This post originally appeared on Mindful.org
When you watch the Olympics, you can’t help but imagine the countless hours of training all of the athletes have devoted themselves to in order to accomplish the unfathomable feats of stamina, incomprehensible shows of endurance, and extraordinary acts of skill.
And that kind of rigorous training, steeped in competition, often can’t be fully actualized without training the mind as well.
Some of the athletes have been vocal about their penchant for mindfulness meditation as an integral part of their quest for gold. For example, Tom Daley, a diver from Great Britain, told the Telegraph: “You can only do so much in the gym or in the pool.” He continued, “Every morning I do 10 minutes of mindfulness where I do meditation and I use that in competition and every day life… It’s helped me massively and I feel like that’s one of the reasons why this year I’ve been the most consistent that I’ve been in competition.”
Other athletes might be practicing mindfulness without knowing that’s what they’re doing—they just experience the flow state that comes with focused attention.
But what’s clear is that the very mindful way these athletes approach their craft can be seen in their actions. Here are 4 lessons in mindfulness we can learn from the Olympians:
Focused Attention is a Skill
A main component of mindfulness is that it helps cultivate awareness by paying attention, on purpose, and in the present moment.
If left to its own devices, our human mind habitually wanders away from the present moment. When we’re not in the here and now, we dwell in the past, grasping and replaying it, or we project into the future, trying to anticipate the unknown (and often catastrophizing).These habitual thought patterns don’t serve our ultimate well-being. This kind of thinking is unhelpful for an athlete who can’t stop thinking about their last failed performance, or one who can’t stop obsessing over what this performance will mean going forward.Have you ever heard a sports announcer say that an athlete must have “been in his head” too much – which caused them to make a simple mistake, but one that cost them the game or race? When we are too focused on what we need to do to win, we lose ourselves in that thought and forget to remain in the moment.
This year, Wilhem Belocian of France, bolted a split second before competitors. The false-start alarm rang out, and the 21-year-old’s hopes of winning a medal in Brazil were over. It was heartbreaking to watch as he collapsed to the ground and punched the pavement before laying on his back with his hands over his face, clearly in agony.
Present moment awareness, honed, is true gift. Equally important is allowing ourselves to grieve, and then forgive ourselves, and move on
Compassion is Essential
Mindfulness is more than sitting on a cushion, eyes closed, back aligned, thumbs grazing forefingers, hands resting on thighs. No doubt, this is a feasible and efficient way to cultivate mindfulness, but it’s not the only way.The essence of mindfulness practice is learning to live with more integrity, by nurturing the power to choose our response in any given situation. We begin to live mindfully when we start to cultivate a way of being that embodies mindfulness-based principles like gratitude, loving-kindness, and compassion.
When we are too focused on what we need to do to win, we lose ourselves in that thought and forget to remain in the moment.
For an Olympic athlete, this kind of mindfulness practice is perhaps most reflected in the ability to engage in “good sportsmanship.”A prime example of this is reflected in the actions of Abbey D’Agostino, a Team USA 5,000-meter runner, and Nikki Hamblin of New Zealand. They both collided during a run, fell, and subsequently chose to spend the rest of the race encouraging one another, despite the fact that this had the potential to snuff out either’s chance to qualify for the next run. If someone who has trained and competed for years for this spot can forgive and help out their competition, surely we can see the bigger picture in our own lives as well.
Stress is Manageable
Stress-reduction has been noted as a useful byproduct of the practice of mindfulness.
But an appropriate amount of stress is actually adaptive. For athletes especially, the stress-response (also knows as “fight or flight”) elicits an acute surge of adrenaline, and stimulates an increase of blood pumping to the limbs, which helps them as they race towards the finish line. While this mental pressure to beat out the competition is often crucial to success, sometimes the physiological stress response never turns off, and for many of us, stress begins to take the form of negative and unhelpful thinking styles that are often paralyzing.That’s where mindfulness comes in.
A foundational element of mindfulness entails focusing on the sensation of the breath. Engaging the breath provides an opportunity to help lower your heart rate. Diaphragmatic breathing, or “belly breathing,” utilizes the diaphragm, and allows for a fuller, slower, and more rhythmical breath. This is a technique used to reduce stress by breaking shallow patterns of breathing that use the abdomen and the chest. It works, because the breath is intimately connected to the autonomic nervous system and the mind
Autopilot is Detrimental to Your Health
The practice of cultivating our attention to the present moment also prevents us from living on autopilot. When we live on autopilot we often fail to notice our automatic thoughts, our innermost feelings, and the subtle physical messages that our bodies send us.For an athlete, who is constantly putting their body through high-intensity training, it can be easy to let minor sensations slide, as the adrenaline itself drowns out some experience of acute pain. Mindfulness particularly allows an athlete to cultivate an acute awareness of their body, to know when and how to take care of it; when it needs a break, when it’s okay to push harder, when it needs to refuel, and when it needs a longer respite to heal.
