Written by: Kevin Cann
Most of the readers of this site know the importance of managing their stress. There have been numerous articles written about the dangers associated with a chronic stress response. Chronic stress has been shown to increase weight, heart disease risk, cancer risk, increased risk of mental illness, and a lower overall quality of life.
Knowing all of this, how many of you actually partake in active stress management techniques? I know for my clients, many do not. Others begin doing it and then let it go by the wayside. More and more research is coming out showing that letting stress management go by the wayside may be a bad idea.
Diseases of cognitive decline are on the rise, and with no cure this can be a scary thought. New research being done out of Harvard University is showing that we may be able to fight this threatening epidemic with meditation.
Our grey matter of our brains shrinks over time. Researchers were able to show that 50 year olds that meditate regularly had the grey matter that would compare to a 25 year old’s. The researchers thought that maybe this was due to the 50 year old’s having larger grey matter at the beginning of the study, so they did another study.
This study looked for differences in brain activity after 8 weeks of meditation. Changes were found in the posterior cingulate, left hippocampus, temporo parietal junction (TPJ), pons, and amygdala.
The posterior cingulate cortex is responsible for us remembering members of our family. MRI imaging has shown that normal memory retrieval differs from familial memory retrieval (1). I have heard and seen firsthand how cognitive decline can negatively affect this area. Harvard researchers showed thickening in this area, which could be important as we age.
The posterior cingulate cortex is also responsible for our mind wandering. Research showed that meditation increases concentration by deactivating this area of the brain (2). Many of us suffer from the inability to pay attention and concentrate. Perhaps these are early symptoms of decline in this region of the brain? Of course it could be due to a number of things, but it is a warning sign that something is not functioning properly.
Researchers also found that there was thickening in the left hippocampus after 8 weeks of meditation. The left hippocampus is responsible for learning, cognition, memory, and emotional regulation. The hippocampus is one of the first areas of the brain that actually suffers damage.
The TPJ is an extremely important part of our brain. It is responsible for processing information from both our internal and external environments. The TPJ has been implicated in diseases such as Alzheimer’s, amnesia, and schizophrenia. The TPJ is also the region of the brain responsible for us having an “out of body experience.” (3).
The pons is significant for a number of reasons. The pons transfers signals to and from other areas of the brain. It plays a role in hearing, balance, taste, eye movements, and facial expressions. The pons is also important because it is an area where neurotransmitters are produced.
Neurotransmitters have been implicated with memory, energy, focus, emotional and physical pain, as well as mental illness and addiction. If this area is weak we can run into all kinds of problems, but strengthening it can help us have a strong and healthy mind.
Research also showed a shrinking of the amygdala. The amygdala is the area of our brain responsible for our stress response. From being chronically stressed and not actively participating in stress management, the stress regions of our brain get stronger and the regions responsible for our emotional and cognitive well-being get weaker.
We need to think of stress management as exercise for our brain. If we have weak muscles we need to strengthen them and any muscle that does not get used atrophies. The same can be said about our brains.
This article’s primary focus is on how meditation affects our brain, but it is worth mentioning the other areas of our well-being that stress management can positively affect. Stress has been linked to a host of gastrointestinal disorders such as: inflammatory bowel disease, functional gastrointestinal disorders, gastro-esophageal reflux, and peptic ulcer disease (4).
Basically, when we are stressed our body is in its “fight or flight” mode and diverts all of its energy to our systems that would allow us to fight for our lives, such as raising our blood pressure. This is short term survival mode, and our body does not care about getting nutrients to build new muscle tomorrow. It has to survive NOW. This could mean that you are doing everything right on a paleo diet, but not getting the nutrients to reap the full benefits. Health all begins with digestion, and stress negatively impacts that system. If you suffer from digestive disorders and food intolerances, this could be an underlying cause.
The current research suggests that all it takes is 40 minutes per day. This may be an amount of time that you need to work up to. 40 minutes is not a lot of time when you really think about it. Instead of sitting around and watching TV late at night you could begin to unwind and participate in some meditation. It just may enhance sleep quality too.
I think meditation after a workout can help increase performance by aiding the recovery process. Exercise itself is stressful and elicits a response from our sympathetic nervous system. To recover we need to activate our parasympathetic nervous system. Meditation can do this and start the recovery process immediately after.
No one says you have to do the 40 minutes all at once either. Perhaps you perform 20 minutes after your workout and 20 minutes before bed. Stress management is an extremely important part of any weight loss program as well as to just living a long and healthy life. 40 minutes per day can help decrease the risk of developing the diseases of cognitive decline as we age. Currently this is our best cure, prevention.