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Category: Mental Clarity

Unintended Consequences: Marijuana Use Tied to Changes in the Brain

Unintended Consequences: Marijuana Use Tied to Changes in the Brain

Over the past few decades, growing numbers of people in the U.S. have come to think about marijuana as harmless. Others have even embraced it as beneficial under certain circumstances, pointing to its purported medical value. So it’s not too surprising that long-running legalization efforts in some states have recently led to marijuana’s decriminalization and increased availability.  However, a study published in the Journal of Neuroscience sheds new light on the subject—and its findings come out against the commonly held belief that marijuana use is completely innocuous. Researchers at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine have found that even casual use of marijuana can cause structural changes to areas of the brain that control emotion, motivation, and reward.

The study analyzed 40 students between the ages of 18 to 25 in the Boston area. Half of the subjects used marijuana recreationally—at least once a week—and the other half did not use it at all. Psychiatric interviews and tests revealed that none of the students met the criteria for drug dependence, and their cannabis use did not interfere with their studies, work, or social habits. However, when using MRI scans to study the students’ brains, the researchers found changes to the volume, shape, and density of the neurons in two important areas: the amygdala and the nucleus accumbens. The changes were found to be more pronounced in people who reported using marijuana more frequently during an average week. Study leader Dr. Hans Breiter said of the findings, “There was a direct, consistent relationship between how much marijuana they used and the abnormalities we saw.”

While the brain abnormalities and their relationship to marijuana use are clear, it’s less clear what these changes to the brain’s structure might actually mean for these individuals. Breiter continues, “These are two brain regions you do not want to mess around with. All parts of the brain are important, but some, like these, are more fundamental. It raises a very serious issue, given that we saw these changes in casual marijuana users.” Previous studies had revealed similar changes in brain structure among heavy users of cannabis, but this is the first study that indicates that even casual use can alter a person’s brain.

“The earlier the onset of marijuana use in a kid, the worse potential implications you could be seeing,” Breiter said. Another study author, Jodi Gilman of the Massachusetts General Hospital Center for Addiction Medicine, says, “We just don’t know how much is safe. It’s not harmless. We don’t know the harm, but it’s not free from harm.”

Breiter also commented that the concentrations of THC (the psychoactive component of cannabis) are not the same as they used to be: “Levels of THC are about sevenfold what they used to be. That’s a substantial change in the dosing of THC that these young people are getting. The experience of people in the ’60s and ’70s may not be the same experience as people today.”

Interestingly, some proponents of cannabis decriminalization have welcomed the research findings. Paul Armentano, deputy director of the pro-marijuana advocacy group NORML, says that his group presents an argument for legalizing marijuana but tightly regulating it, as alcohol, tobacco, and prescription drugs are. He says, “It’s precisely because of these consequences that these products are legally regulated, and their use is restricted to particular consumers and specific settings. A pragmatic regulatory framework that allows for the legal, licensed commercial production and retail adult sale of marijuana but restricts its use among young people—coupled with a legal environment that fosters open, honest dialogue between parents and children about cannabis’ potential harms—best reduces the risks associated with the plant’s consumption or abuse.”

Marijuana consumption in the Netherlands—where cannabis use has been condoned but controlled since the 1980s, just as Armentano recommends for the U.S.—certainly supports his case. Despite its availability, fewer than 26% of the Dutch population has ever tried marijuana, compared with 41.9% of Americans, and the Netherlands has the lowest problem drug rate in Europe.

But this is a touchy subject, with scientific and humanitarian arguments often clashing with economic interests and many people’s moral judgments about any type of drug use. The trend toward marijuana decriminalization in America—for both medical and recreational use—seems at this point to be irreversible. The one new issue this study brings to the already heated debate is that cannabis use is NOT necessarily without long-term impact, especially on young people. More studies are needed to determine exactly what the effects of this drug actually are so that society can balance the risks and manage the costs that will inevitably come with decriminalization. Whether it’s legal or illegal, though, it’s critical for people to understand the potential consequences of marijuana use.

