How it Can Change your Health in Just Minutes a Day
by Joanna Rosenfeld, ND
Qi Integrated Health
1764 West 7th Avenue
Vancouver, BC V6J 5A3
If you have taken an active interest in your own health-care treatment, then you have likely heard about the benefits of meditation and mindfulness. But do you really know why regular meditation is so beneficial? Common self-reported benefits include reduced levels of anxiety, depression and pain; data which have been reinforced through many clinical trials.
However, increased scientific research in this field, combined with improved technology, has broadened our perspective on meditation. Practicing mindfulness through meditation improves our brain function and our immune system, reduces our propensityfor developing chronic disease, and even slows down the aging process.
Stress and Your Health
An estimated 60–90% of health-care visits are related to mind-body stress-induced conditions. The stress response, also called the “fight-or-flight response”, is the body’s way of managing a threat — real or imagined. The threat is first recognized by a region of the brain called the amygdala, which creates a downstream release of epinephrine and norepinephrine into the bloodstream. These hormones cause increased heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing rate, as well as increased blood sugar levels. This reflects a general state of increased arousal and metabolic demands, in order to prepare the body to manage the threat. After this immediate response, another area in the brain, the hypothalamus, kicks into gear to promote increased release of cortisol as a way to keep the body in a hyperalert state for longer periods of time. If the body is exposed to stress for long periods of time, cortisol levels will remain high in the bloodstream. Continuous elevated cortisol levels contribute to increased levels of inflammation in the body, weight gain, decreased immune function, higher risk of developing cardiovascular disease, and accelerated aging. So what helps us in the short-term to manage stressful conditions that can really hurt us in the long run?
How Meditation Can Help
Research is delving into meditation and mindfulness as a way to counteract the stress response and the ensuing negative health effects. Researchers at the Benson Henry Institute, a division of the Massachusetts Hospital and Harvard Medical School, are devoted to research in the field of mind-body medicine, and specifically the relaxation response. According to Herbert Benson, director of the Benson-Henry Institute, the relaxation response is a countereffect to the fight-or-flight response. The relaxation response is elicited through repetition of a word or phrase, while dismissing other thoughts. It is accompanied by decreased oxygen consumption, decreased blood pressure, and decreased levels of stress hormones. Further analysis has recently revealed that the effects have also been impressive at the structural, cellular, and genetic levels.
Stress decreases the effectiveness of the immune system, which is why people often get sick following periods of stress. In an animal study looking at the effect of stress on wound healing from a second-degree burn, rats who were kept in isolation, which is a stressful environment for them, experienced much slower healing times than rats who were kept in a social environment. Additionally, when rats in isolation were given a form of stimulation in their cage, time of wound healing significantly improved. This indicates that although stress does downregulate immunity and wound healing, these effects can be mitigated by changing environment and stress levels. In other good news, meditation can help to counter the immunosuppressive effects of stress, and even provide an immune boost. In a study looking at the effectiveness of the flu vaccine, subjects were divided into an experimental group practicing daily meditation for eight weeks and a control group. At the end of eight weeks, the experimental group had more antibodies following vaccination when compared to nonmeditators. This increased responsiveness of the immune system is an indication of enhanced immunity in people who regularly practice meditation, and provides an effective strategy to offset stress-induced immune depression. Meditation can also be used in conjunction with other treatments to improve outcomes. Psoriasis is an immune-mediated skin condition often treated with UV light therapy. Patients who listened to a guided meditation while receiving conventional UV treatment had faster time to skin clearing than controls receiving UV treatment but no guided meditation.
Meditation has also been shown to have an effect at the level of gene expression. Researchers analyzed gene profiles of subjects who had never practiced meditation, and then again after completing an eight week daily meditation program. After eight weeks, the genetic profile showed upregulation, or increased activity, of certain beneficial genes, and downregulation of harmful ones. The upregulated genes coded for three important functions:
- Improved mitochondrial efficiency, which is the area of the cell responsible for energy production.
- Increased insulin production, allowing for better blood glucose control.
- More stable telomeres, which is a factor in slowing the rate of cell aging.
Genes that became less active included NF-kappa-B clusters, which are involved in chronic inflammation and its related conditions such as high blood pressure, inflammatory bowel disease, and certain cancers. These changes were even observed before and after just one session of meditation, demonstrating that meditation changes our genetic profile in just minutes. By comparison, long-term meditators (three or more years) had beneficial genetic profiles at baseline, reflecting long-term changes in gene expression.
Functional and Structural Brain Changes
Meditation practice is able to influence both the structure and function of the brain. Long-term meditators have increased gamma activity, which is associated with peak concentration and higher levels of cognitive functioning. Increases in gamma activity were even seen in people who had only been practicing meditation for one week, demonstrating the plasticity of the brain. As mentioned earlier, the amygdala is called into action during the initial stress response, but meditation actually decreases activity in this area, resulting in decreased arousal and self-perceived levels of stress, and an increased sense of well-being. Also, during meditation the paralimbic cortex becomes more active, which is the part of the brain responsible for emotion processing, goal setting, motivation, and self-control. Regular meditation can also offset age-related decline in your reaction time.
In addition to functional changes in the brain, there are also structural differences in the brain of people who meditate. As people age, the brain shrinks and loses grey matter. However, 50-year old meditators have the same amount of grey matter as 25-year old nonmeditators, demonstrating meditation has a protective effect on the aging brain. Areas of the brain responsible for selective attention, concentration, reaction time, memory, empathy, and compassion all showed increased grey matter and size in people who regularly practice mindfulness.
Eliciting the Relaxation Response
So, how can you incorporate meditation and mindfulness into your day so that you can start reaping the multitude of benefits? There are many meditation facilities or online resources and CDs that will help you get started. Herbert Benson recommends something even more simple, and benefits are seen in just 10 minutes a day.
- Choose an appropriate environment — Ideally, choose a quiet and calm environment, with as few distractions as possible.
- Find a mental stimulus — Choose a word, thought, phrase repeated silently or aloud. This is a way to break the train of distracting thoughts that enter your mind. Close your eyes or use a soft gaze. Try to coordinate your inhale and exhale breath as you repeat the sentence or word. Examples of words include “peace,” “one,” “trust,” or sentences such as “I am relaxed” or “I am breathing in calm and breathing out tension”.
- Adopt an attitude — Adopt a passive attitude and when distracting thoughts occur, they should be disregarded and attention redirected to the repetition. Do not worry about the outcome of the exercise, or how well you are performing. Adopt a “let it happen” attitude. This is the most important part of the process — wandering thoughts are expected, and it is important that you acknowledge them and then return to your repetition.
- Positioning — Sit or lie down in a comfortable position to prevent undue muscle tension. This may mean sitting cross-legged or lying down, but be careful not to fall asleep! Swaying or rocking may prevent falling asleep if you have a tendency to do so during this practice.
It’s never too late to start enjoying the physiological, emotional, and spiritual benefits of this rewarding practice — your body and mind will thank you!