Ancient Medical Practices That Are Actually Supported By Modern Science

Worried about wasting your time and money on an unscientific medical treatment? You may be, but it could help anyway.

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Over a year ago, I downloaded the Headspace app, which provides 10 free, 10-minute guided meditation sessions that I cycled through most mornings for months. Now I just set an alarm on my phone for 11 minutes and try my damnedest to focus on my own breathing, or how my body feels, despite spending most of those minutes being mentally dragged around by various thoughts.

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While I have not always been consistent in my practice, and in fact have often wondered if it’s possible to get increasingly worse at meditation over time, I continue to return to it because I imagine that it’s healthy, and, placebo effect or not, sense that it offers me some emotional peace and mental clarity. Plus, anything that’s been recycled for thousands of years probably contains at least some element of truth, right?

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According to multiple studies, the benefits are not just in my head—even if that is where most of the changes take place. And meditation isn’t the only age-old wellness practice that shows promise. Here are three ancient health rituals that modern science hasn’t been able to throw out.

Meditation

Recent research has shown that meditation not only reduces stress but also literally changes the brain. Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School neuroscientist Sara Lazar was one of the first scientists to test the benefits of meditation and mindfulness using brain scans. She became interested in the topic when an injury sidelined her from marathon training and she picked up yoga as a replacement.

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“The yoga teacher made all sorts of claims, that yoga would increase your compassion and open your heart,” Lazar told The Washington Post in 2015. “And I’d think, ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah, I’m here to stretch.’ But I started noticing that I was calmer. I was better able to handle more difficult situations. I was more compassionate and open hearted, and able to see things from others’ points of view.”

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Lazar’s first study compared long-term meditators to a control group; she found that a 50-year-old meditator’s gray matter in the brain’s auditory and sensory cortex, along with the cortex associated with working memory and executive decision making, was closer to that of a 25-year-old.

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Her second study sought to answer whether the meditation had caused this brain change or the longtime meditators had simply started with more gray matter. This study’s participants, all of whom said they had never meditated before, were divided into two groups. The members of one group enrolled in a mindfulness-based stress reduction program. After eight weeks, Lazar and her team observed differences in brain volume between the groups in five different brain regions, including thickening among the meditation group in four regions.

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Changes were seen primarily in the area involved in mind wandering and self-relevance but also appeared in areas relating to learning, cognition, memory, emotional regulation, empathy, compassion, anxiety, fear, and stress.

Essential Oil Use

A couple of weeks ago, I was at a pizza party, bonding in the kitchen with a woman I’d just met. She was saying that she’d typically been a skeptic about certain hokey-sounding health remedies but, by golly, if she hadn’t been promptly healed from a sickness after taking her roommate’s advice to swallow some oregano oil.

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If the term “essential oil” has only ever made you think of erotic massage or overpriced health food stores that take themselves a little too seriously, think again. According to a 2015 article in The Atlantic, scientists are beginning to look to plant extracts—aka essential oils—as a possible remedy to antimicrobial resistance. Given that livestock are often pumped full of antibiotics to offset any potential illnesses from the unsanitary conditions of mass farming, and with the hopes of speeding their growth to keep up with humanity’s voracious appetite for animal flesh, antibiotic-resistant “superbugs” are top of mind for many.

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Dr. Cyril Gay, the senior national program leader at the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Agricultural Research Service, calls it “potentially one of the most important challenges the medical and animal-health communities will face in the 21st century.”

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A number of studies have found reason to believe that essential oils might offer help. One of these, published in 2014 in Poultry Science, found that one essential oil—oregano!—added to chicken feed resulted in a 59 percent lower mortality rate due to ascites, a common poultry infection, than in chickens that were not treated. And research published in a 2011 issue of BMC Proceedings found that a combination of oregano, cinnamon, and chili pepper oils changed chickens’ gene expression in a way that promoted weight gain and protected against intestinal infection.

Acupuncture

Despite much anecdotal evidence and some research suggesting that acupuncture can benefit patients in real, lasting ways that improve chronic issues like pain, depression, and inflammation, scientists remain skeptical. In 2014, five scientists with various backgrounds weighed in on the topic for Scientific American.

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You can see a tone divergence in their responses that is sort of informative in its own right. Observe their answers to the first question, regarding acupuncture’s effectiveness in treating depression:

MacPherson: Strong evidence exists that acupuncture is effective for chronic pain conditions. For depression, we have evidence that acupuncture is a useful adjunct to conventional care. In one recent trial patients on antidepressants who received acupuncture did significantly better than those who just took medication. Patients who received counseling in addition to their medication received a similar benefit to the acupuncture group.

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Ernst: Most studies examining the effectiveness of acupuncture are not rigorous. Those that are more rigorous fail to show that acupuncture is more than a placebo in managing depression.

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Wang: My opinion is that acupuncture stimulations trigger the release of beneficial hormones and, theoretically, can serve as a mood stabilizer.

Colquhoun: Acupuncture does not work, which means all discussions of how it does work are irrelevant. I’m not aware of any evidence that acupuncture works for depression.

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Hall: The published evidence on acupuncture indicates that it might be helpful for pain and possibly for postoperative nausea and vomiting, but not for any other indications. All the evidence is compatible with the hypothesis that acupuncture is no more than a placebo.

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Honestly, Colquhoun seems like kind of an uppity jerk, but maybe he’s onto something. “There is a lot of money at stake for those who sell acupuncture—and a certain amount of fascination with New Age thinking,” he points out in a later response. “There are excellent controls such as retractable needles. Almost all experiments show no difference between real and sham acupuncture.”

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Yet, as science writer Jo Marchant tells NPR, “[W]hat you see in all these different conditions is that taking a placebo, or, to be more accurate about it, our response to that placebo, can cause biological changes in the brain that actually ease our symptoms, and that’s not something that’s imaginary; that’s something that’s underpinned by these biological changes that are very similar to the biological changes you get when we take drugs.”

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So maybe Colquhoun is right. Perhaps acupuncture is technically a sham. It wouldn’t change the fact that the mind-body connection is undeniable, and powerful, which opens up a whole world of healing possibilities.

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