 

Omega-3 Fatty Acids and Brain Health

Omega-3 Fatty Acids and Brain Health

omega3 food
omega3 food

Omega-3 fatty acids are polyunsaturated fatty acids that are deemed “essential” because they fall into a category of nutrients that the body needs, but cannot synthesize in sufficient quantities by itself. They must be consumed in our foods or in the form of supplements so the body receives enough omega-3 to meet its needs.

Recent research is indicating that, in addition to the well-known benefits of omega-3 fatty acids for the cardiovascular system and other organs, they’re pretty essential in keeping our brains healthy too. This suggests that they may also play a significant role in our cognitive development and mental health. One of the reasons for this may be the presence in omega-3 fatty acids of docosahexaenoic acid, or DHA. DHA has been identified as an important nutrient responsible for proper brain development and optimal brain function.

Studies have linked omega-3 fatty acids and DHA to improvement of symptoms of depression, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia, and other studies have found that children with attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) tend to have low levels of omega-3 fatty acids. A number of recent studies have found that reduced intake of omega-3 fatty acids is strongly associated with cognitive decline and dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease. Scientists in these studies have hypothesized that omega-3 fatty acids and DHA provide a kind of protective barrier against Alzheimer’s.

In a more recent study published in the Journal of Neuroscience in February 2014, researchers found that DHA may even be a major factor in how our brains are created in the first place. In the study, monkeys fed a lifelong diet high in omega-3 fatty acids and DHA were found to have brains with highly connected and well-organized neural networks, similar to those of humans. At the same time, monkeys raised on a lifelong diet low in omega-3/DHA had much more limited brain networking.

A study published in the journal Neurology in January 2014 also found links between omega-3 fatty acids and brain volumes in humans. In the study, more than 1000 post-menopausal women had blood samples drawn and MRI scans taken at the start of the study, and then 8 years later. The data indicated that overall brain size was smaller in women in the lowest quartile of omega-3 levels, compared to women in the highest quartile. It also indicated that the hippocampus—the area of the brain in charge of cognitive function—was significantly smaller in the brains of the women in the lowest omega-3 level quartile. As one of the researchers phrased it, “…when we look at the whole picture, omega-3 fatty acids are a major component of brain tissue and they are metabolized to anti-inflammatory compounds that could reduce brain cell death. We can certainly make a good story to support the idea that omega-3 fatty acids are good for the brain.”

So if you’re concerned about keeping your brain as healthy as possible and preventing its decline as you age, adding more omega-3 fatty acids to your diet may be part of the answer!

 

10 Great Reasons to Stay Hydrated

10 Great Reasons to Stay Hydrated

water peak 2
water-droplet-in-glass

Water is essential to life. Our bodies are already 60%-70% water, and those reserves need to be replenished on a daily basis to keep us healthy. Add either extreme heat or extreme cold (both of which dehydrate us), and drinking enough water becomes even more critical.

Exactly how much water we should drink each day is an open question. As reported by the Mayo Clinic, the Institute of Medicine has determined that adequate water intake per day is roughly 3 liters (about 13 cups) for men and 2.2 liters (about 9 cups) for women. Some sources recommend more, some less, but there seems to be no question within the healthcare community that many of us should be drinking more water than we are. Here are a few reasons why:

