Here are five digestible bytes of well-regarded facts, opinions, and ideas about mindfulness meditation’s ability to lead to greater well-being!
1. Reframe the Experience of Pain:
Mindfulness meditation’s ability to provide pain relief can be done by cultivating the ability to parse between the objective sensory dimension of pain and the more subjective judgement that we attach to the pain and the way that we interpret it mentally.
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.”
Mindfulness meditation also increased the number of CD-4 cells, which are the immune system’s helper cells involved in destroying infections. There was also increased telomerase activity which helps promote the stability of chromosomes and prevent their deterioration (telomerase deterioration leads to cancer and premature aging).
Deregulation of the brain areas associated with emotional regulation and memory are key contributors to the symptoms associated with PTSD. In addition, an over-activity in the brain’s fear center, the amygdala, can be found in those suffering from Trauma-related disorders. 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 Pre-frontal Cortex.
Dr. Elizabeth Hoge, a psychiatrist at the Center for Anxiety and Traumatic Stress Disorders at Massachusetts General Hospital and an assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, says that mindfulness meditation makes perfect sense for treating anxiety. “People with anxiety have a problem dealing with distracting thoughts that have too much power,” she explains. “They can’t distinguish between a problem-solving thought and a nagging worry that has no benefit.” Mindfulness meditation cultivates the ability to be more discerning. Subsequently, we can use the opportunity to take action on the problem solving, and to see the worry without judgment and more compassion.
In every situation, we can choose to REACT from a place of fear and perhaps anger, or RESPOND more mindfully.
Reacting is a reflexive, and sometimes impulsive, way to behave in a situation. It’s not adaptive and often leads to increased stress and tension. In contrast, responding is a more mindful approach to any given situation. But in order to respond in lieu of reacting, we need to STOP:
Take a breath.
Proceed (more mindfully).
Just ONE extra moment to take a step back, regroup, and consider a healthier response can make a huge difference.
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.”
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.
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?
I’ve been writing recently about the profound connection between the brain and our gut! Most of my writing was intellectual, sometimes metaphorical, maybe a bit poetic, and also humbly instructional (i.e., the way mindful eating fosters health vis a vis this connection).
Today, here is part of my own journey with #AlimentaryAngst, the story that sparked my personal and professional quest to help heal mind through body, and body through mind.
Thank you to Further Food for publishing this and thank you for all the support. I hope this resonates-ultimately, that is why I’m putting THIS forth! What has YOUR journey been like? Comment below with your thoughts, I look forward to responding to each one.
Let’s rewind. February 2013, I noticed that I’d become more bloated than usual after a hearty meal. I experienced a feeling of pressure in my stomach, as well as visceral pain, both of which converged to create a really uncomfortable experience. I also had GERD, and my heart felt fiery. My xiphoid process felt irritated. I was a hot digestive mess.
As uncomfortable as it was, I kept my cool. It was only a few weeks later, when I looked down towards the floor and couldn’t see my own feet, that I gasped with every ounce of guttural energy I had in reserve. I looked six months pregnant.
I used my hands to cradle my inflamed belly and I cried. I cried for so many reasons: the pain, the discomfort, the cruel joke of hearing my biological clock tick so loud I thought I’d go deaf. I only looked pregnant, but wasn’t. Was this some kind of phantom pregnancy? Was that even a thing? Was I about to be catapulted into psychological stardom with my new discovery? This faux-preggers state was characterized by the undoubted lack of a fetus, but a great yearning for one, and a belly the size of six-month gestational equivalence.
I went to the doctor. Gave her a history, which was mostly sparse, except for the few things I seem to always be relaying to doctors. I felt lethargic and tired all the time, and I couldn’t seem to ever get enough sleep. I never woke up feeling rested. Overall, I’m healthy, and thankfully so, but there’s health and then there’s “HEALTH.” The difference is the same as that between surviving and thriving. I prefer to do the latter.
My diagnosis: Small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO), which had nonchalantly decided to go camping in my gut, like a pesky parasite sucking the life out of every ounce of normal flora to be found. Camping: as in pitching tents, and starting fires, and sleeping in the dark hollows of my alimentary organs.
The road to wellness began with self-compassion. Then, I changed my diet, and embarked on a journey consisting of many lifestyle changes. This was both extraordinarily cathartic and vulnerable to write. Yet, as a mind-body-brain wellness advocate I truly think it is incumbent upon me to share my journey. Why? Well, because my journey is what catapulted me towards the process of researching, reading, conversing, asking, anything I could about the topic. Gut health became a focus of not only my own, but of my practice with my patients.
I am blown away by the connection between mind, body, brain and gut. In fact, the gut is so powerful, and exerts so much impact upon our daily lives, that it’s even been dubbed the second brain. For me, knowing there is a real live brain in my gut makes me think twice about what I put in it, and I’ve never felt better.
Check out my next post on Further Food-I’m going to keep it raw and real, but will get much more technical and science-y about the importance of gut health.