When we live on autopilot we often fail to notice our automatic thoughts, our innermost feelings, and the subtle physical messages that our bodies send us.
To use Abbey D’Agostino as an amazing example again, after tearing ligaments in her knee, she understood that her season was over. But her message that it is more important to honor where her body is at, than to put it through activity that might exacerbate her injury beyond repair, prevailed nonetheless, and to many, she is still an Olympic winner—the true embodiment of what it means to be an athlete on the world stage.
Sometimes life takes us out of the race that we are in, out of the path we saw ourselves on, but at the same time, this change allows us instead to succeed in things we never imagined.
Go For the Gold
We all have our own golden pursuits. And we all have our own hurdles in life to jump, targets to aim for, and sand traps to avoid. But the real gold medal is a life of thriving, cultivated by paying attention to fully living and enjoying every moment. It really isn’t the destination that matters, but the journey that we take to get there.
How will you take these Olympic gold messages with you as you reach for your life goals?
This blog post originally appeared on Mindful.org
If we were able to prove that individuals suffering from PTSD are experiencing reversible neurological changes, would that help to alleviate any taboo associated with trauma, so sufferers are able to get the treatment they need? New treatment protocols for PTSD that integrate mindfulness techniques may make that a possibility in the near future.
Mindfulness-based techniques in this context have recently gained traction with the support of more empirical findings. Overall, there is a lot of evidence supporting mindfulness as a treatment approach for adults with PTSD, and a recent burgeoning literature corroborating positive neurological changes is following suit.
First, I want to define trauma and PTSD.
Trauma is a broad term, and according to the American Psychological Association (APA), it is an emotional response to a terrible event. Unfortunately, said terrible event can constitute a plethora of possibilities, including combat, rape, natural disasters, and assaults. There are other potentially traumatic events, and though less talked about, are no less palpable. Ultimately, any event might be considered traumatic if you have experienced and/or witnessed a threat to your life, your body, your moral integrity, or had a close encounter with violence or death.
Usually, when we are faced with danger, we go into fight-or-flight mode, during which our bodies release hormones to help us act faster, to either fight or flee. Trauma inhibits this very normal and evolutionary response to danger. What trauma does, instead, is elicit a profound sense of helplessness, during which one feels paralyzed from doing anything to be relieved from the circumstance.
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD, is described as a severe response to trauma, and it is most powerfully characterized by three prominent symptoms, which include:
- Re-experiencing the event
- Avoiding any reminders of the event, or feeling emotionally numb
- Hyper-arousal, which consists of a very sensitive startle response
In addition to these three expressions of symptoms, PTSD causes a huge deal of distress and severely limits functioning in many different domains of life. As its name implies, PTSD is technically a “disorder”, and it is listed in the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5).
I respect the need to classify something as a disorder in order for rigorous assessment of specific symptoms that can lead to a comprehensive and individually-tailored treatment plan. Yet, I believe, that there’s nothing truly disordered about having a reaction to seeing atrocities and tragedies beyond our mind’s ability to fathom. To hear more about this point of view, listen to this poignant, sensitive and informative interview with Barry Boyce, editor-in-chief of Mindful magazine.
There’s nothing truly disordered about having a reaction to seeing atrocities and tragedies beyond our mind’s ability to fathom.
The Brain and PTSD
In order to understand the neurological implications of PTSD, it is important to quickly parse the concept of neuroplasticity. For many hundreds of years scientists thought that, like physical development, once the brain reached maturity, it ceased to grow and develop in any way.
The modern view is antithetical to this, given research that continues to show ways in which the human brain is in a constant state of change. In this way, it is believed, new experiences actually impact our neural circuitry; that over the course of a life, our brain map reflects new and changing pathways. This idea is expressed eloquently and through case example in one of my favorite books, The Brain that Changes Itself, by Norman Doidge, MD.
Most of us view this notion of a neuroplastic brain through a rose-colored lens. Yes, neuroplasticity affords the brain an opportunity to heal from injury. Let’s not forget, though, that experience can also negatively change someone’s neuro-profile. So, in sync with neuroplastic principles, when trauma is encountered, the brain changes in response to the event in order to cope and adapt to the situation. These brain changes often don’t serve us going forward. While our brain adapts to develop a psychological defense against further trauma, it is not a brain that thrives long-term.
