Mindfulness is one of the most potent mental fitness techniques as well as a vessel for awakening. Neuroscientists have demonstrated mindfulness meditation can rewire our brain in ways that promote happiness, attention, empathy, and morality. Now, research shows mindful practices can also positively influence our behavior and even our biology.
Jon Kabat-Zinn, the forefather of secular meditation, describes mindfulness as “paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, without judgment.” The term mindfulness is derived from the Pali word “sati,” which can be roughly translated as “to remember.” This initially seems odd for a term related to living in the present moment. In this context, though, it means a different kind of remembering: recalling the commitment to pay attention and even bringing to mind the consequences of past actions and future goals. This kind of remembering, which is quite different from a simple “black-lab consciousness,” or awareness without context, can help mindful people make decisions that support their health.
Judson Brewer, M.D., Ph.D., associate professor of medicine and psychiatry at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, is among the growing number of physicians and health psychologists who think mindfulness and meditation can play a pivotal role in lifestyle change. His approach is unique. When working with smokers, he doesn’t ask them to stop smoking; instead, he encourages them to smoke “mindfully.” As his patients begin to pay attention to their cravings and the experience of smoking, many realize they actually abhor the taste and smell of cigarettes. As they also become mindful of the consequences—their morning cough, and asthma symptoms, they consciously experience how smoking impacts their bodies. Many then naturally begin smoking less frequently. Rather than wanting to smoke and feeling they “shouldn’t,” they genuinely want to smoke less. “Everybody knows that smoking is bad for them—but to have a visceral sense that smoking smells like stinky cheese and tastes like chemicals—that’s wisdom rather than knowledge,” says Dr. Brewer. It’s something you “know in your bones. And wisdom is really what drives behavior.”
Mindfulness also helps people make good choices, even when cravings are present. As people become more mindful, they learn to notice cravings as bodily sensations that arise in any given moment. As they become consciously aware of the sensations that make up the craving, they learn to observe these from moment to moment and notice any judgment that arises alongside it. In doing this, they grow their power to witness a craving arise, peak, and subside without necessarily acting upon it. In doing so, they literally train their self-control.
This makes sense. During mindfulness practice, the mind focuses on a specific object, such as the breath. When the mind wanders to another object, such as a thought, a sound, or a physical sensation, attention should be gently but consistently brought back to the breath. Mindfulness helps one control the power of attention and harness the gap between stimulus and response.
“Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” -Dr. Viktor Frankl
One of Brewer’s most dramatic experiences was a patient who cut his smoking by two-thirds (from 30 cigarettes to 10 cigarettes a day) after one session of mindfulness training. By paying attention, this man noticed that he often smoked merely out of habit. Other times, he smoked to cover the taste of bitter coffee. After incorporating mindfulness, he simply decided to brush his teeth instead.
While not all patients have such rapid results, Brewer’s research has shown that mindfulness-based programs are highly effective for smoking cessation and kicking other bad habits, such as cocaine and alcohol abuse. In one trial, Brewer and colleagues randomized smokers into two groups: one received mindfulness training, and the other group received the American Lung Association’s Freedom from Smoking® treatment, the current gold standard for smoking cessation. The study found mindfulness training was twice as effective as the gold standard in helping people quit and stay off cigarettes. (Similar trials for alcohol and cocaine abuse found that mindfulness training was at least as effective as the current leading therapies).
Changes to food behavior are somewhat more complex. Unlike smoking or drinking alcohol (which an addict can quit altogether), humans must eat to live. Making healthy food choices is no small feat: sugar is even more addictive than cocaine. Still, mindful eating appears to reduce behaviors associated with weight gain. Jean Kristeller, Ph.D., professor emeritus at Indiana State University and co-founder of The Center for Mindful Eating employs a similar approach to Brewer: She advises food addicts to pay attention to their eating and she says many are shocked at what they find. “I work with people who describe themselves as food addicts and say they’re eating because they love food. When you ask them to tune into the experience of a bite—they are blown away by the experience. Many realize they may even not like (the food) they thought they loved,” says Kristeller. In one study of 18 obese people, she found that a six-week “mindfulness-based eating awareness training” helped these people significantly decrease binge eating. In other studies, she’s demonstrated similar effects on emotional eating.
“If you’re paying attention to food, it helps your satisfaction with the meal,” says Lillian Cheung, director of health promotion and communication at the Harvard School of Public Health, and co-author with Thich Nhat Hanh of the book Savor: Mindful Eating, Mindful Life. “You eat more slowly, you chew more; many people notice that they eat less.” Kristeller trains binge eaters to become aware of their body’s satiety signals and tune into how full they feel. She also points out that research on taste shows enjoyment drops significantly after about one serving size, perhaps even less. “The paradox is the fattier and sweeter and saltier the food is, the quicker that happens,” says Kristeller. In fact, many of her patients choose not to eat a third or fourth corn chip during a mindful eating exercise. “And this is people who are addicted to eating!”
While more robust studies are needed to determine the exact connection between mindfulness and weight loss, the myriad health benefits are well documented; including some that may affect our physical form. Stress reduction is one of the most notable outcomes of meditation. Researchers at the University of Basel, Switzerland, found that an eight-week mindfulness-based stress reduction course reduced levels of the stress hormone cortisol. This study shows the importance of long-term practice: Salivary cortisol levels went down after the eight-week course, but there was no drop after each individual session. High cortisol levels are associated with diabetes and abdominal weight gain, which healthcare practitioners call “central obesity,” the worst kind, associated with increased risk of heart disease. Cortisol causes us to crave fatty and sugary snacks, and then store the calories as belly fat. This is yet another way mindfulness could improve one’s health and weight.
