Don't Stress, Don't Stress, Don't Stress

Given the upward trending push for meditation, I often hear people make generalized statements about the benefits without citing any sources, like meditation helps reduce stress, or meditation helps improve concentration, etc. I’m the type of person that does like to see some data, and fortunately, scientific research supporting meditation does in fact exist.  

First, here are several ways stress negatively affects the body on a physiological level.

Hormone Imbalance – Carnegie Mellon University professor of psychology, Sheldon Cohen, explains that psychological stress affects the body’s ability to regulate inflammation. The hormone cortisol  plays a role in regulating inflammation and prolonged periods of stress alters the effectiveness, resulting in diminished immune cell efficacy.[1]

Depression – University of Michigan professor of neuroscience, Huda Akil, describes how stress disrupts the balance of serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine. Additionally, chronic depression potentially causes permanently elevated cortisol levels, this increase has the potential to alter the hippocampus and damage brain cells.[2]

Weight Gain – Ohio State University psychiatry professor, Janice Kiecolt-Glaser, states that in addition to changing metabolism, stress produces a rise in insulin levels and a drop in fat oxidation, when combined, this increase and decrease promotes fat storage.[3]

So, how does meditation actually reduce stress?

Luckily, the too good to be true claims made by new age “gurus,” prompted university researchers to devise scientific methods for measuring the effects of meditation. Obviously, this is a basic overview of the results, if you want to read the actual published studies check out the citations.

A team at Harvard examined MRI results from both long-term meditators and a control group. When analyzing the data, they determined that the individuals with a consistent and longstanding meditation practice had more gray matter in their frontal cortex.[4] To offset the chance that the subjects initially had more gray matter, the team began a second study in which people with no meditation practice started an eight-week mindfulness-based stress reduction program (MBSR). Among the findings, a decrease in amygdala activity, the portion of the brain responsible for anxiety, fear and stress.[5]

One important question, if the amygdala response is lower during a meditative state, does evidence prove a sustained modification of amygdala response even when in a non-meditative state? Given the information provided in the aforementioned Harvard study, a group of researchers from several different universities collaborated to examine if consistent meditation did in fact permanently alter amygdala activity. They found that the effects of meditation with regard to emotional processing may in fact transfer to non-meditative states. The data seemingly validates the hypothesis that meditation training may induce learning that is not stimulus or task-specific, but process-specific, and therefore may result in overall changes to mental function.[6]

Since the medical community generally concludes that stress negatively affects an individual’s health and research conducted over the past several years indicates meditation reduces stress, couldn’t we logically conclude meditation makes people healthier? Businesses and schools are increasingly implementing meditation programs for employees and students. More and more scientific research proves that meditation improves concentration, helps with better sleep and enhances memory. We’ll explore these benefits of meditation in future posts.

Shine True,

Heather


[1] Carnegie Mellon University. "How stress influences disease: Study reveals inflammation as the culprit." ScienceDaily. 2 April 2012.

[2] Young EA, Lopez JF, Murphy-Weinberg V, Watson SJ, Akil H. “Mineralocorticoid Receptor Function in Major Depression.” Arch Gen Psychiatry. 2003

[3] Kiecolt-Glaser, Janice K. “Stress, Food, and Inflammation: Psychoneuroimmunology and Nutrition at the Cutting Edge.” Psychosomatic medicine 72.4 2010

[4] Hölzel, Britta K. et al. “Mindfulness Practice Leads to Increases in Regional Brain Gray Matter Density.” Psychiatry Research 191.1 (2011): 36–43. PMC. Web. 18 Apr. 2017.

[5] Schulte, Brigid. Harvard Neuroscientist: Meditation Not Only Reduces Stress, Here’s How it Changes Your Brain. The Washington Post. May 26, 2015.

[6] Desbordes G, Negi LT, Pace TWW, Wallace BA, Raison CL, Schwartz EL. Effects of mindful-attention and compassion meditation training on amygdala response to emotional stimuli in an ordinary, non meditative state. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience. 2012.