The Total Health biofeedback pilot project in rural Africa
The Himalayan Institute Total Health Center in Cameroon pioneers holistic healthcare treatments and public health outreach. Eucharia Kuoh has been the program manager there since 2009. When Eucharia was asked to select patients for the new ‘Stress Eraser’ biofeedback program in Cameroon, she looked for candidates with a variety of symptoms but with a common interest in taking charge of their own health. “The biofeedback protocol can help people control stress,” she explains, “but it relies on the patient to practice relaxation and diaphragmatic breathing for 5-10 minutes a day. If they are not committed, the treatment will be unsuccessful.” As a Total Health Consultant, Eucharia spends much of her time advocating lifestyle changes and health supplements to ward off expensive and life-threatening illnesses later in life. Biofeedback is only the latest addition to her holistic healthcare practice.
For centuries, medical researchers have known that stress indicators, from heart rate to sweat gland activity, are influenced by voluntary mental processes. When these indicators are displayed in real time, or feedback to the patient on a computer monitor, it becomes possible to alter specific physiological functions at will. Much like learning to wiggle your ears or flare your nostrils by looking in a mirror, biofeedback provides the starting point for learning to use the body in a new way.
For the four-week biofeedback pilot project in Cameroon, sixteen candidates were chosen. On the first visit, Eucharia records heart rate and blood pressure both before and after a guided relaxation. Then she introduces her patients to the Stress Eraser. The machine measures pulse through a sensor clipped to the finger. Patients receive a score based on heart rate and consistency, and the session continues until the patient reaches a target score. In addition to their daily breathing exercises, the patients are asked to return once a week to the nearest Total Health Center for another 15-minute biofeedback session. The concept is simple, yet biofeedback may be one of the most direct routes to the plethora of health benefits associated with low-stress living, from lower blood pressure to reduced muscle tension and less susceptibility to infection. Best of all, it’s inexpensive, meaning that Eucharia can reach even poverty-stricken communities where the daily stress of finding a meal and supporting children can be crippling.
At the end of the trial period, all sixteen patients self-reported an improvement in their initial symptoms, which included chronic pain, anxiety, and depression. For one patient with hypertension, Eucharia recorded a decrease in blood pressure after only four weeks of biofeedback sessions.
The ‘Stress Eraser’ pilot project has proven that biofeedback can be an effective component of holistic healthcare in the developing world. For consultants like Eucharia, biofeedback provides a concrete example of a larger preventative healthcare philosophy: by taking an interest in their health today, people can reduce the risk of illness tomorrow, sparing themselves the treatment costs which remain unaffordable for the majority of sub-Saharan Africa.