Mindfulness also boosts mood. Dozens of studies have examined the effects of mindfulness on negative emotional states, including depression and anxiety. A literature review published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) looked at data from 47 randomized controlled trials with more than 3,500 patients and found that mindfulness helped alleviate the symptoms of depression and anxiety. In fact, mindfulness interventions led to a nearly 40% decrease in anxiety. And mindfulness was about as good as anti-depressants in treating the blues. As mood improves, people are less likely to engage in emotional eating. Most importantly, their lives are filled with a level of vibrancy and joy everyone deserves.
Meditation’s effects on brain function and its relation to mood have been studied by Richard Davidson, Ph.D., director of the Lab for Affective Neuroscience at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Davidson and his team noted that an eight-week mindfulness-based stress reduction program increased activation in the left frontal lobe, which previous studies have linked to positive emotional states. Remarkably, this same study also demonstrated that this practice helps improve immune function. People in the mindfulness group produced more antibodies in response to the flu vaccine compared to the control group, indicating their immune systems were more potent. The strength of their immune response was directly correlated to the left frontal lobe activation. There could be a direct scientific explanation for this: Negative emotions are associated with higher levels of stress hormones, including cortisol, which turns down the immune system. Thus, as mindfulness shifts our brain activity, there are direct, positive effects on hormones and overall physiology.
Meditation can also help improve sleep patterns. This area of research is still young; in fact, the JAMA review mentioned above said the effects of mindfulness on sleep are so far inconclusive. Yet, there are studies that give reason to hope meditation can help people rest more soundly. A small, randomized controlled trial in the journal Sleep demonstrated that mindfulness-based therapy for insomnia (MBTI) led to significant improvements in sleep quality for people with chronic insomnia. Study participants who received this MBTI feel less stimulated before sleep and spent less time tossing and turning, according to their own journals. A Danish study of 336 women after their diagnosis with breast cancer showed the mindfulness-based stress reduction had significantly fewer sleep problems than the control group. Prior studies have shown that mindfulness training can improve sleep quality and length in teachers.
If mindfulness does indeed help us sleep better, this would send a powerful ripple effect into the rest of their lives; healthful sleep patterns have been associated with better learning and memory, as well as decreased risk of heart disease and a stronger immune system. Also, sleep disturbances create hormonal shifts that lead to problems with blood sugar regulation and even weight gain and obesity, so sleeping well is an important contributor to reaching and maintaining a healthy body.
Various types of meditation, including mindfulness and mantra-based practices like Transcendental Meditation, have been shown to reduce blood pressure as much as medications in people with borderline or moderate high blood pressure.
Meditation may also help slow cellular aging. Mindfulness has been shown to increase telomerase, an enzyme that helps protect the ends of chromosomes. These ends, or telomeres, tend to shorten with age, which leads to more mutations, but meditation has been shown to slow this process. Scientists don’t yet know the impact on aging as a whole, but this gives us reason to hope we can slow down and possibly even reverse age-related wear-and-tear.
“There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root.”
–Henry David Thoreau
In the quest to identify a major root of ill health, many scientists point toward inflammation. Increased levels of inflammation throughout the body are associated with a slew of diseases, including depression, dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, asthma, cancer, and cardiovascular ailments. Recent research shows that mindfulness training actually changes genetic expression in several ways that impact inflammation: It both turns off genes responsible for inflammation, while also switching on anti-inflammatory genes. Although people are stuck with the genes they inherited, genetic expression changes throughout the lifespan. These shifts happen thanks to the epigenome molecules that attach to DNA to activate or turn off particular genetic sequences (the literal meaning of “epigenome” is “on top of the genome”). Practicing mindful awareness in combination with a healthy plant-rich diet and lifestyle is a powerful strategy to hack at this root of disease, and thus promote an overall state of health.
As anyone who has attempted to practice mindfulness knows, it isn’t easy. And, it’s not supposed to be. In many ways, mindfulness is like taking your brain to the gym. If someone holds a dumbbell in his right hand, each time he lifts this weight and moves against the resistance of gravity, he strengthens his biceps. Similarly, during mindfulness practice, each time someone notices her mind wander and consciously redirects her focus to the breath (or whatever she’s selected as the object for our attention), she’s performing a “brain rep.” This can be difficult; practitioners are moving against the resistance of their own minds (and habits of wandering attention), but keeping their focus resting on a selected object can help us enhance their ability to attend over time. It also helps strengthen such qualities as self-compassion and discipline. Just like going to the gym can create a visible shift in our bodies, meditating creates physical changes in the brain.
Evidently, this mental workout creates beneficial changes in brain structure. Research led by neuroscientist Sara Lazar, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychology at Harvard University, has demonstrated that just an eight-week mindfulness-based stress reduction course increases density in the pre-frontal cortex, a region associated with happiness, empathy, morality, and “executive function.” In the same timeframe, the mindfulness group also showed a decrease in density of the amygdala, the almond-shaped brain area that triggers the fear-based “fight or flight” response. These are changes that may very well explain many of the effects of mindfulness on health, stress reduction, and happiness.
The words meditation and medicine share a common Latin root, “mederi,” which means “to heal.” Western science is now verifying what cultures around the world have known for years: Meditation is good for the mind, body, and spirit.
Our understanding of meditation’s effects on health will continue to evolve as more research is conducted, but it is clear that mindfulness is a key tool to reduce stress, create hormonal and emotional shifts that reduce unhealthy cravings, and treat root causes of disease. These practices fortify brain regions responsible for noticing urges, regulating behavior, and making positive choices. By paying attention, we start to develop wisdom, which is the foundation for lasting change.