Published at FX Medicine
Mindful-based practices have origins and traditions that date back centuries. We are now beginning to see a growing body of scientific research validating the efficacy of meditative and yogic practice for a range of medical conditions including; anxiety, depression, mental health and stress management.[1-3]
Stress is a major contributor toward ill health. A recent survey into the stress and wellbeing of Australians revealed that just over seven in ten report that current stress was having at least some impact on physical health, with almost one in five reporting that current stress was having a strong to very-strong impact on physical health. What’s more alarming is percentages reflecting unproductive stress management techniques such as drinking alcohol, taking recreational drugs or gambling.
In contrast, mindful-based practices productively impact mental, physical and emotional wellbeing. Yoga encourages deep, slow, rhythmic abdominal breathing, which relaxes the nervous system and calms the mind. Whilst meditation techniques can help reduce anxious thought patterns contributing to anxiety.[1,3,5] Stress affects the mind and body equally. It can be difficult for the mind to quieten directly, but through learning to relax the body, often the mind soon settles and becomes calm and vice-versa.
The good news is, the benefits of mindfulness, yoga and meditation are starting to gain wider attention. In fact, a national survey of Australian General Practitioners (GPs) reported that yoga and meditation were seen as highly safe and effective therapies, with around two thirds of GPs referring to, or suggesting that their patients use yoga or meditation.
During times of stress the sympathetic nervous system activates what is often referred to as the flight or fight response; whereby the adrenal glands begin to secrete the stress hormone, cortisol. While in the short term cortisol has some positive effects, long-term exposure to stress hormones can lead to a cascade of effects including rising blood sugar which is a known major risk factor for diabetes, cancer and heart disease.
Yoga is an ancient Eastern philosophy of living, with an appeal that is timeless and universal. The word for yoga comes from the Sanskrit root “yuj” meaning to join, implying integration or joining of every aspect of a human being from the innermost to the external. It combines techniques such as physical postures (asana), breathing (pranayama) and meditation (dhanya) to create an inner sense of balance.
Yoga has been shown to decrease the fight or flight physiological reactions to stress such as elevated heart rate and blood pressure and can improve endocrine function by balancing hormone production and excretion. Furthermore it’s been shown that cortisol levels are lowered following yoga and that night time plasma melatonin is increased, which may result in improved sleep quality.
In Western society, aspects of yoga are commonly practiced for exercise, relaxation or for their therapeutic potential. In terms of overall physical fitness, yoga improves posture, muscle tone, circulation, pulmonary function, coordination, and flexibility. Regular yoga practice has been shown to positively impact risk factors for cardiovascular disease, diabetes, hypertension, hyperlipidemia, obesity, insulin sensitivity, glucose tolerance, oxidative stress, and cardio-vagal function.[2,11] In one randomised controlled trial, subjects practising yoga intervention even appeared better equipped to employ their own strategies to voluntarily reduce their heart rate when requested to do so.
There has been some promising developments in mindfulness-based cancer recovery (MBCR) programs, preliminarily documenting improvements in stress, anxiety, mood, depression and sleep problems as well as showing the effects of mindful based interventions across a range of biomarkers, including salivary cortisol and cytokines. Research conducted at Children’s Hospitals and Clinics of Minnesota asserts that yoga may help childhood cancer patients and their parents cope with the stress of a cancer diagnosis and treatment. The research is showing that yoga is emerging as an effective complementary therapy in adult oncology. Yielding promising outcomes for decreasing symptom distress including fatigue, mood, stress and insomnia, resulting in better quality of life.
MINDFULNESS & MEDITATION
In 1979, John Flavel, a developmental psychologist gave a name to the idea that humans are aware of their own ability to think; terming it “Metacognition”. This is the label given to the idea of thinking about thinking (or cognition about our own cognition). As metacognitive beings, we have the capacity to unravel ourselves from our own thinking with the use of mindfulness meditation, remaining present in the moment in a nonjudgmental way.
The use of mindfulness-based intervention has grown exponentially across health care, and is a concept based on Vipassana, a Buddhist meditation technique. Meditation is a practice, which allows the mind to quieten and stay clear throughout the day.
Dr Sara Lazar, assistant professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School and senior author for the Psychiatric Neuro-Imaging Research Program is a prolific researcher on the benefits of yoga, mindfulness and meditation. Sara, together with a team of researchers, set about using MRI brain scans to compare the brains of people who practiced insight (vipassana) meditation every day with those of non-meditators.
"This study demonstrates that changes in brain structure may underlie some of these reported improvements and that people are not just feeling better because they are spending time relaxing”.
The MRI scans documented for the very first time in medical history how meditation produced significant changes inside the brain’s gray matter. Lazar is further quoted as saying that; "Meditation can have a serious impact on your brain long beyond the time when you're actually sitting and meditating, and this may have a positive impact on your day-to-day living,"
Evidence is continually emerging that suggests that many types of mindful-based stress reduction techniques are adjunctive interventions for anxiety symptoms, general psychological health and stress management, suitable for both healthy individuals as well as those with medical and psychiatric illness.[1-3,14] In a pilot study on teachers, it was shown that mindfulness interventions led to a significant reduction in burnout and psychological symptoms as well as better classroom organisation and performance. In contrast the control group showed declines in cortisol functioning over time and increase in burnout.
Most mindful-based stress reduction programs use both yoga and meditation synergistically to cultivate greater awareness between the mind and body as a way to uncover how unconscious thoughts, feelings, and behaviours may undermine emotional, physical and spiritual health, and as a result improve the individual's sense of self and wellbeing. The mind is known to be a factor in stress and stress-related disorders, and meditation has been shown to positively influence a range of autonomic physiological processes, such as decreasing heart and respiratory rates, increasing blood flow, lowering blood pressure and reducing overall arousal and emotional reactivity .
So compelling are the benefits, that the U.S National Institutes of Health's has funded research through the National Centre for Complementary and Alternative Medicine to continue to explore the efficacy of the Mindful Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) programs.
Unlike many other forms of exercise, yoga and meditation are suitable for everyone. Whatever your age or level of fitness, mindful based practices are a safe form of exercise to reduce stress and achieve overall health; provided you work within your limits. With regular practice you may begin to learn how to slow down and get back in touch with the natural rhythms of your body and mind. As a result sleep quality may improve and you will be able to adapt more effectively to life’s stressors allowing for a clearer view of how things actually are and allowing you to centre in a constantly evolving environment.
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- Hölzel BK, Carmody J, Vangel M, et al. Mindfulness practice leads to increases in regional brain gray matter density. Psychiatry Res 2011;191(1):36-43. [Full Text]
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- Flook, L, Goldberg S, Pinger L, et al. Mindfulness for teachers: A pilot study to assess effects on stress, burnout, and teaching efficacy. Mind, Brain, Ed 2013;7(3):182-195. [Abstract]
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