  1. Water curbs your appetite, and contains zero calories. Both of these reasons should have some appeal to you whether you’re actively trying to lose a few pounds or just trying to maintain a healthy weight. Studies have shown that often when people think they’re hungry, they’re really thirsty.
  2. Water increases your energy levels. Studies have indicated that a cup of water can be more effective at boosting your energy levels than a cup of coffee. One suspected reason for this is that our perception of fatigue is often caused more by dehydration than actually being tired.
  3. Water is good for your skin. Rather than investing in expensive creams and lotions, why not invest in a few more glasses of water per day? They will help to keep your skin healthy, radiant, and glowing. And it’s a lot less expensive than anything you could buy at the cosmetics counter.
  4. Water increases your brain power. According to a study in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, subjects who drank a glass of water before performing a series of cognitive tasks reacted faster and thought more clearly than subjects who did not.
  5. Water helps maintain the balance of your other bodily fluids. You lose moisture daily via sweat and other excretions. Similarly, your blood, lymph, and intestinal fluids become depleted, and must be replenished with a proper intake of water.
  6. Water improves your moods. Although there are many causes of depression, headaches, irritability, and fatigue, one of the most common is dehydration. When your body becomes low on water, your blood vessels dilate, causing all of these symptoms. Increasing your daily intake of water can counter and reverse them.
  7. Water lowers your risk of heart attack. When your arteries and veins become clogged with plaque, you increase your likelihood of heart disease—one of the most effective ways of preventing this buildup of plaque is to remain properly hydrated. A study in the American Journal of Epidemiology found that drinking more water was positively associated with a decrease in the risk of coronary heart disease. Drinking liquids other than water increased this risk, according to the same study.
  8. Water can keep your joints lubricated, too. The synovial fluid that keeps your joints functioning properly and that keeps your bones from rubbing against each other becomes depleted when you are dehydrated. Drinking more water prevents this.
  9. Water improves your digestion. Your ability to digest your food depends on the proper functioning of a series of enzymes in your intestinal tract. The “delivery mechanism” for these enzymes is water—don’t get enough of it, and your ability to digest and assimilate nutrients in your food breaks down.
  1. Water even prevents fluid retention. This sounds counter-intuitive, but it’s true. Dehydration causes the body to retain water, because it thinks there is a critical lack of it. Drinking more water actually causes your body to stop retaining it.
The Benefits of Life-Long Sports

The Benefits of Life-Long Sports

middle-aged-woman-playing-tennis-200-300Not only can playing sports at any age help you maintain your strength, stamina, balance, flexibility and coordination, the benefits are actually cumulative over time. That means the more adults participate in sports throughout their lifetime, the more they will benefit as they reach the age where joint problems and declining energy become a problem. For people to enjoy the most benefit, they should begin to consciously “ramp-up” their physical activity in early adulthood to support the continuation of active leisure time activities throughout later phases of life.

Playing sports into mid-life allows adults to maintain physical capabilities that will help reduce their risk of developing age-related problems that are often tied to inactivity, including heart disease, colon cancer, stroke and diabetes. In addition, sports burn calories and help prevent weight gain as metabolism slows as part of the aging process. Sustaining their physical health through middle age and into their senior years will allow them to continue participating in more of the activities they enjoy and to maintain their independence longer. Not only will staying active help them enjoy better health, it will also improve their longevity.

Sports Participation Increases Energy, Improves the 3Ms

Most of us recognize that exercising actually increases our general energy levels. This is true at any age, including 50 and beyond. But did you know that it also improves the 3Ms—memory, mood and mind? Participating in sports helps adults stay motivated and provides a release from stress. Many also enjoy the chance to compete against other athletes in their age bracket. Benefits are important to both men and women in the over 50 category.

Popular Sports for Older Adults

Obviously, most older adults are not going to jump into sports like tackle football, rugby, lacrosse or ice hockey, but there are a large number of sports that will help them strengthen muscles, build stamina and maintain their balance, flexibility and coordination. Many of these also offer great opportunities for social interaction and will help seniors feel better all the way around.

  • Increases stamina and strengthens legs. Can also encourage core strength and flexibility.
  • Enhances breathing, improves bone density, reduces body fat and maintains reaction time.
  • Not a physically demanding sport, and well-suited for those who are not in the best physical shape. Sharpens hand-eye coordination and offers mental and social benefits.
  • Increases energy and stamina with minimal risk of muscle and joint injury. Increases flexibility and tones muscles, offers aerobic exercise for improved heart health and may reduce the risk of osteoporosis.
  • Improves coordination, balance and can improve mobility.

