The benefits and science of mindfulness

18 August 2015 - Mindful Living

There's been an increase in research into mindfulness in the last few decades. It's not just the science world that's catching on, but the business world too. Companies are recognising the usefulness of mindfulness in the workplace and publications such as Harvard Business Review, Forbes, Fast Company have been highlighting its effectiveness to readers. 

So, what are some of the benefits that have been identified by research into mindfulness? What's all the fuss about?

Reducing stress. When we are overcome by stress, our automatic nervous system goes into its fight-or-flight response, triggered by the amygdala in the brain. This prompts our adrenal glands to release a surge of hormones including adrenaline and cortisol. Adrenaline increases our heart rate, elevates our blood pressure and boosts energy supplies. Cortisol, our primary stress hormone, increases sugars (glucose) in the bloodstream, and also suppresses functions that are non-essential in a fight-or-flight situation - such as our digestive system, reproductive system and growth processes. Once a perceived threat has passed, hormone levels return to normal, and our other systems resume their regular activities. 

However, when stressors are always present, that fight-or-flight reaction stays switched on. Subsequently we remain overexposed to cortisol and other stress hormones that can disrupt almost all of our body's processes. This puts us at an increased risk of numerous health problems - including anxiety, depression, digestive problems, heart disease, sleep problems, weight gain, memory and concentration impairment. This is why it's important to learn healthy ways to cope with our stressors. 

Mindfulness has been shown to be effective in relieving and preventing stress. A study performed at Stanford found that an eight-week mindfulness course reduced the reactivity of the amygdala and increased activity in areas of the brain that regulate emotions, subsequently reducing stress. Researchers from Harvard University similarly discovered changes in the physical structure of the brains of participants in a meditation course - there was a lower density of neurons in the amygdala and greater density of neurons in areas involved with the regulation of emotions. 

Strengthening of the immune system. It has been estimated that up to 90% of visits to the doctor are stress related - one reason is because chronic stress affects our immune system. Chronic stress seems to age the immune system, making us more vulnerable to illnesses and chronic diseases such as diabetes and heart disease. Meditation has been found to stimulate the immune system brain-function regions. Studies have seen increases in activity in the prefrontal cortex, the right anterior insula, and right hippocampus - all parts that control positive emotions, awareness, and anxiety. When stimulated, they make our immune system function more effectively. 

Reducing rumination. Mindfulness helps to reduce rumination, the compulsive, repetitive thinking which can lead to the development of depression. It reminds us to release negative thoughts that we cannot control or change. 

Focus, memory and cognitive flexibility. Studies have shown that groups of mindfulness meditators perform better than control groups in tasks measuring their ability to pay attention, their memory and their cognitive flexibility - the ability of our brain to integrate information in a new way. Neuroscientists have found that meditators experienced positive structural changes around the anterior cingulate cortex ("ACC"), a part of the brain associated with self-regulation ie. the ability to direct attention and behaviour, suppress inappropriate reactions, and to switch strategies flexibly. People with damaged ACC demonstrate impulsivity, unchecked aggression and tend to perform poorly on tests of mental flexibility.

Positive changes to the gray matter in the brain. Studies have shown that there are increased amounts of gray matter in the hippocampus of mindfulness program participants. The hippocampus is part of the limbic system - a set of structures associated with emotion and memory - and it is covered in receptors for cortisol, the stress hormone. Studies have shown that the hippocampus can be damaged by chronic stress. People with stress-related disorders such as depression tend to have a smaller hippocampus. 

So mindfulness may not be the answer to all ills, but the research does suggest some of the same benefits that meditators themselves have been reporting for years, if not centuries. What is most encouraging is that these studies are showing measurable effects in groups who have only been practising for a relatively short time, such as graduates of eight-week mindfulness programs. This means we don't have to be long term practitioners to start experiencing the benefits of mindfulness.

The Mindful Company Team