were adjusted for factors, such as maternal age, height, smoking, education, country of birth, and year of delivery. Babies do best when mothers have a normal body weight before and during pregnancy, they added.”
This was an epidemiological retrospective study and might only show the trend. To prove that this hypothesis really works on the ground, one has to confirm it with prospective studies and, if possible, animal studies.
Does the Simple Flu Vaccination Kill?
The number of people who have died in Italy after being administered a flu vaccine made by a Swiss pharmaceutical company has risen to 13. “The Italian Medical Agency (AIFA) has warned against panic and stressed there is not proof yet that it was the vaccine that led to the deaths. It said it banned two batches of the product—called FLUAD—as a precautionary measure, pending further studies,” the Sydney Morning Herald reported.
Burden of Medical Treatment on Families
This is a matter that receives little attention in the hi-tech medical world. The usual joke is that a recovering patient gets a massive heart attack and dies when he sees the final hospital bill. Imagine the fate of relatives when a patient dies in the hospital with a huge bill pending. The rule, in some private hospitals, is that the relatives and friends need to clear the bill before they get hold of the dead body!
There is an editorial on this in the recent issue of the British Medical Journal which says, “The burden continues to increase as healthcare systems shift an ever growing list of management responsibilities and tasks on to patients and their caregivers. This is real work, which requires considerable effort from patients, their caregivers, and their extended social networks.” The burden can be more severe on patients from lower socio-economic backgrounds. Patients who work at more than one job to make enough money for survival, for example, may find it hard to “follow the requirements of multiple clinical guidelines” and “struggle to adhere to treatment recommendations.” Other challenges include the expense of getting clinic appointments and learning self-management skills, such as coping with polypharmacy and taking regular injections.
Mediterranean Diet and Health
The latest research about the ‘Mediterranean diet’ suggests that it increases longevity by preserving the length of the telomeres. Interestingly, the diet also has advice on alcohol intake: “It is characterised by a high intake of vegetables, fruits, nuts, legumes (such as peas, beans and lentils), and (mainly unrefined) grains; a high intake of olive oil but a low intake of saturated fats; a moderately high intake of fish, a low intake of dairy products, meat and poultry; and regular but moderate intake of alcohol (specifically wine with meals).” I am not in agreement with this line on wine. In my considered view, alcohol can never have any salutary effect on human health. It is possible that the positive tilt on alcohol may have a link to the funders of the study.