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Utah study: Will 'mindfulness' help Gulf War veterans sleep?

Published June 9, 2012 1:40 pm

U. researchers will test if mindfulness therapy can help veterans who have difficulty sleeping.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Many veterans of the Persian Gulf War in the early 1990s suffer from mysterious symptoms — from fatigue to joint pain to indigestion to memory problems.

Now researchers at the University of Utah are taking a look at whether mindfulness therapy can help those veterans deal with one of their insidious burdens: disturbed sleep.

Yoshio Nakamura of the Utah Center for Exploring Mind-Body Interactions and study associates David Lipschitz and Yuri Kida are looking for 72 veterans of the Persian Gulf War — Operation Desert Storm — for a short research study.

"Sleep disturbance hasn't been prominently recognized," says Nakamura. But a doctor who treats Gulf War vets in Salt Lake City suggested they take a look.

"He started to tell us, 'All my Gulf War patients, they can't sleep.' "

So Nakamura got a grant from the Department of Defense, which, like the Department of Veterans Affairs, is puzzled by the inexplicable symptoms many veterans experience if they were in the Gulf in 1990 and 1991 with coalition forces, pushing Iraqi forces out of Kuwait.

His research is to determine whether mind-body bridging can help improve the sleep of those veterans.

Medical researchers in the 1970s began looking into medical uses for eastern religion techniques such as meditation and visual imagery. The idea is that physical and mental health are affected by emotional, social, spiritual and behavioral aspects of one's life.

"It's a therapy based on learning to be more aware of what's going on in yourself," says Nakamura.

Participants will go to the Veterans Affairs George E. Wahlen Medical Center in Salt Lake City for a two-hour meeting once a week, for three consecutive weeks.

They will be randomly put into two groups. One will receive "sleep hygiene" training, or techniques for better sleep, such as not eating or exercising just before bedtime.

The other group will be taught a mind-body bridging therapy developed by Seattle psychiatrist Stanley Block and popularized in the book Come to Your Senses: Demystifying the Mind-Body Connection.

The therapy teaches how to use senses to develop greater self-awareness and involves identifying and writing about one's thought patterns. The idea is to defuse what ordinarily devolves into a bad situation: sleeplessness.

"The practice is to almost facilitate the shift in someone's mental state through mindfulness training," says Lipschitz.

Nakamura and Lipschitz have already found mind-body bridging therapy helpful for veterans in another study at the Salt Lake City VA.

Several years ago, they and three other researchers found that veterans who received mind-body bridging therapy had significantly decreased sleep disturbance compared to those who had sleep-hygiene training. Those with post-traumatic stress disorder reported the therapy helped those symptoms as well.

The research was published in the April 2011 issue of Journal of Psychosomatic Research.

Nakamura and Block were also authors, with Utah State University researcher Derrik Tollefson and two employees of the Utah Division of Child and Family Services, of another study showing promise for mind-body treatment for domestic violence perpetrators.

This new project, Nakamura said, may take more than a year.

"The VA is coming to recognize that while the Persian Gulf War happened 20 years ago," says Nakamura, "we haven't done enough for these people." —

To contact researchers

For more information about the study by the Utah Center for Exploring Mind-Body Interactions and to be considered as a participant, contact Yuri Kida at 801-585-7697, yuri.kida@hsc.utah.edu.