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Meditation's Positive Change to Your Brain

By Casey Thaler, B.A., NASM-CPT, FNS
June 9, 2015
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Many of us meditate everyday (or at least try to). Even if we don’t, we know the general benefits associated with the practice. Decreased stress, more focus, and better sleep – all the things endless yoga advertisements love to tout.1,2 However, research by a Harvard University neuroscientist has shown that meditation actually changes your brain – a truly remarkable find.3,4,5 Though it may take some time for the changes to take effect, long-term meditators have been shown to have a larger amount of gray matter in the insula and sensory regions of the brain, as well as the auditory and sensory cortex.

Since people have different sensory responses to just about every scenario, this find is quite interesting. Previously, researchers found that chocolate – the mere sight of it – impacts our brains uniquely.6,7,8 It is interesting to see that as neuroscience advances more and more, we are beginning to see large scientific trends. Healthy foods and habits tend to elicit good neurological responses, and poor habits and choices tend to impact our brain very negatively. This is in a quite literal sense.

Meditation’s Positive Change to Your Brain | The Paleo Diet Asmaro, Deyar, and Mario Liotti. “High-Caloric and Chocolate Stimuli Processing in Healthy Humans: An Integration of Functional Imaging and Electrophysiological Findings.” Nutrients 6.1 (2014): 319–341. PMC. Web. 8 June 2015.

An interesting new study also found that obese teenager’s brains are much more susceptible to food commercials.9 This is another possible reason why some of us have a hard time resisting foods that may be satisfying in the short term, but deleterious in the long term. This just goes to show (once again) that establishing healthier habits - like limiting or eliminating television time – can improve your quality of life.

Meditation's Positive Change to Your Brain | The Paleo Diet Dartmouth College. "Obese teens' brains unusually susceptible to food commercials, study finds." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 21 May 2015. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2015/05/150521144100.htm.

Much of the success of the Paleo diet concept stems from the fact that it actually works. There are no known risks, and it works in the groups of people that often need dietary intervention the most – those with serious health problems. Similarly, meditation also has no known risks. So if you haven’t already considered adding meditation to your routine, I would encourage you to do so. The research conducted also found long term meditating resulted in more gray matter in the frontal cortex of the brain. This is important, because this specific area of the brain is most commonly associated with the working memory and executive decision making.10,11 These two functions are important for weight loss, better self-control, and our long term health. While those who are very science minded may have initially been skeptical of meditation as a legitimate technique, the research is beginning to be unavoidably clear – meditation has clear and obvious scientific benefits.12 13,14

Meditation’s Positive Change to Your Brain | The Paleo Diet Baccarelli, A, and V. Bollati. “Epigenetics and Environmental Chemicals.” Current opinion in pediatrics 21.2 (2009): 243–251. Print.

Daily choices like meditation and diet also affect a myriad of other physiological and neurological facets.15 Though we are born with certain genetic material, our daily choices and habits – our epigenetics – have much more of an impact on our health than we previously thought.16,17,18 While epigenetics helps to control whether certain genes are active or not, we still do not know what the long term impact of epigenetics may be.19,20 This is all the more reason to continue to practice daily healthy habits. In all likelihood, the science will prove that those who mediate, eat healthy, get lots of sleep, limit stress and exercise daily – will live longer, healthier, better lives. Since we all want better lives, this research should be taken into serious consideration. No matter where you are currently at health-wise, you can turn things around and improve your situation.

So, in an effort to effectively distill all this research into simple, actionable practice, avoid indulging in bad habits (like countless hours watching television), spend some time meditating on a daily basis, and keep eating a Paleo diet. Your body (and brain) will thank you for it!


REFERENCES

[1] Edwards L. Meditation as medicine. Benefits go beyond relaxation. Adv Nurse Pract. 2003;11(5):49-52.

[2] Peng C.K., et al. Heart rate dynamics during three forms of meditation. Int. J. Cardiol. 2004;95:19–27.

[3] Available at: //www.washingtonpost.com/news/inspired-life/wp/2015/05/26/harvard-neuroscientist-meditation-not-only-reduces-stress-it-literally-changes-your-brain/. Accessed May 30, 2015.

[4] Lazar SW, Kerr CE, Wasserman RH, et al. Meditation experience is associated with increased cortical thickness. Neuroreport. 2005;16(17):1893-7.

[5] 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.

[6] Asmaro D, Liotti M. High-caloric and chocolate stimuli processing in healthy humans: an integration of functional imaging and electrophysiological findings. Nutrients. 2014;6(1):319-41.

[7] Sokolov AN, Pavlova MA, Klosterhalfen S, Enck P. Chocolate and the brain: neurobiological impact of cocoa flavanols on cognition and behavior. Neurosci Biobehav Rev. 2013;37(10 Pt 2):2445-53.

[8] Small DM, Zatorre RJ, Dagher A, Evans AC, Jones-gotman M. Changes in brain activity related to eating chocolate: from pleasure to aversion. Brain. 2001;124(Pt 9):1720-33.

[9] K. M. Rapuano, J. F. Huckins, J. D. Sargent, T. F. Heatherton, W. M. Kelley. Individual Differences in Reward and Somatosensory-Motor Brain Regions Correlate with Adiposity in Adolescents. Cerebral Cortex, 2015

[10] Buckner RL, Kelley WM, Petersen SE. Frontal cortex contributes to human memory formation. Nat Neurosci. 1999;2(4):311-4.

[11] Volkow ND, Fowler JS, Wang GJ, Goldstein RZ. Role of dopamine, the frontal cortex and memory circuits in drug addiction: insight from imaging studies. Neurobiol Learn Mem. 2002;78(3):610-24.

[12] Goyal M, Singh S, Sibinga EM, et al. Meditation programs for psychological stress and well-being: a systematic review and meta-analysis. JAMA Intern Med. 2014;174(3):357-68.

[13] Jain S, Shapiro SL, Swanick S, et al. A randomized controlled trial of mindfulness meditation versus relaxation training: effects on distress, positive states of mind, rumination, and distraction. Ann Behav Med. 2007;33(1):11-21.

[14] Singh Y, Sharma R, Talwar A. Immediate and long-term effects of meditation on acute stress reactivity, cognitive functions, and intelligence. Altern Ther Health Med. 2012;18(6):46-53.

[15] Gardner B, Lally P, Wardle J. Making health habitual: the psychology of 'habit-formation' and general practice. Br J Gen Pract. 2012;62(605):664-6.

[16] Weinhold B. Epigenetics: the science of change. Environ Health Perspect. 2006;114(3):A160-7.

[17] Egger G, Liang G, Aparicio A, Jones PA. Epigenetics in human disease and prospects for epigenetic therapy. Nature. 2004;429(6990):457-63.

[18] Portela A, Esteller M. Epigenetic modifications and human disease. Nat Biotechnol. 2010;28(10):1057-68.

[19] Delcuve GP, Rastegar M, Davie JR. Epigenetic control. J Cell Physiol. 2009;219(2):243-50.

[20] Baccarelli A, Bollati V. Epigenetics and environmental chemicals. Curr Opin Pediatr. 2009;21(2):243-51.

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