Although the greatest benefits from playing sports occur in those who have continued to engage in sports activity throughout their lives, it is never too late to learn a new sport and enjoy the physical and mental benefits they can provide.

Structured Versus Unstructured Play: What’s the Difference, and Does it Matter?

Structured Versus Unstructured Play: What’s the Difference, and Does it Matter?

lined up on line of scrimmageWe’ve all heard about parents like this. They have every moment of their child’s day scheduled with some activity or another. First it’s soccer, then off to violin lessons, after which they meet up with their scouting group. With the increase in urbanization and concerns for child safety, it’s becoming more and more unusual to see children just out playing in the street or in a neighbor’s back yard. Many parents have embraced the idea of “structured play” because they believe it helps their children develop specific skills they will need to succeed in the world. It also allows parents more predictability and control over their own schedules. On the other hand, many of these same parents view unstructured play (which many grew up with themselves) as a waste of time that could be better used for managed activities. But studies have shown that there are very real advantages to unstructured play, and that the skills it develops are just as important as the ones that can be taught in structured environments.

Structured play consists of activities with externally-imposed organization that generally involve rules and an objective of some sort. Things such as video games, team sports, board games and building model airplanes, for example, are all structured activities. At the other end of the spectrum are unstructured activities like inventing and running games, building with blocks, having a catch, writing a play, looking for bugs in the woods, and drawing and painting. These activities are self-organizing and open-ended. Many times, they have no particular goal. In unstructured play, children make up their own rules as they go along and establish their own limits.

Nearly every modern parent has heard his or her child whine or moan the dreaded words “I’m bored.”  By most accounts, the “I’m bored” syndrome has actually become more common as the nature of play has shifted and parental engagement has changed. Sometime around the mid-20th century, children’s play began to be centered on the toy rather than on the activity. And as today’s “interactive” toys have evolved to actually direct and drive the activity (think about Wii, PlayStations, iPads, etc.), children themselves have become more passive in the process. The result is that many of them are less able to entertain themselves through their own creativity.  This inability becomes very apparent whenever the novelty of a new game wears out and the kids reach out to their parents to provide the same level of structure and ongoing entertainment that the game had been providing.  This places growing demands on parents, who may then begin to look for other outside sources of focused, constructive stimulation.  Of course, the problem with this type of response is that it simply substitutes one form of externally-driven activity for another. What happens to a child who never learns to direct his or her own energy or to organize his or her own activity? There is a very good chance that the child who never learns to do these things will be unable to do them well as an adult.

A 2005 study published in the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine found that children’s unstructured play time had dropped by 25% between 1981 and 1997. This is a worrisome trend since unstructured play is necessary in order for children to improve social skills, develop healthy coping mechanisms for stress and boost cognitive skills, especially those involved in problem solving. Through unstructured play, children enhance their own creativity, become more self-confident and learn to empathize with others. It develops neural areas in the brain that are concerned with emotional reactions and social understanding.

There is no doubt that structured play is important in teaching multitasking, developing specialized skills and exposing children to a wide range of ideas and experiences. Just be sure that your children are given equal amounts of unstructured time in which to explore their own interests, develop their creativity, solve problems and work on their interpersonal skills.

What is REM Sleep and Why is it Important?

What is REM Sleep and Why is it Important?

baby #21Our sleep cycle is separated into two main components: rapid eye movement (REM) sleep and non-REM sleep (NREM). We cycle between the two all night, with four stages of NREM sleep preceding one stage of REM sleep. NREM sleep is the stage at which our body repairs itself, energy is replenished and our immune system is boosted. A complete cycle of sleep takes between 90 and 110 minutes in total, with approximately a quarter of that time being spent in REM sleep. It is also the stage during which dreaming almost always takes place. Scientists are still trying to discover the extent to which REM sleep affects our health and mental well-being, but they do know that REM sleep is important for the development of creativity and problem solving ability, and is how we learn to adapt to our world.

