THE SCIENCE BEHIND MEDITATION

Written by: Brittani Kolasinski (BHSc Nut, AdvDip. NutMed)

I’ve only just recently jumped on the band wagon, as of this year, and more recently made it a non-negotiable as part of my daily routine. When I started I didn’t really think there would be much change overall, but after even just 20minutes of meditating, my very first time I felt different and so I wanted to explore more the mechanisms of this action and figure out the science behind it, which brings us to this post. But first, a little background…

A LITTLE ABOUT ME;

I’ve had a history of anxiety and depression throughout childhood & adolescence, which subsided with age and a few lifestyle/dietary changes. But then just this last year they both began to rear their heads again. I had a few recent anxiety attacks, heart palpitations & months to a year of this flat, low, depressive mood that I couldn’t shake –

My kind of personality type is susceptible to anxiety and depression, I can be a bit of a perfectionist, I tend to succumb to a kind of stress referred to as ‘rumination’ – that constant worrying, about past or future, also considered a chronic stress. Rumination is also associated with high levels of cortisol which in turn effects the brain, the gut, immune system and hormones.

Anyway, the point of all this is that through meditating I felt a shift, things changed, my mood began to lift, my energy was improving, my sleep was more refreshing, anxious moments were deteriorating & I wanted to know more - I wanted to know the exact mechanisms of what meditation, mindfulness and breath work had on the brain, the nervous system, the body as a whole…

THE SCIENCE

Studies have shown that mindfulness practices may protect against the negative effects of rumination and helps to reduce the burden of chronic stress. In the brain, meditation increases the production of gamma waves, these gamma waves are an indication of neural plasticity – which is also linked to being able to learn new things, and a marker of youth and increased resilience.  

A study was conducted on individuals who had never meditated, they were instructed to meditate for 40mins per day, for a total of 8 weeks. The results were incredible! FOUR different brain regions were effected: The hippocampus (effecting our learning and memory), the pons (part of the brain stem where many neurotransmitters are synthesised), the parietal junction (which is associated with feelings of empathy and compassion) and the posterior cingulate (which is responsible for our ability to let our minds wander). In addition, there was also an observed decrease in size of the amygdala which has a role in the stress response, this was associated with a reduction in stress hormones (Hölzel et al, 2011).

What’s more is that science has demonstrated that through the simple act of deepening and slowing our breaths we can take our bodies out of this ‘fight or flight’ response and get back into our parasympathetic state of ‘rest and digest’, reducing the effects of unnecessary stress on the body (Jerath et al, 2006).

There have also been many studies conducted by Elizabeth Blackburn (Nobel prize winner) demonstrating how mindfulness & meditation can buffer the effects of stress on telomere length, which can reverse the ageing of some tissues – telomeres are like these little caps on the ends of our chromosomes which protect our DNA from damage, they shorten naturally each year and as cell replication occurs. This goes on & on until there’s no telomere left, resulting eventually in cell death. Stress can in fact accelerate this shortening, so by simply practicing meditation and mindfulness we can reduce this effect.

THE PRACTICALITY

So, how can we start to incorporate meditation into a busy life – well, there are a number of great apps you can download – 'headspace' for one, or my favourite ‘10% happier’ which contains a number of different guided meditations to choose from, ranging in times from 1 minute to 20 minutes, even with some guides that you can do on your daily commute, making it super easy to incorporate into day to day life.

I put the challenge out to you - try it, even if its only for a minute or two a day, or if its just to focus on taking long, slow deep breaths whilst driving to work, or waiting for the kettle to boil, these simple practices can have profound effects on wellbeing overall. 

As always, be kind to yourself & happy breathing! 

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REFERENCES;

Hölzel, B. K., Carmody, J., Vangel, M., Congleton, C., Yerramsetti, S. M., Gard, T., & Lazar, S. W. (2011). Mindfulness practice leads to increases in regional brain gray matter density. Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging191(1), 36-43.

Jerath, R., Edry, J. W., Barnes, V. A., & Jerath, V. (2006). Physiology of long pranayamic breathing: neural respiratory elements may provide a mechanism that explains how slow deep breathing shifts the autonomic nervous system. Medical hypotheses67(3), 566-571.