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Summary:

  • HOW mindfulness and stress reduction can improve your PHYSICAL health!
  • The science behind the connection between chronic stress and inflammation in the body.
  • What we now know about the ability of mindfulness to lower levels of inflammation and allow for proper healing.

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Full (Edited) Transcript:

In this article, we are going to be discussing the evidence behind how incorporating a mindfulness practice can help your body heal and lower levels of inflammation!

Mindfulness practices such as meditation, yoga, tai chi, or even guided imagery are drastically important not only for mental health, but also for physical health and well-being. They might be able to even help ward off degenerative conditions usually blamed on aging!

Now, many of us can understand and appreciate how mindfulness practices can have profound effects on our levels of anxiety (1), depression (1), attention (2), and so on. However, what many of us don’t fully grasp is the large impact that these practices can also have on our physical health!

Nowadays with the go go go, constant striving, constant busyness, and constant worry, we usually don’t give ourselves the time we need to just take a breath, relax, and get in touch with the present moment. We mentally live in the past or future, but rarely focus in on what is really the only thing that exists: the present.

What this does to us is it keeps the “fight or flight” response always turned on, and it inhibits the other response, the “rest and digest”.

Modern-day life ends up creating this imbalance between the sympathetic “fight or flight” and the parasympathetic “rest and digest”. Even little microstressors, such as being stuck in meetings, having stressful conversations, or feeling constantly busy, can accumulate and keep this sympathetic response always turned on.

What we now know is that this constant activation of the sympathetic nervous system, these “microstressors”, accumulate and can actually prevent proper healing in the body (3, 4).

It is easy to see how we add so much stress to our lives when we compare ourselves to other animals.

Take a lion for example. Sure, when it’s hunting its entire body is turned on and activated. Full flight or fright mode. However, as soon as the hunt is over and the lion has either gotten its meal or the meal has escaped, it goes back to resting peacefully. It isn’t reprimanding itself about how its such a stupid lion for not catching the meal, nor is it worrying again and again about how the next hunt is going to go.

It is only living in the moment. It’s peaceful.

This is really how all of us “animals” are meant to live on a daily basis.

But because we have these human minds, these minds that can worry about the future and ruminate about the past, we constantly are creating our own imaginary stressors many times throughout the day.

And while we think this may be helpful for achieving goals or advancing as a species, what is also does is it sometimes prevents our body from healing like it naturally should. (Actually, much of the time, this emotional burden can actually prevent us from going after our goals and dreams!)

This concept about being more present allowing our body to function better isn’t just theory. There have been multiple randomized controlled trials, the highest level of experimental evidence, showing the powerful effects that mindfulness practices have on our body.

In just a few weeks, a mindfulness practice can actually cause inflammation levels in the body to start dropping, confirmed via blood testing in many randomized controlled trials! (5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10)

Furthermore, there is what has been called a “master regulator of inflammation” in every cell of our body. It is an ancient protein transcription factor called Nuclear Factor Kappa B (NF-kB for short) that helps regulate multiple aspects of chronic inflammation, healing, and disease. (REF) This inflammatory marker is at the core of many types of chronic inflammation, and it goes deeper than what pills like ibuprofen or Advil can even touch. (13)

You don’t need to know exactly what it does to follow along. All you need to know right now is that when NF-kB levels get and stay too high for too long, bad things happen. High NF-kB levels…

  • Promote intestinal inflammation and impair the intestines from being able to heal in conditions such as IBS, Crohn’s, and Ulcerative Colitis (14)
  • Reduce muscle and tendon healing and promote fibrous scar tissue formation (15)
  • Increase the risk of arthritis (16)
  • Promote the development and metastasis of cancer (17)
  • Increase the risk for cardiovascular diseases (18)
  • Impair proper immune function and promote chronic inflammation
  • and more

Most people with Crohn’s / U.C. or other autoimmune conditions will begin to appreciate the connection between stress and inflammation. They start to recognize that if they become very stressed out, or a very stressful event occurs in their life, they tend to get an autoimmune “flair up”.