REM sleep was first formally observed by the scientists Aserinsky and Kleitman in the 1950s, who noted the rapid, jerky movements of the eyes through closed lids, as if the sleeper were seeing something, and noticed that breathing and heart rate increased. Another feature of REM sleep is that the voluntary muscle groups become temporarily paralyzed by the base of the brain “shutting off” the neurons in our spinal cord so we do not act out the dreams we are experiencing as we sleep. The electroencephalogram (EEG) that was attached to the sleepers showed levels of brain activity nearly identical to those who were awake. Contrary to what was previously believed about sleep as being a state in which the brain slows down, during REM sleep, the brain is actually very active. Why may this be?

According to French scientist Michel Jouvet, REM sleep is also a way of programming our brain to adapt to the world around us. Much as a computer can be reprogrammed when it is off-line, Jouvet believes our brain can take information it has received during the day and program the central nervous system to organize or maintain instinctive behavior.

The percentage of time spent in REM sleep is the greatest among babies and children. Babies can spend as much as 50% of their sleep time in the REM stage. And while it has been thought that the dreams we experience during REM sleep are a consolidation of the memories that we have experienced during the previous day, babies in the womb (who experts believe have few or no real world memories) spend most of their sleep time in a state of REM.

Professor of psychiatry emeritus at Harvard University, J. Allan Hobson, says of the purpose of REM sleep, “It’s a reinforcement of basic knowledge—knowledge that precedes any waking-state learning: how to be a person, how to be an ego, how to exist in a space, how to move in a space, how to feel. It’s not environmental memory; it’s genetic memory.”

 

Early Tests for Predicting Dementia and Stroke

Early Tests for Predicting Dementia and Stroke

dementia-stroke-200-300Do you often find that people can’t keep up with your normal walking pace? Do you frequently notice that others have a much weaker handshake than you do?  If you answered “yes” to these questions, you may be less likely to suffer from a stroke or dementia in your older age.

A recent study presented at the American Academy of Neurology’s 64th annual meeting found that those who were speedier walkers had a 42 percent reduced risk of stroke or transient ischemic attack (TIA) after age 65. Those with greater hand grip strength demonstrated a reduced risk of dementia.

The researchers knew that frailty and reduced physical agility was associated with an increased risk of dementia in elderly people, but wondered if these factors measured in middle age might be a predictor of this outcome.

Investigators studied over 2,400 men and women with a mean age of 62 years over a period of up to 11 years. Subjects were tested at the beginning of the study to assess their walking speed, hand grip strength and cognitive ability, and a brain MRI was performed on each subject. Over the 11 years of the study, 70 people had a stroke and 34 people developed dementia.

Those with a slower walking speed were 1.5 times more likely to develop dementia than their speedier counterparts, showed lower total brain volume, and scored worse on tests of memory, learning, decision making, language ability and visual perception.

Those with a stronger hand grip not only had a reduced risk of stroke, they also demonstrated higher brain volume and better scores on all the above-mentioned tests when compared with those with a weaker hand grip.

Erica C. Camargo, MD, MSc, PhD, from Boston Medical Center and co-author of the study said of the walking and hand grip tests, “These are basic office tests which can provide insight into risk of dementia and stroke and can be easily performed by a neurologist or general practitioner.” If these simple tests are performed on people during middle age, their results may be able to determine if a more detailed assessment of brain function is warranted in order to help prevent further degeneration. Camargo added, “Further research is needed to understand why this is happening and whether preclinical disease could cause slow walking and decreased strength.”

Dr. Marshall Keilson, director of neurology at Maimonides Medical Center in New York, said of the study, “At the very least, this research suggests novel approaches to early identification of dementia and stroke risk. It would be interesting to test an even younger patient population with the same protocol.”