Neurological Components of PTSD
Neuro-imaging techniques, such as MRI and FMRI, have allowed scientists to examine brains of patients suffering from PTSD. Three of the areas impacted by trauma include the
- Pre-frontal cortex (PFC)
The amygdala is a structure in the brain’s limbic system (known as the emotional seat of the brain) that helps determine whether or not a threat is approaching, and if so, sends out a danger signal, initiates the fight-or-flight response, and then helps indicate when the threat is gone. When one has experienced trauma, the amygdala remains hyper-alert to even non-threatening stimuli, and activates the fight-or-flight response system despite being safe. While experiencing PTSD, the brain can get caught up in a highly alert and activated loop during which it looks for and perceives threat everywhere.
While experiencing PTSD, the brain can get caught up in a highly alert and activated loop during which it looks for and perceives threat everywhere.
The hyperactive amygdala is constantly interacting with the hippocampus, the area of brain that plays a role in memory function. Brain scans have found smaller hippocampi in those with PTSD, perhaps reflecting the impaired memory experienced post trauma. Usually, the hippocampus works to connect and organize different aspects of memory, and is responsible for locating the memory of an event in its proper time, place and context. When experiencing PTSD, memory becomes fragmented, and the hippocampus has trouble coherently piecing together memory, from discriminating from past or present, and from integrating memory of experiences with feelings and factual knowledge. This is an extraordinarily distressing component of PTSD and manifests in the form of intrusive memories and flashbacks. Triggering memories provoke the amygdala, maintaining its hyper-activity.
The third area of the brain affected by trauma is the frontal lobe; specifically, the PFC. This area of the brain is involved in regulating behaviors, impulses, emotions, and fear responses. In those with PTSD, the PFC is notably less active and less able to override the hippocampus as it flashes fragments of memory, nor to signal the amygdala that the danger is not real.
As the above research suggests, the neuroplastic brain indeed responds to trauma. As certain areas of the brain become hyperactive, and others deregulated, throwing off the fine-tuned and exquisite orchestration that usually works to keep someone safe from real threats—PTSD is cultivated.
What are the positive benefits of mindfulness for adult patients suffering from PTSD in relation to the brain?
Mindfulness and the Brain:
There is a significant amount of data supporting mindfulness as a treatment approach for patients with PTSD. Much of the literature, however, doesn’t speak to the neurological changes that occur during the mindfulness process. Research regarding mindfulness mediation’s impact upon the brain in general points to changes in brain structure and function that could account for the reduction of symptoms of PTSD.
Changes in Brain Structure:
As I mentioned earlier, deregulation of the brain areas associated with emotional regulation and memory are key contributors to the symptoms associated with PTSD in addition to the over activity of the fear center, the amygdala. Mindfulness reverses these patterns by increasing prefrontal and hippocampal activity, and toning down the amygdala.
In fact, brain scans confirm that mindfulness meditation is correlated with an increase in gray matter in the hippocampus, a decrease of gray matter in the amygdala, and neuroimaging studies have found that mindfulness meditation also helps to activate the PFC.
Impact on Brain Function:
A recent study looking at the neural functional impact of mindfulness meditation on those with PTSD implicates the interaction of two “opposing” brain networks in mediating beneficial outcomes.
In this study, 23 male veterans who served in Afghanistan and Iraq were divided into different treatment groups, one of which included mindfulness-based exposure treatment (MBET).
Results indicated that while each treatment group showed promise, the men in the group receiving Mindfulness-Based Exposure Therapy (MBET) experienced actual post-treatment brain changes that indicate mechanisms by which mindfulness could potentially help in the treatment of PTSD.
Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) indicated that at the start of the study, the veterans showed increased activity in regions associated with perceived external threats. After receiving MBET, fMRI showed increased activity in what is known as the brain’s default mode network (DMN). The DMN consists of interacting brain regions associated with internally focused meandering and wandering thought. Additionally, fMRI also showed that the DMN increased its connections with what’s known as the Executive Network, associated with the purposeful shifting of attention.
Both these networks were working in sync, providing insight into how mindfulness can help people train themselves to get unstuck from a vicious cycle of negative thinking, often a cornerstone of trauma.
…Mindfulness can help people train themselves to get unstuck from a vicious cycle of negative thinking, often a cornerstone of trauma.
The small sample size, the gender bias of the group, and the inclusion of only veterans means that there is room for much more extensive empirical exploration with regards to mindfulness as applied specifically to those with PTSD.
Mindfulness and PTSD:
Overall, these neural correlates of symptom reduction can potentially shed light on the therapeutic possibility of mindfulness-based treatments going forward. There is, without a doubt, great potential for these treatments in helping people better process trauma, and hopefully decrease a lot of potential suffering.
