MEDITATION BRAIN & BODY
I was fortunate enough to grow up in a family that lived by the phrase, “What you tell your brain, your brain tells your body.” It took me many years to discover and study the science behind this advice but I was happy to learn from a young age that the attitudes of thought directly affect your body and performance. Through my associateship with Dr. Chris Barnes, I have witnessed and now have zero doubts about the power your mind has over health. Diet, exercise, chiropractic and sleep only play a certain part in overall health. Dr. Lisa Rankin explains in her book, Mind Over Medicine that, “Some of my sickest patients are the ones drinking green organic shakes every day and running marathons. Their bodies are seemingly healthy but their minds are sick.” This past month, I’ve studied numerous meditative practices and tried to portray some of that knowledge to my followers on Instagram @chiroyogaflow. Even with a month’s time frame to share information, only a blog article allowed me enough space to dive into the deeper details of meditation and the chemical effects it has on your body.
The Stress Response
Mind Over Medicine is one of my favorite medically researched books that discusses the science within physchosomatic pain, mental issues that result as physical symptoms. A majority of this book covers the chemical physiology of being stressed which I feel is the key to understanding why so many practitioners recommend meditating. All stressful triggers initiate the sympathetic nervous system via the Fight or Flight stress response. Stress causes a cascade of changes in the body that can be highly beneficial in the short term but drastically destructive over the long term. Some stress is good to motivate us to exercise or respond well to challenges but it’s the constant feeling of being hyped up that will wear your body, immune system, and emotional will power down. When stress rules your body, you are running on fight-or-flight mode. During this process the body turns down its attention to any system that doesn’t provide survival instincts aka digestion and sexual organs. Things like heart rate, respiration, brain power, and muscular activation are increased when stressed so the body is poorly equipped and cannot heal because it’s too busy preparing to fight or flee.
Cortisol’s Role in Stress
Sitting above both kidneys, the adrenal glands produce vital chemicals including cortisol, a steroid hormone. At normal levels, cortisol is responsible for controlling blood sugar, metabolism, systemic inflammation, and balancing blood pressure. While the sympathetic nervous system is in overdrive due to a stress response, the adrenal glands pump out excessive amounts of cortisol, a steroid hormone that in high levels suppresses the immune system and predisposes the body to infection or the disease (2). This excess cortisol depletes neurotransmitters such as norepinephrine, dopamine, and serotonin. Without these neurotransmitters in the brain, it is difficult to feel alert, experience pleasurable feelings, and maintain a positive mood. Negative emotions enhance pro-inflammatory cytokines causing inflammation and delaying wound healing/infection (3). In chiropractic we deal with mechanical pain instead of wounds or diseases, so we often see “phantom” symptoms that can manifest from stress not an actual injury such as backaches, headaches, dizziness, fatigue, insomnia, and GI distress (4). To learn more about systemic inflammation and its relationship to pain, CLick the fruit below to review my dietary section on chiroyogaflow.com or sign onto Instagram to read nutrition posts from last month.
The Limbic System
The brain’s limbic system manages emotions, memories and stimulation throughout each day. The hippocampus is one portion of the limbic system that is responsible for creating new memories and perceptions of experiences. When negative memories or anxiety drives our daily routine, the overproduction of cortisol and glucocorticoids weaken the synapses of the brain to inhibit formation of new ones (1). Synapses are the communication sites between all nerves and allow our bodies to rapidly transfer information. Without the ability to form new nerve synapses and neurons, the hippocampus in the brain cannot form new healthy/happy memories. It is stuck dwelling on existing and possibly depressing memories, so this cycle of negativity is hard to break.
The amygdala is another portion of the limbic system which creates emotions and fearful stimuli in response to memories. Repetitive triggering of a stress response over sensitizes the amygdala and wears down the hippocampus (1). Bad experiences get programmed in the amygdala without a clear record of what happened triggering ongoing anxiety even after the threatening circumstance is over. The unconscious mind is anxious and agitated while the conscious and surface mind has no clue why. One way to bring our conscious mind closer to the depths of the unconscious body is through meditation.
One of the most commonly and non-pharmacologically recommended ways to relieve stress is to start meditating because it provides the opposite effect of these chemical processes! This mysterious and easily ridiculed activity has been linked to peace, serenity, and improved health for decades. A few sessions per week provide calming and reassuring support to promote healing and positive physiological effects. When the mind is soothed, levels of cortisol decrease allowing blood pressure and neurological components such as neurotransmitters to be restored. Dopamine, the goal hormone, improves the pleasure center in the brain. Oxytocin, the cuddle hormone, is responsible for decreasing inflammation while activating serotonin and stimulating the release of endorphins (1). Serotonin lifts our mood and inhibits the hypersensitive amygdala. Meanwhile endorphins, nature’s natural morphine, trigger dopamine release to reduce pain and give you that “runner’s high” feeling.
Through the process of meditating, stress levels and heart rates are reduced as you simultaneously affect the brain waves. When the body is aware and actively awake the brain produces electric waves at a high frequency, known as Beta waves. The rare period when the body and mind relax, brainwave frequencies become lower and are classified as Alpha, Theta, and Delta waves. Delta waves are predominantly experienced during a deep sleep. The more time and practice you dedicate to meditation, the easier it is to achieve those deeply relaxed brain waves without falling asleep. These slow brain waves promote healing because the relaxation response allows your body to rejuvenate and heal itself.
Entire books can be written about the intricacies of brain activity during stressful and calm times but for everyday application, take this overly simplified information to create a new meditation practice for your new year. Some people need a little more proof of the benefits before deciding to adapt a new habit but remember that the goal of stress reduction with meditation isn’t to remove stressful triggers from your life. The goal is to help you become more resilient to those stressful situations. Regular meditation encourages you to view life events with a level head so instead of reacting to them you are calm enough to choose your response. Staying on top of our responses to life in a conscious way maintains our health at an unconscious level. Read through some of my posts from the past month to learn about different ways to meditate and the type of environment that will help you maintain this practice!
1. Rankin, Lisa. Mind Over Medicine: Scientific Proof That You Can Heal Yourself. Hay House Inc. Carlsbad, CA. 2014. Print.
2. Assaf, AM. Academic stress-induced changes in Th1- and Th2-cytokine response. 2017 Dec;25(8):1237-1247. doi: 10.1016/j.jsps.2017.09.009. Epub 2017 Sep 25. Web.
5. Images from google search engine and purchased from istock photos.