Why Sugar is So Hard to Resist

Why Sugar is So Hard to Resist

????????????????Sugar is in almost everything we eat. In the typical western diet, enough sugar has been added to food products to bring our consumption of the sweet stuff up to 22.7 teaspoons per day. It is added to processed foods to extend shelf life and enhance flavor and texture. While we know that sugar contributes to weight gain, diabetes and heart disease, it’s still hard to resist. Why? Much of the answer to that question has to do with the way humans have evolved to survive in times of scarcity.

Our ancestors who had developed a taste for sugar were able to add to their body fat, which helped to keep them alive during periods of famine. This in turn allowed them to pass their sweet-loving genes on to their progeny. A study conducted by researchers at Washington University found that we are programmed from birth to crave sweet things. Human breast milk is very sweet due to the concentration of the sugar lactose, so from day one we learn to develop a sweet tooth.

One study showed how even the mere expectation of sugar can affect our cognitive ability. Scientists found that when study subjects swished sugar water around in their mouths and then spit it out, they performed better on cognitive tests than the subjects who had swished water that had been artificially sweetened. And there is a good reason why sugar is addictive. Eating sugar prompts the release of the hormone serotonin from the same area of the brain that responds to heroin and cocaine, inducing a feeling of happiness and euphoria.

It’s not always obvious where sugar is hiding in the foods we eat. While our consumption of table sugar is down, the amount added to processed foods is increasing. Many people are surprised to find how much sugar is added to such things as bologna (1.18 tsp. per 4 slices), ketchup (1.77 tsp. per 3 tbsp.) and low-fat fruit yogurt (6.16 tsp.). A couple of spoons of barbecue sauce have about as much sugar as a glazed donut! Add in the sugars typically contained in soups, sauces and breads, and it’s easy to see why obesity is becoming such an epidemic. The more we get, the more we want. A sudden rush of sugar spurs the release of insulin, which causes the infamous “sugar crash” and makes us crave even more to combat it.

However, it is possible to overcome an addiction to sugar, just as it’s possible to overcome an addiction to any other substance. Gradually use less where you can, such as in coffee or tea and in your breakfast cereal. You can also reduce or eliminate your consumption of soda (including artificially sweetened soda, which still makes you crave the sweet taste) and water down any fruit juices you may drink. After a while, your body does adjust to the taste. After a few months, if you suddenly are given coffee with sugar in it, you may find it tastes odd. Try to avoid buying store-bought desserts, and if you make your own, reduce the amount of sugar called for in the recipe. Many baked goods can use unsweetened applesauce as a substitute for 2/3 of the sugar required.

Our society has made it difficult to resist sugar, but it’s not impossible, and the less sugar you eat, the better it will be for your overall health.

 

Building Eye-Hand Coordination

Building Eye-Hand Coordination

couple volleyball playersWe first begin to learn eye-hand coordination (sometimes also called hand-eye coordination) when we are infants, with the greatest amount of development occurring during childhood. But it is never too late to improve eye-hand coordination skills. It is important to maintain this function as we age, since it is central to so many of our daily tasks, such as driving or chopping vegetables.

According to a study published in the journal Communication Research, playing video games for as little as 20 minutes can improve your eye-hand coordination. Researchers found that college students who played video games for 20 minutes using a special controller demonstrated nearly twice the accuracy in shooting at a real target as the students who did not play the video game first.

Improved eye-hand coordination can help when fast reaction times are needed, such as when driving a car or playing with children. It can increase productivity at work and is useful for leisure activities as well, such as reading music and computer gaming. Following are a few activities that you can practice that will allow you to improve your eye-hand coordination.

Play video games – Either online or using a console like a Wii, playing video games that require a sensitive touch and precise timing has been shown to improve accuracy skills.
Do some coloring – Grab some markers or crayons and a coloring book and color away. Our hands are beginning to lose their fine motor coordination abilities now that more and more of us use a keyboard to write. Coloring will help to preserve those fine motor skills.