Yet, a caveat worth heeding: Given the precarious nature of the symptoms of PTSD, the most efficient and safe treatment should only be obtained by a professional. It is my opinion that mindfulness, as an integrative approach under professional supervision, is the most prudent.
In honor of PTSD awareness month, I invite you to learn more about the various aspects of PTSD as it relates to gender, relationships with others, chronic pain, heart health, and brain injury.
Please click here to download my free resource packet on PTSD. Inside you will also find helpful quotes and resources related to trauma and PTSD, and NEW this year, I have included an additional post on an oft-forgotten element of trauma: Post Traumatic Growth.
Download Dr. Wolkin’s BrainCurves: PTSD Reference Packet here.
This blog post originally appeared on Mindful.Org
Imagine being poked by a thermal probe that heats a small area of your skin to 120.2 degrees Fahrenheit. Ouch.
Now imagine trying mindfulness meditation, and having that probe touch your skin again. Painful, you’d think. Not as much.
Researchers at the Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center found that the brains of meditators respond differently to pain—a huge finding, given the continued skepticism regarding the benefits of mindfulness meditation as an effective treatment for pain with unique mechanisms above and beyond providing a placebo effect.
The research is even more poignant given that pain is one of the most pervasive, debilitating, and expensive health problems faced by approximately 100 million Americans. Until recently, the go-to treatment has been opioid medications, which have a high side-effect profile, and are highly addictive. More and more, doctors and patients alike are looking toward non-pharmacological ways to supplement current treatment options to help reduce pain and the toll it takes on quality of life.
Mindfulness as a Treatment for Pain
As mindfulness meditation is being introduced into the mainstream to help combat pain, many questions are surfacing about whether it really helps, and the exact mechanisms by which it might provide some benefit.
Jon Kabat-Zinn, the pioneer who brought mindfulness to the West as a possible psychological intervention, was the first to study the connection between mindfulness meditation and pain. In his 1985 study, 90 chronic pain patients were trained in Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR). Results indicated statistically significant reductions in measures of present-moment pain, negative body image, inhibition of activity by pain, mood disturbance, and psychological symptomatology, including anxiety and depression. Additionally, pain-related drug utilization was reduced. Since that study, there have been many more with similar findings.
The mechanisms behind how mindfulness reduces pain proposed in these studies continue to include mindfulness meditation’s ability to provide pain relief by cultivating the ability to parse between the objective sensory dimension of pain, and the more subjective judgement that we attach to the pain that constructs the way we experience it.
Pain is a complex phenomenon, mainly due to it being a multi-dimensional and subjective experience that consists of sensory, affective, and cognitive elements. Meaning, when we first experience a sensation of pain, we begin to judge it as bad and as something we want to immediately eradicate. Then, we start to conspire ways to escape the pain, to find any solution we can come up with, all the while continuing to judge our pain as negative. The subjective judgement we add inflates the pain, making the experience of it far more noxious than the sensory experience alone.
Mindfulness meditation can be used as a tool to create more awareness of the sensation of pain itself, without the judgment or resistance, and the affective and cognitive evaluation that we often project upon it. When we impose a litany of negativity upon our pain, it only becomes worse, and potentially elicits other difficulties including depression and anxiety.When we become more aware of what we are actually experiencing, without the overlay of our judgment, the overall perception of pain is reduced.
Kabat-Zinn articulated this well in The Mindful Solution to Pain. He writes, “From the perspective of mindfulness, nothing needs fixing. Nothing needs to be forced to stop, or change, or go away.” Kabat-Zinn is making the case for awareness of a sensation, without the overlay of our thoughts, in order to elicit healing. He goes on to say “…It is only awareness itself that can balance out all of our various inflammations of thought and the emotional agitations and distortions that accompany the frequent storms that blow through the mind, especially in the face of a chronic pain condition.”
While focusing on the sensory experience of pain could sound counterproductive, it actually provides a pathway to pain relief that is different than the traditional pharmacologic interventions that aim to quell the sensation of pain immediately.
Mindfulness Meditation and Possible Mechanisms of Pain Relief
With the advent of modern imaging techniques such as the functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), neuroscientists are finding changes in the brain that are in sync with Kabat-Zinn’s proposed mechanisms.
- The brains of meditators respond differently to pain: Grant et al. (2011) used functional and structural MRI to ascertain the brain mechanisms involved in mindfulness-related pain reduction. They found that during pain, meditators (albeit in a non-meditative state while being studied) had increased activation in areas associated with processing the actual sensory experience of pain (including primary and secondary somatosensory areas, insula, thalamus, and mid-cingulate cortex). They also found decreased activity in regions involved in emotion, memory, and appraisal (including medial pre-frontal cortex (mPFC), orbital frontal cortex (OFC), amygdala, caudate, and hippocampus).
