Mind-body Medicine

Meditation is a mind and body practice with a long history of use for increasing calmness and physical relaxation, improving psychological balance, coping with illness, and enhancing overall health and well-being. Mind and body practices focus on the interactions among the brain, mind, body, and behavior. There is also a dearth of published studies on mindfulness, relaxation, and recreation activities in space settings and analog environments. For example, cognitive mindfulness is an important psychological construct that can help to promote resilience and to reduce stress in the military and in analog environments. Mindful individuals can better manage stress, reframe or recognize adverse situations, and handle a crisis or emergency. Research in non-space environments demonstrates that multiple forms of mindfulness are also associated with improved performance. Relaxation training is also a helpful tool to manage stress and to reduce anxiety. In the military, relaxation techniques are sometimes integrated into psychological training before deployment, leading to improved performance and reduced negative emotions. In the space setting, these techniques can help improve sleep, a critical variable that can itself mitigate other performance factors, particularly psychological ones. Biofeedback training could accelerate the learning process. Mindfulness and relaxation training represent important topics that could be more fully integrated into astronaut training. While relaxation exercises can be taught quickly to those who are interested, the tight schedule may not be compatible with a typical full-scale mindfulness course that comprises multiple hours and weeks. Instead, mindfulness training could be integrated with the current training modules by promoting the idea of increased mindfulness in typical activities (e.g., making a “boring” task more stimulating resulting in greater engagement and less negative reaction).

Fasting has long been known as a natural therapy that improves health and extends longevity in humans and rodents. There are a variety of fasting types such as religion fasting (fasting is a well-established practice of several major religions, including Taoism, Buddhism, and Islam), intermittent fasting, caloric restriction, water fasting or therapeutic fasting (water only), and absolute fasting (no food and water). Fasting has been used as a treatment for diabetes, obesity, and cancer in many studies. Therapeutic fasting is intended to mobilize fat for energy, rather than protein, and very low-calorie diets can mimic therapeutic fasting effects. Upon initiating water fasting (no food, only water), blood glucose levels are maintained via stored glycogen. As glycogen stores are exhausted, fatty acids and ketone bodies are metabolized to provide energy. Although glycogen metabolism also increases, it cannot provide enough energy for essential functions. Sustained fasting lowers total plasma cholesterol, low-density lipoprotein levels, and triglycerides, and concurrently elevates fatty acids. Energy for the brain, however, comes largely from ketone bodies during prolonged fasting as the brain does not generally metabolize fatty acids. Due to a higher hydrogen/carbon ratio, ketone bodies provide more efficient energy than does glucose or fatty acids. A Harvard-led international team headed by Professor David Sinclair has recently identified that the metabolite NAD+, which is naturally present in every cell of our body and can be boosted through fasting or caloric restriction, has a key role as a regulator in protein-to-protein interactions that control DNA repair.

At NSG Biomedical Engineering lab, we are exploring the possibility of using mind-body approaches, such as fasting and meditation, for the prevention and management of hypertension, cardiovascular diseases, and stress; we are also studying the potential of mind-body practice for astronauts to maintain their best health and performance during long term space flights. Fasting and meditation can be developed as potential countermeasures for multiple risks in long-term space flight, such as radiation, inflight medical conditions (Medical), long term medication storage (Stability), and cognitive or behavioral conditions (BMed), inadequate food and nutrition (Food), and cognitive or behavioral conditions (BMed).