T’ai Chi Boosts Immunity, Improves Physical Health in Seniors In a landmark research study, one of the first of its kind in the United States, researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles have demonstrated that behavioral interventions and integrative exercise programs such as tai chi can have a direct, positive effect on the immune system in older adults.

Published in a psychology journal, the study found that consistent use over a period of time of a specific form of t’ai chi appeared to boost the immune system’s response to a common virus, and could help ward off outbreaks of a painful, debilitating skin condition, shingles that afflicts primarily the senior age population.

Shingles and Seniors – What You Need to Know This skin rash, known as shingles, is caused by the varicella-zoster virus; this virus is the cause of two diseases in humans. In small children, it causes chickenpox, a common skin condition that usually resolves itself after seven to 10 days. After the outward signs of chickenpox subside, the varicella virus remains alive in the body’s nerve cells, but is usually kept in check by the immune system.

However, when an individual’s immune system is weakened by stress, illness or old age, the varicella virus can re-emerge to cause shingles, a painful skin rash that can last for months or years. The pain can be so severe that it is physically debilitating, and as a result, some seniors with shingles also become depressed, which further lowers immunity.  There is no standard treatment for the prevention of shingles, and even after the rash disappears, skin in the affected area can remain extremely painful to the
touch.

While there is no traditional medical treatment to heal shingles, Oriental Medicine offers 2 effective alternatives – acupuncture, and a second that doesn’t require a trip to your holistic physician’s office – t’ai chi. Shingles Prevention with Oriental Medicine and T’ai Chi The best way to prevent shingles is to keep your immune system strong and resilient according to most health care providers and researchers.

Researchers in the health care field decided to see if behavioral and exercise programs such as t’ai chi might play a role in immunity and well-being, and thus lower the chances of shingles.  Dr. Michael Irwin and a team of scientists at the UCLA Neuropsychiatric Institute designed a trial using elderly patients who had the chickenpox virus.

They recruited 36 subjects, all of whom were at least 60 years old and had chickenpox earlier in life, but not shingles. Half of the patients were randomly selected to participate in a t’ai chi group; the remaining half were told not to begin any new exercise programs during the study and acted as a control group.

For the t’ai chi group, the researchers used a specially structured form of exercise called tai chi chih (TCC), consisting of 20 simple, repetitive movements and designed for easy use by older adults. TCC was practiced three times a week for 15 consecutive weeks, for a total of 45 sessions; the patients were taught by a certified TCC instructor, who conducted all of the treatments. A typical session lasted 45 minutes, comprised of a 10-minute warm up; a 30-minute exercise period; and a 5-minute cool down stage.

The main outcome measured in the study was the level of a certain type of cells in the blood – specifically, a “memory T-cell,” which is designed to recognize and attack the varicella virus. In older adults, there are approximately 10 memory T-cells for every 100,000 white blood cells in the bloodstream. The researchers also used the standard SF-36 medical outcomes questionnaire to measure general health and well-being. Blood tests were taken at baseline and one week after the TCC sessions ended, while SF-36 assessments were taken at baseline, at five-week intervals during the study, and one week after the final TCC session.

Because of geographical difficulties and time requirements, four patients in the TCC group dropped out of the program. One patient also dropped out of the control group, resulting in 31 patients who completed the study.

Results of the Research on T’ai Chi and Shingles in Older Adults In the TCC group, there was a “robust increase” levels of memory T-cells in the blood. On average, the scientists found “a nearly 50 percent increase” of varicella virus responder cells in TCC patients from the start of the study to the one-week post-TCC period. On a patient-by-patient basis, levels of memory T-cells increased in nine TCC patients, remained unchanged in seven patients and decreased in one patient. In the control group, memory T-cell levels increased in three patients, were unchanged in eight patients and decreased in five patients.

Physical improvements also were noted in the TCC patients. Analysis of the
SF-36 forms found that patients in the TCC group had “significantly higher” role-physical and physical functioning scores compared to the control group. Role-physical scores improved throughout the study for the TCC patients, whereas scores for the control group varied between assessments.

Anecdotally, patients in the TCC group generally reported higher feelings of relaxation and increased energy, and less fatigue, than control patients.
Dr. Irwin expanded on the results achieved in the study by saying the
following: “Our findings offer a unique and exciting example of mind over matter,” Irwin said. “A large body of research shows how behavior can negatively affect the immune system and health, but ours is the first randomized, controlled study to demonstrate that behavior can have a positive effect on immunity that protects against shingles.

The findings are particularly noteworthy, as t’ai chi chih, or ‘meditation with movement,’ increased immunity in older adults who are at risk for herpes zoster (shingles).  “The improvements in both immunity and physical functioning were significant by widely accepted measures of each, and all with no surgery, no drugs and no side-effects,” Irwin continued. “We were particularly struck by incredible improvements in what subjects were able to accomplish physically as a result of participating in these classes. In fact, older adults who had the more impairment present at the start of the study showed the greatest improvement and benefit at the end.”

Dr. Lisanti at Integrative Med Solutions a Naturopathic Doctor in Westchester, New York uses acupuncture, Chinese herbal medicine and naturopathic medical modalities including nutrition to meet the health care needs of older patients, and is well-versed in t’ai chi. If you are affected by shingles or other signs of low immunity, please contact with Dr. Lisanti at Integrative Med Solutions to schedule an appointment.

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