Energy Therapies for Brain Health
This article is adapted from 30 Days to a Better Brain, by Richard Carmona, M.D., M.P.H., F.A.C.S., president of the Canyon Ranch Institute and a former Surgeon General of the United States.
Conventional Western medicine is only one approach for maintaining and improving health, particularly when it comes to the brain. Many other effective therapies exist that have been used for hundreds, if not thousands, of years and developed in other parts of the world.
Today, the most advanced doctors and researchers are uncovering the science behind many of these ancient techniques and are learning specific ways they can be incorporated into an approach that is referred to as complementary medicine, the blending of ancient practices and modern medicine to achieve the best results for treating or preventing illness and promoting health and well-being. In fact, members of the Canyon Ranch staff are at the forefront of this research.
Energy therapies are particularly promising. They may be effective for inducing relaxation, and when we can fully relax and let our anxieties dissipate, our cognitive function can increase. We do not wholly understand the mechanism through which energy therapies encourage the relaxation response, but it has been clearly shown that they do in some patients. Let’s discuss a few energy therapies that may improve brain health.
Energy healing practices work to balance and clear our internal flow of subtle energy, known as chi in China, as prana in India, and by other names in many other cultures. They address restoration and achieving balance for the brain and the body. Professionally trained energy healers use nothing but their hands during hands-on healing and therapeutic touch. Practitioners channel ambient energy through their hands to the patient.
The brain registers and can respond to another person’s electrical signal, or energy. If the brain is registering changing electrical fields, then it’s possible that it is biochemically changing. Research also shows that one person’s brain can affect the electrical activity of another person’s brain; this is true of people who are personally connected, such as friends or family members, and of healers working with patients.
People will typically report that they feel very relaxed, very peaceful after a session of energy healing. Energy healing techniques have also been used for people who have brain-related diseases or dysfunctions. Studies are currently being done using energy healing with people who have multiple sclerosis (MS), are recovering from concussions or have brain trauma. And researchers are studying using energy healing to reduce distress in order to improve cognitive functioning for those with dementia.
The following 15-minute exercise can connect you with your own capabilities as an energy healer. If you can repeat it regularly, you may feel more energized, calm and clear.
Sit comfortably with your hands, palms up, resting on your thighs. Invite the universal positive and healing energy that flows all around us and in us to enter your body. Visualize this energy passing from your brain, through your heart and body and out your hands. Direct this peaceful healing energy to a person, an animal or the whole world. Imagine this energy cycling in you, coming out of you, going to another person and then coming back.
Acupuncture is an ancient Chinese modality that has successfully been practiced for thousands of years and has been used by and studied in Western medicine—for example, at the National Institutes of Health. It is used to maximize energy and functioning throughout the brain and the body. In Chinese medicine, the body is thought to contain distinct internal pathways, or meridians. When these meridians become inactive, energy is blocked within the body, and health problems arise. Acupuncture moves chi, or a vital force, throughout your body and keeps the flow of energy going.
This ancient practice is thought to be useful in promoting overall brain health. Acupuncture can be effective for the brain because it taps into nerves on the body, primarily in the hands and feet, that are linked to the brain via the central nervous system. For example, receiving an acupuncture treatment in a toe affects your brain because of the connection of the nerves of the toe to the spinal cord, which is connected to the brain.
In China, acupuncture continues to be used alongside Western medicine for a very large percentage of people who have neurological issues including stroke, dementia and Parkinson’s disease.
At Canyon Ranch, we have seen acupuncture help guests with depression improve focus and attention and clear brain fog. Usually when we feel unfocused, we’re out of balance, and acupuncture is a quick way of getting back our balance. It provides a restorative sensation, similar to the way you feel after you’ve had a great night’s sleep and you’re ready to take on the day.
Interestingly, the energy it provides actually helps the brain calm down, encouraging the body’s own natural healing ability. We have found that when the body learns to fix itself, the results last.
Qi Gong and Tai Ch’i
Two other energy therapies worth mentioning are the Chinese practices of qi gong and tai ch’i. Qi gong is the foundation of martial arts, and tai ch’i is a graceful and beautiful offshoot. Qi gong defines the basic movements that channel energy and direct it to certain parts of your body. The basic tenets of qi gong include the conservation of energy that allows you to become healthier, stronger and wiser.
A 2011 study from Scotland showed that even for those with dementia, qi gong can help improve concentration, spatial awareness and skilled movement, as well as enhance confidence, relaxation and social skills.
Think of qi gong as an internal workout for your chi rather than your muscles. It’s actually revitalizing your body and giving you more energy to work with, so either you could overpower someone in a martial arts sense, or you could self-heal or just feel calmer. It’s also a form of meditation, but it’s directed at building and refreshing energy rather than strictly calming the mind.
Tai ch’i is also thought to offer a wealth of physical and mental benefits. According to the Mayo Clinic, tai ch’i’s focus on movement and breathing creates a state of relaxation and calm, reducing stress, anxiety and tension. It is also thought to relieve depression.
The most basic qi gong pose you can practice at home is called Hug a Tree, and it’s just what it sounds like. Standing tall, raise your arms and imagine that you are encircling a large tree. In the beginning, most people can hold this pose for only a few minutes. But people who have practiced for years can stand like this for an hour or two without batting an eye, focusing on their breath and moving their energy through the meridians.