Similarly, many of us have heard the idea that stress can cause ulcers. However, now you will find some scientists and teachers saying that it isn’t stress that is causing the ulcer, it is H. Pylori, a bacterium residing in your stomach. However, the reality is that it is both. Most of the time, our body does a perfectly good job of keeping H. Pylori in check and it is able to repair any damage done to the stomach lining by the bacterium just fine. However, when we get very stressed, the stress inhibits our body’s ability to repair the stomach lining quickly enough, and an ulcer forms.

Even the longevity data from the Blue Zones (pockets around the world where people routinely live to over 100 years old) show that reducing stress and promoting connection is paramount to good health. In fact, the connection between belonging to a tight-knit community / lowered stress and longevity is even more robust than the diets that they consume. (19)

How Mindfulness Can Reduce Inflammation

The cool thing about mindfulness practices is that they have repeatedly been shown to help lower NF-kB levels along with other inflammatory markers!

We need to do something to take a step back, take a break from the constant worry and busyness, and wipe away the stress from the day. We need to take a break from “fight or flight” and get back into the parasympathetic mode, the mode where our body starts to undergo repair and healing. (12)

Now, there are a lot of other factors that come into play when we talk about allowing the body to heal like it should, and an obvious one is enough sleep. However, incorporating some form of mindfulness practice like meditation can have a very positive and large effect on not only your mood, but also on how your body repairs and heals itself. (11)

Don’t get me wrong, it can take quite a bit of effort at first to begin meditating. At first, we feel like we don’t know what we’re doing, we don’t see any immediate results sometimes, and we give up.

But really, this is similar to exercise. At first, you don’t see any immediate benefits, it takes a lot of effort, and it can hurt. However, as you continue, you get better, you start to realize that you feel better after the workout, and you keep pushing through. Then, sometimes, you realize that you never want to stop exercising because of all the benefits it provides you.

With meditation, it can be boring at first, and it can seem like it takes a lot of effort. If you just keep practicing, though, you will slowly get better, and it will become more enjoyable. Then you will start to see the impact that it is making on your overall mood and happiness. Then, you may even see that it is also helping your body.

Most of us who begin meditating fall off the wagon at some point (or, in my case, many, many times). However, the important thing is that we eventually get back on, because it is something that can truly benefit our lives in so many ways.

If you would like a free online course for Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (this is the exact training that is used in many studies on mindfulness), click here!

References:

1. Hofmann SG, Gómez AF. Mindfulness-Based Interventions for Anxiety and Depression. Psychiatr Clin North Am. 2017;40(4):739-749. doi:10.1016/j.psc.2017.08.008

2. Mitchell JT, Zylowska L, Kollins SH. Mindfulness Meditation Training for Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder in Adulthood: Current Empirical Support, Treatment Overview, and Future Directions. Cogn Behav Pract. 2015;22(2):172-191. doi:10.1016/j.cbpra.2014.10.002

3. Gouin JP, Kiecolt-Glaser JK. The impact of psychological stress on wound healing: methods and mechanisms. Immunol Allergy Clin North Am. 2011;31(1):81-93. doi:10.1016/j.iac.2010.09.010

4. Meesters A, den Bosch-Meevissen YMCI, Weijzen CAH, Buurman WA, Losen M, Schepers J, Thissen MRTM, Alberts HJEM, Schalkwijk CG, Peters ML. The effect of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction on wound healing: a preliminary study. J Behav Med. 2018 Jun;41(3):385-397. doi: 10.1007/s10865-017-9901-8. Epub 2017 Nov 20. PMID: 29159589.

5. Bower JE, Irwin MR. Mind-body therapies and control of inflammatory biology: A descriptive review. Brain Behav Immun. 2016;51:1-11. doi:10.1016/j.bbi.2015.06.012

6. Black DS, Cole SW, Irwin MR, Breen E, St Cyr NM, Nazarian N, Khalsa DS, Lavretsky H. Yogic meditation reverses NF-κB and IRF-related transcriptome dynamics in leukocytes of family dementia caregivers in a randomized controlled trial. Psychoneuroendocrinology. 2013 Mar;38(3):348-55. doi: 10.1016/j.psyneuen.2012.06.011. Epub 2012 Jul 15. PMID: 22795617; PMCID: PMC3494746.

