Healthy Altruism; Volunteers Found to Benefit Own Well-Being When They Help others.(LIFE - HEALTH)

Article excerpt

Byline: Christian Toto, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

Palisades resident Kimberly Chester and her 14-year-old dog, Zoe, are regulars at the Northwest Health Care Center on Wisconsin Avenue.

The duo cheer up the center's seniors each week, but Mrs. Chester also benefits from the visits. She says she gets as much as the people she helps, if not more.

"When you're there, there are no phones ringing that you have to answer," says Mrs. Chester, who has spent the past 18 years working with People Animals Love (PAL), a group that matches pets with the elderly, infirm and disadvantaged to brighten their spirits.

Mrs. Chester, 52, says she isn't alone in feeling that way. In fact, performing good deeds isn't simply an act of charity; some experts say it's a way to improve our health.

Dr. Larry Dossey, a physician and author who has studied altruism and health, called the sensation felt while doing charitable deeds the "helper's high" in his 1991 book "Meaning and Medicine."

The Santa Fe, N.M.-based doctor reports that the body releases opiates during altruistic acts, similar to what joggers refer to as the source of a "runner's high."

"These are more than just thoughts and feelings that stay in your head," Dr. Dossey says of acts of kindness. "They initiate a cascade of biochemical changes."

Endorphins, which help regulate pain, can be released during charitable acts to combat the release of hormones such as adrenaline released during stressful stretches.

Writing a check for a worthy nonprofit just won't cut it, though.

"You've got to get your hands dirty, like working in a soup kitchen," Dr. Dossey says. Human interaction is a key element in feeling the sensation. "It has to be up close with an intimate sense of involvement and commitment."

Not all doctors are convinced of altruism's health implications, Dr. Dossey says, and research on the topic is scarce.

He compares the connection to that between spirituality and medicine; studies have shown that those of strong faith live longer than nonbelievers.

"The emerging data shows spiritual practices really have tangible benefits for people's health," he says.

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Dr. Herbert Benson, president of the Mind/Body Medical Institute in Boston and an associate professor at Harvard Medical School, says high stress levels can lead to a variety of disorders.

Stress "evokes a fight-or-flight response," says Dr. Benson, making people more susceptible to such conditions as anxiety, mild and moderate depression, hypertension and cardiac irregularities.

Other consequences of stress include problematic sexual performance along with a decreased sperm count, plus an increase in "hot flashes" in menopausal women.

The body, however, has within it an opposition response to that instinct, which Dr. Benson calls the "relaxation response." His April 2003 book, "The Breakout Principle," will explore that subject.

The response requires several steps to elicit it, such as the repetition of a word or prayer, as in meditation, or a session of yoga class.

"People have been doing this for years, often through a prayer," he says.

"All of this helps explain why altruism can work," he continues. "The essence of the relaxation response is to break the train of everyday thought."

Whether it is painting a senior citizen's home or serving a nutritious meal to someone in need, "they all get you to forget your own worries. It allows the body to revert to its healing properties," Dr. Benson says.

To benefit from the relaxation response, he says, requires daily practice. He doesn't mean a trip to the local soup kitchen each morning, but a variety of stress-relieving endeavors that combine to make us healthier. …