The Effect of Mind-Body Practices on the Brain

We have long known and believed in the saying ‘you are what you eat’, however, emerging research is showing that we could also argue that ‘you are what you think’. Many of us know intuitively that thinking positively leads to better health just as thinking negatively on a consistent basis can lead to poor health, but have you ever wondered why this is the case? Stress has been labelled the 20th century disease and it’s no surprise seeing as it is one of the leading causes of work absence and is also a modifiable risk factor for some of the most serious health conditions such as heart disease and stroke. These are significant examples of how stress can cause a biological reaction in our body, which leads to ill-health and the worsening of pre-existing conditions.

Many of us suffer from extreme bouts of fatigue, have problems sleeping and are prone to frequent colds and infections. These are all signs of chronic stress, which has clearly taken its toll on our health. Our body has a sophisticated feedback mechanism, which helps us respond to stress efficiently. This is called the Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal Axis – a chemical feedback loop between glands located in the brain (hypothalamus and pituitary glands) and our adrenals, two thumb-sized glands that sit atop our kidneys, which are responsible for producing our ‘stress hormones’ – cortisol, DHEA and adrenaline (also a neurotransmitter). When we are under stress our brain perceives this, which then triggers a signal to the adrenal glands to produce cortisol and adrenaline. These hormones cause our blood pressure to increase, our heart rate to go up, blood sugar release gets stimulated and our circulation moves away from our digestive organs (as digesting food is not a priority in this moment) and shifts towards our peripheral body so that our muscles are getting the energy they need to react quickly and efficiently. This response was very useful for our paleolithic ancestors who were faced with life-threatening situations, as it gave them the means to escape and move rapidly. However, in our modern society sources of stress are no longer situations such as running away from predatory animals. Instead, our stress is linked mainly to things like meeting deadlines, being stuck in traffic, having an argument with our spouse etc. The problem is that our body does not differentiate between a seemingly minor stressor and a real life-threatening circumstance – it responds in exactly the same way, which means when we are chronically stressed, it is almost like we are continuously running away from a predatory animal all the time.

Depending on the source of stress, our body is actually capable of getting used to a consistent stressor over time, so that we respond better to it and our bodies don’t overwork themselves unnecessarily. However, studies are showing that the simple act of ruminating, the constant negative internal dialogue that many of us can get stuck in if we struggle with coming to terms with past experiences, can also trigger the stress response. So much so, that negative thinking can actually cause the same set of physiological functions as if it were a new, unique stressor, meaning that our body does not become used to it. This shows just how powerful our mind and its thoughts are in determining our health.

The practice of mind-body movements such as yoga and meditation have for many years been used as tools to help us relax and recalibrate from our day-to-day pressures. Science is now showing that these practices can actually cause positive changes at a cellular level, which can help to give us more resistance against stress and anxiety caused by our thought patterns. A recent systematic review published in Frontiers in Immunology on gene expression changes caused by meditation and other related practices, discusses how the stress response triggers the production of a molecule called nuclear factor kappa B (NF-kB), which activates genes to produce proteins called cytokines that cause inflammation at a cellular level. This is an effective reaction when we are faced with an acute form of stress as it can help to boost the immune system. However, when it is persistent it can lead to a higher risk of accelerated aging, psychiatric disorders and cancer. The review, which explores evidence for mind-body practices and their capacity to modulate gene expression, demonstrates how activities such as yoga and meditation are able to reverse the expression of genes that favour inflammatory pathways and instead are able to steer our genes to function in a way that supports our well being.

The practice of mindfulness is a simple form of meditation, which involves focusing your attention on internal experiences and sensations. A recent study involving 60 participants with Generalised Anxiety Disorder, measured levels of anxiety and cognitive skills before and after having participated in a course of mindfulness meditation and cognitive skills training for a week. The results demonstrated how these techniques led to a significant reduction in worry and emotional vulnerability, highlighting how meditation can help people to disengage from emotional responses caused by rumination and therefore prevents triggering the stress response. Even more fascinating, is the area of research that is showing how mindfulness and other mind-body based practices, are also capable of having significant positive effects on the tissues and cells of our brain. It was believed for a long time that our brain was not capable of reproducing cells. However, in a study published in 2006 in Neuroreport, 20 experienced practitioners of meditation and 15 participants that do not practice meditation undertook magnetic imaging resonances on their brain to assess thickness of the cerebral cortex, an area of the brain associated with attention, interoception and sensory processing. In comparison with the age and gender matched non-meditator group, the thickness of the cerebral cortex among the group of experienced meditators was significantly higher, demonstrating how meditation can lead to a higher density in gray matter within the brain.

These examples show just how effective lifestyle approaches are to improving health and wellbeing. It doesn’t necessarily have to be meditation or yoga, any activity that is relaxing and uplifts you can help to retrain the brain to disengage with the stress response, which consequently will have a beneficial effect on your health. Dancing, for example, has also been shown to be effective in increasing cognitive acuity in all ages by supporting our neural network and therefore preventing the loss of synapses, which are vital structures that are responsible for the communication between our brain cells.

There is also a significant amount of research showing how certain nutrients in our diet can enhance neurogenesis and prevent damage caused by accelerated ageing processes in the brain. For example, the DHA component of omega 3 fatty acids has been shown to play an important role in influencing the development of new brain cells in the hippocampus. Antioxidant compounds such as resveratrol, found in grapes, has been shown to prevent apoptosis in hippocampal brain cells and improve the expression of brain-derived neurotrophic factor mRNA (which prompts the production of proteins associated with nerve cell survival and function) in mice with chronic fatigue. Other health-promoting compounds such as curucmin, which is found in turmeric, can play an important role in influencing genes related to growth and plasticity in the brain. Lastly, and not surprisingly, research shows that prolonged consumption of sugar accelerated apoptosis of cells in the hippocampus, as well as increasing circulating levels of TNF-α.(Tumor Necrosis Factor-alpha), which is involved in systemic inflammation and prevents neurogenesis from occurring.

It is clear that science is showing us that we have the power to take our health into our own hands by what lifestyle habits we integrate into our everyday lives, as well as what we eat. Small steps such as meditating 10 minutes a day, reducing your sugar intake and adding more vegetables to your diet can have significant effects on your health.

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