Evidence suggests that both physical and mental healing can be promoted in patients by way of physical activity and mindfulness practices which may benefit all aspects of well-being, boost quality of life, and help improve health outcomes. Physical activity and regular exercise routines are more regularly recommended to patients in the healthcare setting, particularly in cases of cardiometabolic disease that could benefit from its effects including decreased cortisol levels and inflammation, strengthened cardiovascular health, and improved weight management. A growing body of knowledge implicates the need for the incorporation of mindfulness practices into the healthcare system due to its potential to benefit prevention, diagnosis, and treatment interventions.
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The Benefits of Mindful Eating
Recent studies indicate that meal timing and frequency may impact cardiovascular health, and disease risks. While eating patterns vary from person to person, research indicates that effective management of cardiometabolic health should focus on ‘intentional eating’–paying attention to standardize eating times, meal sizes, and food content.
One of the primary critical factors in evaluating the effect of meal frequency and timing on cardiovascular health was what constituted a meal that potentially impacted metabolism. Data shows that distributing calories over a defined period of the day, coupled with maintaining a consistent overnight fast period, could ultimately yield positive benefits surrounding cardiometabolic health–in addition to eating a larger portion of one’s daily caloric intake earlier in the day.
Skipping meals and snacking, which have become increasingly prevalent, have various effects on cardiometabolic health markers: namely obesity, lipid profile, insulin resistance, and blood pressure. Because irregular eating patterns do not lead to a healthy cardiometabolic profile, intentional eating–with mindful attention to the timing and frequency of eating occasions–will lead to a healthier lifestyle. Most importantly, planning each meal with a variety of healthy foods, and timing meals, can help manage hunger, achieve desired portion control, and improve nutrition quality.
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.