Improve Autonomic Nervous System Function and Well-Being in Cancer Survivors with Mind-Body Practices.
By John M. de Castro, Ph.D.
“Tai Chi and Qigong are ancient forms of exercise that fit the bill for helping patients with cancer get moving and improve their overall sense of well-being. Tai Chi practice can help with pain conditions, especially pain involving muscles and joints; it can also reduce stress and anxiety and improve the quality of sleep.” – Susan Yaguda
Receiving a diagnosis of cancer has a huge impact on most people. Feelings of depression, anxiety, and fear are very common and are normal responses to this life-changing and potentially life-ending experience. But cancer diagnosis is not necessarily a death sentence. Over half of the people diagnosed with cancer are still alive 10 years later and this number is rapidly increasing. But, surviving cancer carries with it a number of problems. Anxiety, depression, fatigue and insomnia are common symptoms in the aftermath of surviving breast cancer. These symptoms markedly reduce the quality of life of the patients.
Mindfulness training has been shown to help with cancer recovery and help to relieve chronic pain. It can also help treat the residual physical and psychological symptoms, including stress, sleep disturbance, fear, and anxiety and depression. Mind-body practices such as Tai Chi or Qigong, and yoga have been shown to be effective in improving the psychological symptoms occurring in breast cancer patients. These practices work to relieve the emotional distress of cancer survivors.
A potential mechanism by which mind-body practices may relieve emotional distress is by altering the balance in the autonomic nervous system. A measure of this balance is Heart Rate Variability (HRV). It refers to the change in the time intervals between consecutive heart beats. Higher levels of HRV are indicative of flexibility in the Autonomic Nervous System and are associated with adaptability to varying environments. Increased heart rate variability signals greater relaxation in the autonomic nervous system with a predominance of parasympathetic (relaxation) activity over sympathetic (activation) activity. This all signals greater physiological relaxation.
In today’s Research News article “Mind-Body and Psychosocial Interventions May Similarly Affect Heart Rate Variability Patterns in Cancer Recovery: Implications for a Mechanism of Symptom Improvement.” (See summary below or view the full text of the study at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7425257/ ) Larkey and colleagues recruited female breast cancer survivors and randomly assigned them to receive 12 weeks of either Tai Chi or Sham-Tai Chi practice. Sham-Tai Chi used the same movements but did not incorporate breath control or meditative states. They were measured before and after training for fatigue, sleep, and depression and the electrocardiogram was measured and analyzed for Heart Rate Variability (HRV).
They found that after Tai Chi Practice, but not Sham-Tai Chi, there were significant reductions in fatigue and depression and significant improvements in sleep. In addition, in the Tai Chi group there was a significant reduction in low coherence Heart Rate Variability (HRV). Also, the greater the change, over training, in high coherence HRV the greater the reduction in depression levels.
This study replicates previous findings that Tai Chi practice reduces fatigue, and depression, and improves sleep. And produces changes in Heart Rate Variability (HRV). But this study used a unique control, comparison, condition of Sham-Tai Chi that had the same movements but lacked the breath control and meditative state of true Tai Chi practice. This suggests that it is not the movements of Tai Chi that produces the benefits but the mindfulness components that are essential.
The study also presents some evidence as to the mechanism by which Tai Chi practice improves that physical and psychological state of cancer survivors. The observed changes in Heart Rate Variability (HRV) are indicative of greater relaxation in the autonomic nervous system with a predominance of parasympathetic (relaxation) activity over sympathetic (activation) activity. This suggests that Tai Chi practice results in a physiological relaxation that in turn may be responsible for the physical and psychological benefits of the practice.
Some advantages of Tai Chi practice include the facts that it is not strenuous, involves slow gentle movements, and is safe, having no appreciable side effects, it is appropriate for all ages including the elderly and for individuals with illnesses that limit their activities or range of motion. It can also be practiced without professional supervision and in groups making it inexpensive to deliver and fun to engage in. This makes Tai Chi practice an excellent means to improve the physical and psychological symptoms experienced by cancer survivors.
So, improve autonomic nervous system function and well-being in cancer survivors with mind-body practices.
“Research in breast cancer patients has shown that tai chi may help to increase strength, balance, flexibility, heart and lung function, [and] feelings of well-being.” – Breast Cancer.org
CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies
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Larkey, L., Kim, W., James, D., Kishida, M., Vizcaino, M., Huberty, J., & Krishnamurthi, N. (2020). Mind-Body and Psychosocial Interventions May Similarly Affect Heart Rate Variability Patterns in Cancer Recovery: Implications for a Mechanism of Symptom Improvement. Integrative cancer therapies, 19, 1534735420949677. https://doi.org/10.1177/1534735420949677
Advancements in early detection and treatment of cancer have led to increased survival rates and greater need to identify effective supportive care options for resolving symptoms of survivorship. Many non-pharmacological approaches to symptom management during and after cancer treatment involve emotional self-regulation as a central strategy for improving well-being. Identifying commonalities among these strategies’ mechanisms of action may facilitate understanding of what might be useful for optimizing intervention effects. Heart rate variability (HRV) parameters are indicative of improved autonomic nervous system (ANS) balance and resiliency and reduced emotional distress and are thus identified as a mechanism to discuss as a marker of potential for intervention efficacy and a target for optimization.
HRV data from 2 studies, 1 examining a mind-body intervention and 1 examining a psychosocial intervention, are presented as a point of discussion about preliminary associations between the interventions, change in HRV, and emotional distress reduction.
HRV significantly decreased in sympathetic activity in response to a mind-body intervention (Qigong/Tai Chi), and increased vagal tone in response to a psychosocial (storytelling) intervention. In both, these changes in HRV parameters were associated with improved emotional states.
Our preliminary data suggest that HRV may serve as an important marker of underlying changes that mediate emotional regulation; this observation deserves further investigation. If identified as a worthy target, focusing on interventions that improve HRV within the context of interventions for cancer patients may be important to key outcomes and clinical practice.