- Activation of different neural pathway than a placebo: Zeidan et al.’s most recent (2015) study found mostly consistent results and went a step further and accomplished the feat of proving that mindfulness meditation has a different neural pathway than, and reduces pain intensity above and beyond, placebo. In this study, relative to other comparison groups, mindfulness meditation was associated with decreased activity in the brain area called the thalamus. This possibly reflects the inability of sensory information from reaching areas of the brain associated with thinking and evaluation.
Despite the increased elucidation of neural mechanism related to mindfulness-related pain reduction, and its viability as an additional tool doctor’s can “prescribe,” questions still remain. There are many conflicting studies that seem to indicate that mechanisms may vary based on a meditator’s expertise level, as well as a meditator’s engagement in Focused Attention (FA) vs. Receptive Attention (RA) also called Open Monitoring. Findings also differ by stimulus type (heat vs. laser), and diverse experimental directives. Additionally, more research is needed to parse between mindfulness’s ability to reduce both acute and chronic pain.
While mindfulness meditation is not the end all be all panacea for pain, there is enough evidence to indicate that mindfulness practice does in fact lead to reductions in pain intensity and unpleasantness, even more so than placebo. The proof is even in the brain circuitry. In this way, it can be a safe addition to treatment options that have heretofore mostly included highly addictive opioids.
Mindfulness Practice for Pain Relief: The Body Scan Meditation
So how can we put this theory and research into actionable guidance for our own lives? One of the most effective mindfulness practices with regards to pain reduction is the body scan technique, which provides us with the ability to identify physical discomfort in different parts of the body.
The body scan can allow us to use our bodies to experience present-centered, non-judgmental awareness. We can learn to be aware of whatever sensation arises in our bodies, particularly the painful ones, and then we learn to notice the difference between the direct experience of these sensations and the indirect perceptions that we add on to that experience.
The body scan allows us to non-judgmentally identify what we are feeling and where we are feeling it as we narrow our focus on each detailed part of our body. Yet, we also begin to train our minds to broaden our focus away from the intricate body parts to a broader and more spacious awareness of the body as it exists as a whole, with different co-existing parts and sensations. A greater understanding of what our body endures allows us the opportunity to see what it feels, accept it, and cultivate compassion for it, without immediately judging it or trying to escape it.
I invite you to take the time to try a guided body scan meditation. In this practice, I guide you through an 18-minute body scan. It is my hope that together we can work toward a more mindful approach to pain relief.
This blog post originally appeared in The Huffington Post.
Less might sometimes be more, but two brains are most definitely better than one! How extraordinary then that research continues to confirm a second brain that resides in our guts.
Yes, our gut has its own neural network, the enteric nervous system (ENS). Our ENS doesn’t wax philosophical or make executive decisions like the gray shiny mound in our skulls. Yet, in a miraculously orchestrated symphony of hormones, neurotransmitters, and electrical impulses, both of our “brains” communicate back and forth.
This connection is actually what accounts for those proverbial butterflies in our stomach and has vast implications on our overall health and wellness. Changes in the diversity of the trillions of bacteria that reside in our gut (called the gut microbiota) can impact upon our mental state. And on the flip side, psycho-social factors, including the way we think and feel, have been implicated in gut problems.
Given my personal experience with SIBO, and professional experience with hundreds of women suffering from depression, anxiety, and GI difficulties, I enjoy teaching about how to live what I like to call a “Two-Brain Lifestyle.”
Here are four ways to begin your two-brain lifestyle journey:
“Diet is a central issue when it comes to preserving our gastrointestinal health, because by eating and digesting we literally feed our gut microbiota, and thus influence its diversity and composition.” –– Professor Francisco Guarner (University Hospital Valld’Hebron, Barcelona, Spain)
There is more and more research linking diets to both our gut and brain health. Certain diets elicit a healthier bacterial balance. Overall, and generally speaking, a diet rich in whole, unprocessed, unadulterated, and non-genetically modified foods help to maintain a proper pathogenic gut bacteria ratio. More specifically, the following are key recommendations:
A. Probiotic Intake:
Probiotics can be found in foods such as yogurt, or kimchi, and can also be taken in supplement form. Among other benefits, probiotics keep the bacterial ecosystem in our gut healthy, which in turn helps keep us healthy overall.
