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.
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.
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.”