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Health & Balance

The Heart Speaks (Are You Listening?)

Loneliness, anger, and grief can break hearts as easily as high blood pressure. To heal the heart, feel the love.
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Consumers Driving the Movement

Health consumers and frustrated patients are pulling the nation's medical community into arenas of spirituality and alternative medicine, says Guarneri. "People are dissatisfied with conventional treatments. They're moving to treatments that are more conducive to their belief systems… and they believe that stress and their environment affect their health," she tells WebMD.

One government study showed that Americans were making twice as many visits to alternative and complementary providers, compared with primacy care doctors. The practices ranged from deep breathing and progressive muscle relaxation to hypnosis, guided imagery, and meditation.

Michael Irwin, MD, professor of psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences at UCLA's Geffen School of Medicine, is also director of the Cousins Center for Psychoneuroimmunology. It's a research center named for the late Norman Cousins, a journalist who, in the late 1970s, introduced Americans to the concept of holistic healing -- that positive emotions can impact one's health.

"There has been increased interest in how the body communicates -- specifically, how the immune system communicates -- with the brain," Irwin tells WebMD. He is investigating the link between emotions and immunity. As scientists have found with many diseases including heart disease, the process of inflammation is a central player.

"People who are depressed -- and who have heart disease -- are more likely to have higher levels of cytokines, molecules that are linked with immunity and with inflammation," he explains. "There's good evidence from animal studies that increased levels of cytokines put people at risk for depression, which becomes a vicious cycle that leads to greater heart disease."

Through functional MRI, researchers "can examine very precisely how people respond to a change… exactly how their brain activity is altered when they relax or if they have higher cytokine levels," explains Irwin. "As a medical doctor, I want to know how these findings affect my patients -- and people with heart disease may be more sensitive to stressors. Depressed people are more sensitive to stressors. Until we understand that, we can't develop new treatments."

Irwin's studies have looked at the effects of tai chi on the immune system, he says. A new grant from the National Institute on Aging will be used to study effects of tai chi in improving insomnia by improving inflammation and cytokine levels.

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