We often hear, "you are what you eat." As it turns out, you are what you think!
Imagine for a moment a world where you enter your doctor’s office with intense stomach discomfort, and you leave with a prescription to “meditate 20 minutes every day".
Believe it or not, this scenario may soon become reality, thanks to a study conducted by a team of Harvard researchers from the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) and the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center (BIDMC).
Adding to the many known benefits of meditation, the study shows that a daily practice can significantly relieve symptoms of the gastrointestinal disorders Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) and Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD). Furthermore, meditation can impact the expression of genes connected to inflammation and the body’s stress response!
This novel study was inspired by a previous study that demonstrated that meditation has the power to produce changes in the brain. Specifically, meditation can rebuild the brain's grey matter in only eight weeks! Finding a way to impact grey matter is crucial because of its scope of influence on the body, notably in muscle control and sensory perception such as sight, memory, emotions, decision making, self-control, etc.
Intrigued by findings that suggest a connection between meditation and the brain, researchers of the current study sought to investigate the link between the ability of meditation to counter the body’s fight-or-flight stress response with the relaxation response, a phenomenon first identified, and named, by Harvard physician Herbert Benson in 1975. This meditation-produced response has been shown to directly affect bodily factors such as heart rate, blood pressure, stress and anxiety.
Stress has been shown to aggravate the symptoms of IBS and IBD, which include abdominal pain, changes in bowel function and, in the case of IBD, development of more serious conditions like ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease. The link between stress and the intensification of these symptoms raises the possibility that meditation-induced relaxation can decrease discomfort caused by these diseases.
The uncontrolled pilot study recruited 48 adult participants, 19 of whom were diagnosed with IBS and 29 with IBD, and it tracked them over a nine-week period. During this time, participants followed a program that focused on stress reduction, cognitive skills, and health-enhancing behaviors.
Each weekly session included relaxation response training that continued for an additional 15-20 minutes at home each day. Along with the regular group programming, a session specifically focused on gastrointestinal health was included. Participants were tested throughout the program on symptoms, their influence on quality of life, and on pain and anxiety levels.
All patients who participated in the mind/body program reported improvement in disease-related symptoms, anxiety, and overall quality of life; an effect that lasted even three weeks after the program was completed! Additionally, the genes seen to have altered expressions after the meditation program are known to contribute to stress response and inflammation.
The results have not only gained the attention of the scientific community, who plan to run more studies to gather more concrete information, but these results also raise the notion that our unhealthy, stressful thoughts can have a larger impact on our well-being than we ever imagined!
In the meantime, the scientific community continues to document the benefits of meditation, such as its power to impact mood and anxiety disorders, its effectiveness in reducing substance and alcohol abuse, and its ability to improve focus, attention and the capacity to work under stress. The best thing you can do for yourself right now is to practice some form of meditation daily.
Focus on your breath and aim to cleanse your mind of judgmental thoughts. Adopt a more gentle, accepting approach as you simply witness your own thoughts arising and subsiding. As you release stress, you gain a new level of self-awareness and love.
Most importantly, find the mediation that speaks to you most and strive to remain mindful and dedicated in your practice. Give your doctors some time to relax :)
Author: Gal Shyli Dayan