• The Listener
  • North & South
  • Noted
  • RNZ
Photo/Getty Images

How to use exercise, heat and meditation to reduce stress

Auckland pain specialist Giresh Kanji says that regular exercise, saunas and deep breathing are a winning combination for beating depression, anxiety and insomnia.

Getting back into running helped lift Dr Giresh Kanji out of major depression when he was a 20-year-old medical student. Since then, the Auckland pain specialist has continued to exercise regularly, although a bad knee means he now walks up and down a swimming pool rather than runs outside.

He also has regular saunas and recently added daily meditation to the mix. He believes the combination of the three has cured him of a susceptibility to depression, anxiety and insomnia caused by two traumatic childhood events. The first was spending three months in hospital being treated for tuberculosis when he was four. The second was another lengthy hospital stay a year later after his hip was fractured in a car accident.

For many years after the accident, he was tormented by nightmares and had such bad night-sweats that his sheets turned yellow. He was also prone to depression and anxiety.

However, those days are behind him. “My sleep is disturbed very rarely and my nightmares have subsided.” Hoping to bring relief to others, he has now written a book, Brain Connections, explaining why regular exercise, heat and deep breathing can help treat depression, anxiety and insomnia.

“What I want to achieve is a paradigm shift, so that when you go to your doctor because you’re feeling depression, anxiety or insomnia, your doctor will be able to explain why you’re feeling this way and help you understand why you should take up these habits and continue them for life.”

The book is based on more than 20 years’ research, and although the science behind it is complex, the concept is easy to understand. It’s about using exercise, heat and deep breathing to reduce the level of stress chemicals in our bodies and “unwind” our brains, so we are not in a continual state of high alert.

Kanji, who works as a pain specialist at Gilgit Road Specialist Centre in Auckland and is also an honorary senior lecturer at the University of Auckland, says we are programmed to release these chemicals in response to danger. But although this was useful when we had to flee marauding tigers, for example, it’s less useful when activated by such things as psychological stress, chronic pain, illness or long periods of concentration.

Dr Giresh Kanji. Photo/Rosemary Morris/Supplied

In the past, the physical act of fleeing a threat, such as a tiger, got rid of the stress chemicals, but that process doesn’t happen with modern dangers. Instead, the chemicals stay in our brain and wind up our stress nervous system.

“They stay in the brain and do the things they’re meant to, such as keep us awake, anxious, aggressive or angry.”

Kanji says his research suggests that regular, moderate-intensity exercise can get rid of stress chemicals and help the brain wind down. “Generally speaking, the more rigorous the exercise the better – you want to be slightly breathless and feel your heartbeat.” Sweating in a sauna has a similar effect. Research he did for his PhD, completed in 2013, found that people with chronic, stress-related headaches had more than 40% less pain after having 20-minute saunas three times a week for two months.

He says a similar regime using hot baths, a spa pool or a steam room can also help get rid of stress chemicals, though it may take longer than having regular saunas. Hot showers, on the other hand, don’t raise the heart rate enough to be effective.

More recently, he has discovered research that found the deep breathing associated with meditation can increase levels of a brain neurotransmitter called gamma-Aminobutyric acid (Gaba), which helps reduce activity in the nervous system. People who are depressed have 52% less Gaba than those who are not depressed.

“Since I learnt this, I have been meditating for between 20 and 50 minutes a day, and my world has got even better.”

Kanji says childhood trauma can wind up the stress nervous system, increasing the likelihood of a person having stress-related symptoms such as depression, anxiety and insomnia. But adult traumas such as war, divorce or a highly stressful job can have a similar effect.

“About 50-60% of people’s brains are wound up, so they’re not a minority.”

However, although it’s clear that exercise, heat and deep breathing can all help wind the brain down, it’s not yet known exactly how much of each is most beneficial. He is now doing research at the University of Auckland to determine how long and how many times a week people should practise deep breathing. He hopes to carry out similar research on the optimal dose for heat.

In the meantime, he suggests starting off by doing 20 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise such as running, swimming or biking three or four times a week, possibly supplemented by saunas (or hot baths, spas or a steam room) as well as meditation. For those who don’t enjoy exercise – or are unable to do it – good alternatives are yoga or tai chi. Hot yoga also provides a good combination of deep breathing, heat and muscle-strengthening exercise.

Although regular saunas, for example, may help wind down the brain, Kanji doesn’t recommend adopting a sauna-only routine because it’s not good for the body. “You still need to exercise two to three times a week to keep your muscles strong.”

But with that proviso, he says whatever regime you choose, it shouldn’t take long to start noticing a difference.

“It takes 6-12 weeks to really see results, but even after a month, you’ll be sleeping better.” 

BRAIN CONNECTIONS: How to Sleep Better, Worry Less and Feel Happier, by Dr Giresh Kanji (Pain Publications, $36).

This article was first published in the July 27, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.