Two weeks ago, I wrote an introductory article about the gut-brain connection. The main idea conveyed was that having a gut-instinct is more than a figure of speech—our gut and brain really are in a constant dialogue, and that impacts our overall wellness. Now I want to offer this “how-to” article, so that we can begin to take theory and apply it to our lives.
Just to reiterate:
The body is composed of more bacteria than it is cells. Collectively, the trillions of bacteria are called the microbiome. Most of the microbiome reside in our gut, and is sometimes referred to as the gut microbiota. We all have our own unique microbiome. A healthy gut can be different iterations of bacteria for different people, because it is this diversity that maintains wellness.
The microbiome is capable of playing a vital role in physical and psychological health via its own neural network, the enteric nervous system (ENS), sometimes referred to as the second brain.
A shift away from “normal” gut microbiota diversity is called dysbiosis, and dysbiosis may contribute to disease. In fact, alterations in the diversity and stability of the gut microbiome has been linked to many diseases, including autoimmune, gastrointestinal, and even brain disorders.
The microbiome is capable of playing a vital role in physical and psychological health via its own neural network, the enteric nervous system (ENS), sometimes referred to as the second brain.
Given the far-reaching health implications that the ENS is now understood to mediate, treatment for many neurological, neuropsychiatric, autoimmune, and gastrointestinal difficulties have taken a new turn. Perhaps one of the best ways to boost our brain is by maintaining impeccable gut health. So to, for functional GI disorders, it might be impossible to heal a distressed gut without considering the impact of stress and emotion.
This all begs the question: What are some lifestyle choices we can make to foster optimal mind-body-brain wellness? I have many suggestions, but in this post, I want to focus on one specific technique that will efficiently elicit holistic benefits: mindful eating.
Mindful eating, in my opinion, speaks to being mindful of both what, and how, we eat. Paying attention to what we put into our mouths protects us from choosing the types of foods that are particularly toxic to both our gut and brain. For different people, different foods are more or less inclined to cause dysbiosis. Generally speaking, however, the more processed the food, the more noxious.
Mindless eating can wreak havoc on our digestive abilities by eliciting stress hormones, and therefore can add pounds, take away pleasure, and maintain functional gastrointestinal difficulties. In contrast, eating mindfully reduces our stress hormones, and gives our body the time and space it needs to thoroughly digest food, without the inflammation.
Aside from reducing stress hormones, mindful eating enables us to slowly and sensually savor the action of eating, creating an experience to delight in. It also allows us to engage with our inner sense of satiety, which helps curb the over-eating that leaves us feeling uncomfortable.
Mindful Eating for the Brain and Gut
Keeping all of this in mind, here are five (A,B,C,D,E) ways to begin a mindful eating practice.
When it comes to mindful eating, we don’t have to have a set formal practice. We can initially begin by asking ourselves some key questions:
• Why am I eating now: am I hungry, or craving something else?
• What am I eating now: will this choice serve my wellness in some way or will my body and mind regret this choice? You can think of this question as a cost-benefit analysis. It is OK to treat yourself to something that isn’t necessarily the healthiest choice, if it is in moderation. Yet, ask yourself if it is worth it, or will it wreak havoc to the point at which it is no longer even a treat?
• What else am I doing now: am I about to eat something while I also read an article, or watch TV, or have a conversation? Give yourself permission to JUST eat.
2. Be grateful
Before you lean in to whatever it is you are going to ingest, take a moment to reflect on how grateful you are for being able to engage in this meal. This can be a formal prayer, or as informal as saying thank you in your mind or out loud to the sun, the earth, the farmers, and even the universe for having a hand in delivering this food to your mouth.
3. Chew, and then chew again
Since our actual digestion begins with chewing, taking the time to chew, and then chew again, helps the enzymes in our saliva do its job so that we can effectively absorb nutrients and get the most out of the food we are eating.
There is eating and then there is dining. Many of us don’t have the time to sit down to a formal meal, especially during a busy work day. Yet, dining can be as simple as allowing yourself to experience every sensation of your meal as it unfolds with each moment. Dine by indulging in the different aromas, textures, and tastes of everything you eat, instead of going from bite to bite—or, more often, swallow to swallow.
5. Engage your attention
Whether you are practicing a formal sitting meditation using the breath as your guide, or eating mindfully, a core component to mindfulness practice is engaging your attention, tuning-in, and regulating if necessary. Our minds inevitably wander—that is just a fact of being human. When you are eating and begin to notice the mental chatter and commentary, without judgment, see if you can redirect your attention back to the experience of dining; of experiencing all sensations.
Most of us can relate to the experience of having butterflies in our stomach, or to a visceral gut-wrenching feeling, and how often are we told not to ignore our “gut-instinct” or “gut-feeling” when making a decision.
Even from our simple slang, it’s clear just how symbolically connected the gut is to our emotions. Now, there’s tangible proof to support these popular metaphors.
