Category Archives: Brain

The Science of Mindfulness

In a heavily peer-reviewed environment, Jon Kabat-Zinn, often termed the ‘father of mindfulness,’ proved beyond reasonable doubt that practices of Integrative Medicine—including the marriage of meditation and medicine—made Western medical science twice as curative.

More recent studies confirm that both prayer and meditation are highly reactive in both lowering our reactivity to traumatic and negative events, and also helping preserve the aging brain. Dr. David Spiegel, associate chair of psychiatry and behavioral sciences and medical director of the center for integrative medicine at Stanford University School of Medicine, explained: “Praying involves the deeper parts of the brain: the medial prefrontal cortex and the posterior cingulate cortex — the mid-front and back portions,” says Dr. Spiegel, adding that this can be seen through magnetic image resonance (MRI), which render detailed anatomical pictures. “These parts of the brain are involved in self-reflection and self-soothing.”

In another study conducted by NYU Langone Medical Center, members of Alcoholics Anonymous were placed in an MRI scanner and then shown drinking-related images to stimulate cravings—which were soon after reduced when the participants prayed. The MRI data demonstrated changes in parts of the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for the control of emotion and “the semantic reappraisal of emotion.”

Last month, researchers from UCLA found that long-term meditators had better-preserved brains than non-meditators as they aged. Participants who had been meditating for an average of 20 years had more grey matter volume throughout the brain — although older meditators still had some volume loss compared to younger meditators, it wasn’t as pronounced as the non-meditators. “We expected rather small and distinct effects located in some of the regions that had previously been associated with meditating,” said study author Florian Kurth. “Instead, what we actually observed was a widespread effect of meditation that encompassed regions throughout the entire brain.”

There is further data backing the idea that meditation and prayer can trigger the release of feel-good chemicals in the brain. Dr. Loretta G. Breuning, founder of the Inner Mammal Institute and the author of The Science of Positivity and Habits of a Happy Brain, explains that when we pray, we can activate neural pathways developed when young to release hormones such as oxytocin. “Oxytocin is known for its role in maternal labor and lactation, but it also [enables] social trust and attachment, giving us a good feeling despite living in a world of threat,” says Dr. Breuning. “It’s the idea of ‘I can count on something to protect me.’ So when a situation comes up and you’re out of ideas and you are helpless, feeling much like you did when you were a baby, prayer can provide some other source of hope.”

While meditation is not a panacea or cure-all, there is ample evidence that it may benefit those who practice it regularly. If you have a few minutes in the morning or evening, rather than turning on your phone or going online, see what happens if you try quieting down your mind, and paying attention to your thoughts while letting them go without reactions. If the research is accurate, a few minutes of mindful meditation may make a big difference.

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Artificial Sweeteners: Tied to Stroke & Dementia

A new study published in the American Heart Association’s journal Stroke suggests that artificial sweeteners, found in diet sodas, have considerable health risks for both the body and the brain.

The data was collected from the Framingham Heart Study, a project of the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute and Boston University, and involved data on 2,888 adults older than 45 and 1,484 adults older than 60 from Framingham, Massachusetts. In the group aged 45-and-older, researchers measured for increased risk of stroke; in the group aged 60-and-older, researchers measured for dementia.

The statistics analyzed how many sugary beverages and artificially sweetened soft drinks each person in the two different age groups drank, between the years 1991 and 2001. That data was than compared against the number of people who suffered from stroke or dementia in the next decade.

Researchers found that—juxtaposed against people who never drank artificially sweetened soft drinks—those who drank one per day were almost three times as likely to have an ischemic stroke. Those who drank one per day were also almost three times as likely to be diagnosed with dementia.

Previous studies have shown a strong association between the intake of sugar-sweetened beverages and a host of adverse health effects, including type 2 diabetes, obesity, and cardiovascular disease. Professor and chair of neurology at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine Dr. Ralph Sacco confirms that this article “provides further evidence on artificially sweetened beverages and their possibly effects on vascular health…we believe the pathways of which artificially sweetened beverages would affect the brain are probably through vascular mechanisms.”

Moreover, artificial sweeteners have been shown to cause glucose intolerance in mice by altering gut microbiota, and have been associated with dysbiosis and glucose intolerance in humans. The cumulative research strongly indicates that there is no benefit to using artificial sweeteners, or drinking diet soda, compared to regular sucrose or sugary drinks.

To learn more about the gut-immune-brain connection, and the different ways in which various types of inflammation can affect the body and brain, register for Module VII: Autoimmune Disease & Inflammation, from August 10-12.

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