7. Creswell JD, Irwin MR, Burklund LJ, et al. Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction training reduces loneliness and pro-inflammatory gene expression in older adults: a small randomized controlled trial. Brain Behav Immun. 2012;26(7):1095-1101. doi:10.1016/j.bbi.2012.07.006

8. Buric I, Farias M, Jong J, Mee C, Brazil IA. What Is the Molecular Signature of Mind-Body Interventions? A Systematic Review of Gene Expression Changes Induced by Meditation and Related Practices. Front Immunol. 2017;8:670. Published 2017 Jun 16. doi:10.3389/fimmu.2017.00670

9. Kaliman P, Alvarez-López MJ, Cosín-Tomás M, Rosenkranz MA, Lutz A, Davidson RJ. Rapid changes in histone deacetylases and inflammatory gene expression in expert meditators. Psychoneuroendocrinology. 2014;40:96-107. doi:10.1016/j.psyneuen.2013.11.004

10. Rosenkranz MA, Lutz A, Perlman DM, et al. Reduced stress and inflammatory responsiveness in experienced meditators compared to a matched healthy control group. Psychoneuroendocrinology. 2016;68:117-125. doi:10.1016/j.psyneuen.2016.02.013

11. Epel ES, Puterman E, Lin J, Blackburn EH, Lum PY, Beckmann ND, Zhu J, Lee E, Gilbert A, Rissman RA, Tanzi RE, Schadt EE. Meditation and vacation effects have an impact on disease-associated molecular phenotypes. Transl Psychiatry. 2016 Aug 30;6(8):e880. doi: 10.1038/tp.2016.164. PMID: 27576169; PMCID: PMC5022094.

12. Bhasin MK, Dusek JA, Chang BH, et al. Relaxation response induces temporal transcriptome changes in energy metabolism, insulin secretion and inflammatory pathways [published correction appears in PLoS One. 2017 Feb 21;12 (2):e0172873]. PLoS One. 2013;8(5):e62817. Published 2013 May 1. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0062817

13. Liu T, Zhang L, Joo D, Sun SC. NF-κB signaling in inflammation. Signal Transduct Target Ther. 2017;2:17023-. doi:10.1038/sigtrans.2017.23

14. Andresen L, Jørgensen VL, Perner A, Hansen A, Eugen-Olsen J, Rask-Madsen J. Activation of nuclear factor kappaB in colonic mucosa from patients with collagenous and ulcerative colitis. Gut. 2005;54(4):503-509. doi:10.1136/gut.2003.034165

15. Mourkioti F, Rosenthal N. NF-kappaB signaling in skeletal muscle: prospects for intervention in muscle diseases. J Mol Med (Berl). 2008;86(7):747-759. doi:10.1007/s00109-008-0308-4

16. Choi MC, Jo J, Park J, Kang HK, Park Y. NF-κB Signaling Pathways in Osteoarthritic Cartilage Destruction. Cells. 2019 Jul 17;8(7):734. doi: 10.3390/cells8070734. PMID: 31319599; PMCID: PMC6678954.

17. Karin M. NF-kappaB as a critical link between inflammation and cancer. Cold Spring Harb Perspect Biol. 2009;1(5):a000141. doi:10.1101/cshperspect.a000141

18. Fiordelisi A, Iaccarino G, Morisco C, Coscioni E, Sorriento D. NFkappaB is a Key Player in the Crosstalk between Inflammation and Cardiovascular Diseases. Int J Mol Sci. 2019;20(7):1599. Published 2019 Mar 30. doi:10.3390/ijms20071599

19. Mishra BN. Secret of eternal youth; teaching from the centenarian hot spots (“blue zones”). Indian J Community Med. 2009;34(4):273-275. doi:10.4103/0970-0218.58380


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