The positive impact of probiotics on gut flora has been widely studied in the last few years. In a 2013 study in Gastroenterology, 12 of 25 healthy women ate a cup of yogurt twice a day for four weeks. The rest of the women ingested no yogurt. All women had pre and post brain scans while being asked to respond to a series of images depicting different facial expressions. Results indicated that the women who ate yogurt were calmer when shown various emotions than the control group. Showing that the yogurt changed the subjects’ gut microbiota, which also modified their brain chemistry.
This means probiotics are potential game changers when treating anxiety and mood difficulties.
B. Low Sugar/Low Simple Carb Diet:
It is hard to say this, given that a love for chocolate has a special place in many of our lives, but excess sugar upsets the balance in the gut by nurturing more pathogenic bacteria, which leads to increased systemic inflammation. And inflammation is a major player in the inception of chronic disease, including mental health difficulties — no good!
In a recent study, researchers fed a group of mice a diet high in sugar and then tested their mental and physical function. The sugar diet negatively impacted the mice’s gut microbiota, impaired their cognitive flexibility, and ability to efficiently adapt to changing situations. The change in gut bacteria also negatively affected the mice’s long-term and short-term memory.
Basically, sugar makes you forgetful and possibly impairs adaptability, but don’t fret, the chocolate craving can still be met: The darker the chocolate, the less sugar. Also, if you don’t want to cut sugar completely out of your diet, eating less overall can still improve wellness.
2. Physical Exercise:
Ever feel like vomiting when you are scheduled for a job interview? That is just a crude reflection of how stress negatively impacts many aspects of our gut, but give exercise a try, it’s a well-known stress-buster!
A 2014 study found that rugby players not only have more diverse microbiota, but also a high amount of a particular bacterial species associated with decreased rates of obesity and metabolic diseases. While the study didn’t separate the effects of exercise, stress, and diet, it certainly provides evidence for exercise’s possible beneficial impact on gut microbiota diversity.
Our gut microbiota talk to the brain and impact how we think and feel, and, the way we think and feel has a profound impact upon the gut. Therefore, negative thinking styles and certain emotional states can disrupt gut functioning and even lead to dysfunction and disease.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is a type of therapy geared toward identifying and reframing negative and counterproductive thought patterns. In a 2003 study of patients with IBS, a significant number reported less pain, bloating, and diarrhea after 12 weeks of CBT. Stands to reason that therapy should be part of a thorough treatment plan for chronic gut upset!
4. Relaxation and Stress-Reduction Exercises:
Studies have shown that stress puts us at risk for dysbiosis, a shift away from healthy gut diversity. This then strips us of a defense against infectious disease, which can potentially wreak havoc on the Central Nervous System (CNS).
Beyond utilizing exercise, which we already talked about, stress reduction and relaxation techniques, such as meditation, help bring the gut environment back to homeostasis. In a recent study from Harvard University affiliates, forty-eight patients with either IBS or Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD) took a 9-week session that included meditation training. The results showed reduced pain, improved symptoms, stress reduction, and a decrease in inflammatory processes.
Go with your gut
Just as the best way to boost our brain is by maintaining impeccable gut health vis-a-vis the content of our diet, so too, it might be impossible to heal a distressed gut without considering the impact of stress and our emotions.
So just remember, you are what you eat, and you are what you think, and there are ways to do both more mindfully.
This blog post originally appeared on Mindful.Org
The brain is the grand conductor of the symphony of our selves. The brain leads mind and body, and the brain heeds mind and body. The brain plays a role in every thought, feeling, and body sensation we experience. That includes every twitch, every blink, every strum of a guitar, and even every orgasm. That also includes every dream, passion, fear, joy, and deepest desire.
Every memory you consolidated last night while you slept, each micro-movement used to brush your teeth this morning, every smoothie you tasted, step you took, daydream you pondered, daydream you snapped out of, work you intently focused upon, yawn you took, anxiety you felt, drop in blood sugar you experienced, was a manifestation of lots of talking. A plethora of dialogue went on inside of you today, and you need to know it.
Quick Brain Basics:
The brain and the spinal cord make up the nervous system, composed of billions of nerve cells (i.e. neurons) that speak back and forth between the brain and body. What’s the conversation like? Well, the nervous system is at least bilingual, and speaks both electrically and chemically. When neurons (the brain’s cells) are stimulated, an electrical impulse, called an action potential, is created. This eventually leads to the transmission of chemical substances called neurotransmitters, like norepinephrine, dopamine and serotonin, which we know play a huge role in our mood functioning, among a lot of other things.
Why is it so important to know how much chatter the brain is doing? Because to be mindful of the orchestration of our internal states (some in reaction to the external) is to be mindful of the essentiality of nourishing our brains.
