Mindfulness has been shown to reduce disease and improve health, having an impact on HIV-pathogenesis, depression, inflammation, psoriasis, and drug abuse amongst others. How does this work exactly? That’s what David Creswell and Emily K. Lindsay from Carnegie Mellon University explored in their recently published paper.
The working hypothesis is this: the body’s stress response has a negative impact on many diseases, and since mindfulness reduces stress, it therefore reduces disease. In studies looking at the effects of mindfulness on disease, mindfulness has the biggest impact on participants who are very stressed. Further, mindfulness helps most with diseases that are triggered or exacerbated by stress.
Creswell and Lindsay offer some specifics on how this might be possible. Overall, the thinking is that mindfulness changes the way we process stress in the brain, which then impacts our body’s stress response. Mindfulness helps activate the emotion regulation systems in our pre-frontal cortex. This is a much newer part of our brain (evolutionarily speaking) and regulates other parts of our brain. So for example, we may be emotionally triggered by something, and the deeper, more ancient parts of our brains are on a run away train with anger or fear. Our pre-frontal cortex will metaphorically step in and say “whoa whoa whoa, let’s take a look at what’s actually happening here. Let’s make some sense of it and maybe we’re actually safer than we thought, old brain parts, and we don’t need to get so carried away.” So greater activation in the pre-frontal cortex can help us regulate stress in this way. Research also supports that mindfulness can reduce the reactivity of those old, deep parts of the brain (e.g. the amygdala) in the first place.
Of course these brain systems are highly connected to the body. So when our brain gives the signal: “Things aren’t safe out there, prepare the troops!”, the body gets activated to prepare for some kind of attack. Mindfulness may reduce the strength of this connection, so that our bodies are less reactive to perceived stressors. Our bodies have a sympathetic nervous system response - that’s the “we’re preparing troops for battle” response. We also have a parasympathetic nervous system response - this is the “all is safe, so lets get some rest and build our reserves” kind of response. Initial research suggests that mindfulness training can reduce our sympathetic response to acute stressors as well as increase our parasympathetic activation. Basically, this means our bodies are able to live more of the time in a state of recovery and rebuilding, rather than one preparing for danger. This is important, because our body’s “prepare for danger” response, such as the release of the hormones norepinephrine and cortisol, can accelerate pathogenic processes and increase inflammation, which is bad news for many diseases. Bottom line: take a breath. Living in a calmer state can do wonders for your own strength and healing.