We all have a microbiome, and they are as unique as our neural pathways
Research has shown that the body is actually composed of more bacteria than cells. We are more bug than human! Collectively, these trillions of bacteria are called the microbiome. Most of those bacteria reside in our gut, sometimes referred to as the gut microbiota, and they play multiple roles in our overall health.
The gut is no longer seen as an entity with the sole purpose of helping with all aspects of digestion. It’s also being considered as a key player in regulating inflammation and immunity.
A healthy gut consists of different iterations of bacteria for different people, and this diversity maintains wellness. A shift away from “normal” gut microbiota diversity is called dysbiosis, and dysbiosis may contribute to disease. In light of this, the microbiome has become the focus of much research attention as a new way of understanding autoimmune, gastrointestinal, and even brain disorders.
The benefit of a healthy gut is illustrated most effectively during early development. Research has indicated just how sensitive a fetus is to any changes in a mother’s microbiotic makeup, so much so that it can alter the way a baby’s brain develops. If a baby is born via cesarean section, it misses an opportunity to ingest the mother’s bacteria as it travels down the vaginal canal. Studies show that those born via c-section have to work to regain the same diversity in their microbiome as those born vaginally. Throughout our lives, our microbiome continues to be a vulnerable entity, and as we are exposed to stress, toxins, chemicals, certain diets, and even exercise, our microbiome fluctuates for better or worse.
The gut as second brain
Our gut microbiota play a vital role in our physical and psychological health via its own neural network: the enteric nervous system (ENS), a complex system of about 100 million nerves found in the lining of the gut.
The ENS is sometimes called the “second brain,” and it actually arises from the same tissues as our central nervous system (CNS) during fetal development. Therefore, it has many structural and chemical parallels to the brain.
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 through a pathway of nerves, both “brains” communicate back and forth. These pathways include and involve endocrine, immune, and neural pathways.
At this point in time, even though the research is inchoate and complex, it is clear that the brain and gut are so intimately connected that it sometimes seems like one system, not two.
Our emotions play a big role in functional gastrointestinal disorders
Given how closely the gut and brain interact, it has become clear that emotional and psychosocial factors can trigger symptoms in the gut. This is especially true in cases when the gut is acting up and there’s no obvious physical cause.
The functional gastrointestinal disorders (FGIDs) are a group of more than 20 chronic and hard to treat medical conditions of the gastrointestinal tract that constitute a large proportion of the presenting problems seen in clinical gastroenterology.
While FGID’s were once thought to be partly “in one’s head,” a more precise conceptualization of these difficulties posits that psychosocial factors influence the actual physiology of the gut, as well as the modulation of symptoms. In other words, psychological factors can literally impact upon physical factors, like the movement and contractions of the GI tract, causing, inflammation, pain, and other bowel symptoms.
Mental health impacts gut wellness
In light of this new understanding, it might be impossible to heal FGID’s without considering the impact of stress and emotion. Studies have shown that patients who tried psychologically based approaches had greater improvement in their symptoms compared with patients who received conventional medical treatment.
Along those lines, a new pilot study from Harvard University affiliates Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center found that meditation could have a significant impact for those with irritable bowel syndrome and inflammatory bowel disease. Forty-eight patients with either IBS or IBD took a 9-week session that included meditation training, and the results showed reduced pain, improved symptoms, stress reduction, and the change in expression of genes that contribute to inflammation.
Poor gut health can lead to neurological and neuropsychiatric disorders
Vice-versa, poor gut health has been implicated in neurological and neuropsychiatric disorders. Disturbances in gut health have been linked to multiple sclerosis, autistic spectrum disorders, and Parkinson’s disease. This is potentially related to pro-inflammatory states elicited by gut dysbiosis-microbial imbalance on or inside the body. Additional connections between age-related gut changes and Alzheimer’s disease have also been made.
Further, there is now research that is dubbing depression as an inflammatory disorder mediated by poor gut health. In fact, multiple animal studies have shown that manipulating the gut microbiota in some way can produce behaviors related to anxiety and depression. (Maes, Kubera, Leunis, Berk, J. Affective Disorders, 2012 and Berk, Williams, Jacka, BMC Med, 2013).
Our brain’s health, which will be discussed in more depth in a later blog post, is dependent on many lifestyle choices that mediate gut health; including most notably diet (i.e., reduction of excess sugar and refined carbohydrates) and pre and probiotic intake.
The brain-gut connection has treatment implications
We are now faced with the possibility of both prevention and treatment of neurological/neuropsychiatric difficulties via proper gut health. On the flip side, stress-reduction and other psychological treatments can help prevent and treat gastrointestinal disorders. This discovery can potentially lead to reduced morbidity, impairment, and chronic dependency on health care resources.
The most empowering aspect to the gut-brain connection is the understanding that many of our daily lifestyle choices play a role in mediating our overall wellness. This whole-body approach to healthcare and wellness continues to show its value in our longevity, well-being, and quality of life: that both physical and mental health go hand-in-hand.