The latest scientific research shows that neuroplasticity, the idea that new neurons can be created, makes it very possible for lifestyle to play a big role in maintaining and improving brain function. Of course, as always, nature and nurture dance an exquisite but complex dance, and so there is never one solution or one cause and effect paradigm when it comes to your wellness. Yet, there is something each of us can do to help our brains stay vital:
1. Reduce your stress levels by practicing mindfulness meditation.
Although stress is a temporarily adaptive response to a threat, when it is chronic it becomes maladaptive and can wreak havoc on the central nervous system (CNS). Stress-reduction and relaxation techniques are important for a healthy brain. A widely used relaxation-inducing technique is meditation. Mindfulness meditation has been shown to be particularly effective. Studies have indicated that the amygdala, known as our brain’s “fight or flight” center and the seat of our fearful and anxious emotions, decreases in brain cell volume after mindfulness practice. Mindfulness meditation has been shown to help ease psychological stresses like anxiety, depression, and pain. Research is still parsing out the exact mechanisms, but many agree that on a cognitive level, mindfulness’s ability to cultivate attention on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally, helps reduce the stress elicited by past and/or future oriented thinking.
2. Get your blood pumping through exercise.
Exercise is a life force, and there are many reasons why it is a crucial part of basic brain hygiene. One reason is that exercise actually raises serotonin levels (most antidepressants focus on the production of serotonin). That’s just the tip of the iceberg though with regards to exercise’s benefits, which is why it is always in my top three recommendations to clients who want to thrive cognitively as they age.
3. Use it, so you don’t lose it, by engaging in mental stimulation.
Lifelong students have the right idea when it comes to staving off age-related brain decline. Continued learning actually promotes brain health, and might actually create new neural connections. This kind of neuroplasticity is a handy defense against future cell loss. So in essence, taking a stab at a crossword puzzle, or enrolling in a continuing education course can help build cognitive reserves. The biggest bang for the brain are tasks that are challenging, varied, and novel.
4. Nourish your body and brain with balanced nutrition.
Our brain’s health is dependent on our many lifestyle choices that mediate gut health, including most notably diet i.e., reduction of excess sugar and refined carbohydrates, and increased pre and probiotic intake. Poor gut health, elicited by dysbiosis (a shift away from “normal” gut microbiota diversity), may contribute to disease, and has been implicated in neurological and neuropsychiatric disorders like multiple sclerosis, autistic spectrum disorders, Parkinson’s disease, and even Alzheimer’s disease. Further, there is now research that suggests that depression and anxiety are mediated by poor gut health as well.
5. Stay positively connected to yourself and others by socializing.
Joining a community center, or even a meet-up group adventure is actually an investment in your future. Research continues to support the positive impact of social interaction on the brain. So much so, that studies even go so far as indicating that social interaction is a key to warding off dementia, including the Alzheimer’s. Even basic exchanges with people keep our brains stimulated as it searches for thoughts and a way to organize them into appropriate communication bytes. Also, let’s not forget that being part of a social network often elicits healthy behaviors, most notably joining a walking group, or engaging in other group exercise. So, keep your friends and family close to help maintain cognitive processes.
This blog post originally appeared on Mindful.Org
Running half-marathons barefoot in the snow. Climbing mountains while wearing only shorts. Standing in a cylinder filled with 700 kilograms of ice cubes.
Self-proclaimed “Iceman” Wim Hof, claims that he can do all of these things by influencing his autonomic nervous system (ANS) through concentration and meditation. The “Wim Hof Method,” is an intensive meditative practice that includes focused concentration, cold water therapy, and breathing techniques. Until recently, the idea that anyone could influence their autonomic nervous system was thought impossible given its assumed “involuntary” nature. The ANS is the system that controls all of our internal organs and regulates body functions like digestion, blood flow, and pupil dilation.
Our brains also use the ANS to communicate to our immune system, which might explain another of the Iceman’s recent feats: suppressing his immune response after being dosed with an endotoxin (a bacteria), which in most people leads to flu-like symptoms and high levels of inflammation in the body. When researchers looked at the Iceman’s inflammatory markers after being exposed, they discovered the markers were low, and his immune response was 50% lower than other healthy volunteers. Basically, he showed very few signs of infection.
Hof is definitely a statistical outlier, though one recent study followed students trained in his method. Apparently, they replicated Hof’s results and experienced no symptoms after being injected with Escherichia coli, a bacteria that normally induces violent sickness.
So, outlier though he may be, researchers are intrigued by the mounting evidence showing that mindfulness has a positive impact on our immune system.