Play a racquet sport – Any sport involving a racquet and ball will help to improve your eye-hand coordination, in addition to it being a great aerobic workout! You have to react quickly to your opponent’s moves and quickly judge where they will hit the ball.

Take up juggling – Start juggling two balls from hand to hand, then gradually introduce a third (and even a fourth if you can manage it). It will improve both coordination and focus.

Do a jigsaw puzzle – Useful for improving both eye-hand coordination and reasoning, a jigsaw puzzle is a fun way to hone these skills, particularly if it is a 3D puzzle.
Play catch – A great activity that can help improve both your and your child’s hand-eye accuracy, a simple game of catch using a tennis ball or other type of small ball is a great way of sharpening your skills while spending time with your kids.

Create something – Doing crafts such as model building and knitting can be creative ways of improving your eye-hand coordination, and you’ll have something to show for it to boot!

Meditation and Your Health – What Science Says

Meditation and Your Health – What Science Says

Young woman doing yoga outdoorsResearchers have found in study after study that meditation can offer both mental and physical health benefits. Doctors and integrative health programs increasingly prescribe meditation techniques alongside traditional treatments to achieve a wide range of health goals, from increasing immunity to lowering high blood pressure and reducing the symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome. On the surface of things, meditation would seem to offer a variety of benefits-if it actually works.  After all, it’s non-invasive, drug-free, and costs nothing. So how effective is it?

Approximately 500 clinical trials have been performed on the health effects of meditation, of which about 40 have been long-term studies. Short-term studies have found that meditation may reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s, and that it improves memory and general cognitive functioning.

Of the long-term studies, a nine-year study of African-Americans with heart disease found that those who regularly practiced Transcendental Meditation (TM) twice a day had a 48% lower risk of stroke, heart attack or death than those who had only receive health education. They reported significantly less stress and had 5mmHg lower systolic blood pressure.

Two studies from Ohio State University found that meditation was effective against cancer. The first showed that breast cancer survivors had a lower recurrence of the disease with the daily practice of relaxation meditation. The second found that meditation increased the elderly subjects’ “killer cells,” providing more resistance to viruses and tumors.

Meditation has also been found to cause epigenetic changes by helping to maintain telomere length. Telomeres are the protective sheaths at the ends of our chromosomes, which become shorter as we age, increasing the risk of dementia, heart disease and cancer. A study published in the International Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry showed a 43% greater increase in activity of the enzyme that regulates telomere length in those who meditated as opposed to those who just listened to relaxing music.

Those suffering from irritable bowel syndrome will be glad to learn that meditating twice daily can significantly reduce symptoms of constipation, bloating and diarrhea. It has also been shown to reduce depression and impart a general sense of calm.

Scientists believe that one of the major benefits of meditation is that it lowers stress. Stress causes the release of hormones such as cortisol, which stimulates the “fight or flight” response, increasing blood pressure and stress on the arterial walls. Although one of the roles of cortisol is to control inflammation in the body, with prolonged exposure to it (which is what happens with chronic stress), the body eventually becomes unresponsive to the hormone. Despite the adrenals pumping out more cortisol to try to keep up, inflammation continues to increase. By lowering stress, inflammation is reduced throughout the body, resulting in a reduction in the symptoms of chronic disease.

The practice of meditation is a simple one that anyone can perform once or twice a day for 10-15 minutes sessions. Sit comfortably cross-legged on the floor or in a chair with your feet flat on the floor and your spine straight. With eyes open or closed, simply bring your attention to your breath and notice it as it comes in and goes out. When your mind begins to wander (which it always will), just bring your attention back to the breath. Some find it useful to focus on each part of the body, mentally relaxing each muscle as you focus on it.
While there’s growing awareness among the general public that meditation can significantly improve people’s quality of life, there’s also plenty of evidence that meditation can offer specific physical and mental health benefits. If you’re interested in learning more, we encourage you to call or visit our office!

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