Therapy study might help transplant patients

by Geoffrey Ziezulewicz

The National Institutes of Health has awarded the University a five-year, $2.1 million grant to study the benefits of alternative medicine for organ transplant recipients.

The study aims to show the benefits of yoga, a healthful diet and exercise in alleviating some of the stress and anxiety following transplant operations, said Cynthia Gross, College of Pharmacy professor and principal investigator of the study.

The study will be composed of two groups: one following a Stanford University program emphasizing a healthy diet and exercise, and the other following a meditation program called Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction.

Participants in the second group will learn yoga-like meditation techniques that have helped cancer patients and those with anxiety disorders and chronic pain, Gross said.

The yoga aspect is intended to help participants become mindful of their own bodies and thoughts, which Gross said is not always easy.

“Our minds are constantly thinking of things. There is an internal conversation that’s happening all the time, and sometimes the volume of that is so loud you can’t respond correctly to what’s happening,” she said. “If you actually try to sit and do nothing and start recognizing what’s showing up in your mind, you would be surprised.”

Since an organ transplant is a life-altering operation both physically and emotionally, she said, it is also important to focus on the patient’s mental state.

Organ recipients face what amounts to a chronic illness for the rest of their lives, and the recipients’ immune systems must be kept at a precise balance, she said.

If a transplant recipient’s immune system is too strong, the body will reject the transplanted organ, but if the immune system is too weak, the person will be more susceptible to illnesses such as flu viruses, Gross said.

“Even grapefruit juice or green tea can affect their blood levels,” she said.

Prescription drugs help balance a recipient’s immune system, but Gross said they can have serious side effects such as osteoporosis.

In addition to physical stresses, patients also face expensive operations and prescription drugs, which can sometimes cause anxiety or depression, she said.

“Being upset about your condition can then affect your ability to cope with your condition,” Gross said. “It is a vicious cycle.”

Gross said this study is not intended to replace conventional organ transplants or medications, which have improved in the past decade.

Instead, she said, it is a complementary study she hopes will lead to practices that might make recovery easier for the patient.

If the study’s results match her hypothesis – that yoga, a healthful diet and exercise improve the mental state of a patient – she said it will help health-care professionals recommend these things as legitimate options for their patients.

Gross said successful results from the study would mean organ transplant recipients could use yoga and other alternative options in addition to conventional treatments to take better care of themselves.