The Floating Brain: Our Best Defense
The immune system is one of the most critical purveyors of our physical wellness. It’s our defense system, our armed forces that work to protect us from foreign invaders like viruses or bacteria. It is so precisely designed that it can distinguish between harmful unwanted pathogens and our own healthy cells and tissue.
It is so wise that the immune system has even been referred to as our “floating brain,” aptly named for its ability to communicate with the brain through chemical messages that float around inside our body. This means that if our immune system is weakened, perhaps as a result of chronic stress or invading pathogens, our whole body system won’t operate as usual. When our immune system struggles, it’s like a welcome sign for infection and disease.
Mindfulness and the Immune System
Beyond the Iceman’s superhuman experiences, there is increasing evidence that mindfulness meditation does impact our immune system.
A recent and groundbreaking review looked at 20 randomized control trials examining the effects of mindfulness meditation on the immune system. In reviewing the research, the authors found that mindfulness meditation:
- Reduced markers of inflammation, high levels of which are often correlated with decreased immune functioning and disease.
- Increased number of CD-4 cells, which are the immune system’s helper cells that are involved in sending signals to other cells telling them to destroy infections.
- Increased telomerase cell activity, the cells that help promote the stability of chromosomes and prevent their deterioration (telomerase deterioration leads to cancer and premature aging).
These results need to be replicated with more rigorous methodology, but they are promising, and potentially pave the way for using mindfulness-based techniques to boost the immune system, enhancing our defense against infection and disease.
And this isn’t the only study showing positive results. In another eight-week study, researchers at UCLA had 50 HIV-positive men meditate daily for 30-45 minutes. Doctors found that, compared with a control group, the more training sessions the men attended the higher their CD-4 cell count at the conclusion of the study (remember, CD-4 cells are the immune system’s helper cells). This study links mindfulness with a slowing down in CD-4 cell count drop, which is associated with healthier immune system functioning.
Richard Davidson, esteemed professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, also conducted a study investigating whether mindfulness meditation could alter brain and immune function.
In his study, people were injected with the flu vaccine and were either part of a group receiving mindfulness training or a control group. After eight weeks, the mindfulness group showed greater levels of antibodies available to respond to, and prevent, potential illness.
Mindfulness Meditation and Possible Mechanisms of Increased Immunity
It’s tempting to get carried away by the implications of the research suggesting that mindfulness can help improve immune functioning. However, the question still remains as to the exact mechanisms involved in the mindfulness-immune system connection. Ask any researcher and they’ll tell you they don’t know yet. Some possibilities have been suggested, and it is likely that a convergence of all of these play a role. Here I present three possible ideas:
- Decreased Stress, Increased Emotional Regulation: It has been confirmed through research that what we think and feel impacts our immune system via chemical messages from the brain. Therefore, stress, negative thinking styles, and certain emotional states can have a negative impact upon our immune system, creating an environment increasingly susceptible to disease. Mindfulness’s mechanisms toward greater well-being are complex and multifold, but practice is implicated in decreased stress, decreased rumination, and increased ability to deal with difficult emotions. In this way, practicing mindfulness might stave off impaired immunity.
- Targeted Brain/Immune System Communication: Another link between mindfulness and the immune system is mindfulness’s direct impact upon brain structures responsible for talking to the immune system. More specifically, research indicates that mindfulness meditation increases activity in the prefrontal cortex, right anterior insula, and right hippocampus, the areas of the brain acting as our immune system’s command center. When these parts are stimulated through mindfulness, the immune system functions more effectively.
- Activation of the Second Brain (the Gut): Mindfulness can boost immunity via the gut microbiota. As per a previous article I wrote here on Mindful, the human body is comprised of trillions of micro-organisms, most of which reside in the gut, which are called the gut microbiota. It turns out that the gut microbiota are key players in the development and maintenance of the immune system; the bacteria in the body that helps distinguish between intruder/foreign microbes vs. those that are endogenous. Studies have shown that stress tips our microbial balance, putting us at risk for dysbiosis, (a shift away from “normal” gut microbiota diversity), stripping us of one of our prime defenses against infectious disease, not to mention the cascade of reactions that ensue, which potentially wreak havoc on the central nervous system (CNS). Mindfulness-based stress reduction impacts our immune system by helping to maintain healthy gut microbiota diversity that is often upset by stress.
No matter the exact mechanisms, there is viable evidence that practicing mindfulness meditation helps boost our defense against disease, and fosters wellness. And while we are a long way from this becoming a mainstream treatment practice—given possible egregious side effects if not done properly and the fact that very few of us can be an Iceman—this research paves the way for the addition of a new wellness adage: “Meditation each day keeps the doctor away.”