What’s the truth about mindfulness and our health?


It has been the craze among celebrities and CEOs for years.

Oprah Winfrey says meditation helped to build her $2.5billion fortune, while singer Katy Perry suggests that without mindfulness practices she would have given up on the music industry years ago.

It was written off as a fad for decades, but now a growing body of research suggests achieving calm states in the mind has measurable mental and physical benefits.

In Silicone Valley, a few quiet minutes with your thoughts long ago replaced the mantra of ‘I’ll sleep when I die’ and ‘Meditation rooms’ are becoming increasingly common at tech companies like Salesforce.

And it seems for good reason. Just this week, a study found that mindfulness meditation, breathing techniques and yoga were just as effective at lowering blood sugar among diabetics as standard drugs.

This was because it is believed to decrease levels of stress hormones in the blood, which is one of the mechanisms responsible for stopping cells taking up sugar.

That followed research last week which suggested just five minutes of breathing exercises a day could lower blood pressure. The researchers said the big dumps of oxygen in the body helps dilate blood vessels and allow  blood to flow through more easily.

Research has also indicated trendy mindfulness techniques can relieve pain as effectively as traditional painkillers, and even stimulate more intense orgasms.

However, the jury’s still out on exactly how well they work. Some scientists suggest it may just be the ‘placebo’ effect — when someone experiences a positive effect because they were expecting it.

Many studies rely on surveys and fail to use control groups which are the gold-standard for scientific research, meaning evidence from them is not water-tight.

HERE, DAILYMAIL.COM LOOKS AT WHAT THE SCIENCE SAYS ABOUT MINDFULNESS

Meditation is credited by many celebrities and CEOs for helping them reach their success. And now a growing body of scientific research suggests there are several measurable benefits to the practice. The key one scientists have found it that the practice eases stress, possibly because it leads to a reduction in the stress hormone cortisol. Just last week a study also suggested 20 minutes of breathing a day could lower blood pressure by causing vessels to dilate, allowing more space for blood to flow. A number of studies have even linked meditation to better orgasms, and some say it can boost the levels of melatonin – or sleep hormone – to help people get more shut-eye

Stress, anxiety and depression

Most Americans turn to meditation to help them handle stress — triggered by work, family life or financial troubles.

An ever-growing body of scientific research suggests it actually does help people relax and dispel feelings of anger, irritability or impatience.

A meta-analysis from 2014 reviewed 47 trials involving meditation among 3,515 people. The practice was associated with ‘moderate evidence’ of lowered stress, anxiety and depression in eight weeks.

Many were practicing transcendental meditation — where participants repeated a mantra in their minds for 15 to 20 minutes twice a day.  

The researchers theorized it lowers levels of the hormone cortisol — nature’s built-in alarm system — in turn lowering inflammation in the body.

What is meditation? 

Think of it as fitness for your mind. 

Meditation calms the body, thus reducing blood pressure, stress levels and improving all over mood. 

The objective of practicing mind-body activities is to use your thoughts to positively impact your body’s physical responses to the outside world. 

The practices are part of an overarching wellness trend that has been touted by celebrities and tech giants for years. 

These activities include…. 

Mindfulness 

The process of focusing one’s breath and focus on a particular thought, object or activity to foster a stable emotional state. 

Mindfulness is the ability to be fully present and aware of one’s surroundings.

 A common technique is to silently focus on each of the senses in turn.

Pilates and yoga

They involve breathwork and coordinated, concentrated movement.

Both low-impact exercises, they improve strength, flexibility and posture.

In yoga, you adopt positions and hold them, or flow into a different position.

Pilates sees people adopting positions and then working their core muscles by moving their arms or legs. 

Qigong, tai chi

Martial arts which promotes physical fitness as well as mental discipline.

Qigong and tai chi are traditional self-healing exercises originating from ancient China.

They feature coordinated movements focused on body posture, deep breathing and mental focus.

Qigong can include movement or simply sitting or standing mediation. 

Tai chi, on the other hand, involves complex and choreographed movements that match one’s breath. 

There are also suggestions it may be able to change structures in the brain linked to attention and emotion regulation — such as the amygdala which looks out for fearful and threatening situations.

Psychologists add that sitting still with your eyes closed for long periods raises awareness of negative thoughts, and how to counter-act them — also helping calm stress.

But some experts are warning that meditation does not always ease these feelings, and can actually have the reverse effect.

Another meta-analysis from 2020 suggested as many as one in 12 people who take up meditation actually experience the reverse effect — with it leading to panic attacks, suicidal thoughts and more anxiety.

Dr Miguel Farias, a psychologist at Coventry University in the UK who has done several studies on mindfulness, suggested the negative effects may be down to the intensity of practice and a potentially incompetent teacher.

But he also suggested it could be down to participants previously being unaware of the state of their mental health. 

There is also evidence that in rare cases meditation could be linked to schizophrenia —  where people struggle to interpret reality and experience hallucinations — according to a 2019 study in the Irish Journal of Psychological Medicine.

More than 40 million American adults are thought to suffer from stress or anxiety, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

Lower blood pressure 

There are some suggestions that mindfulness could help lower blood pressure.

Just last week a study found doing five minutes of breathing exercises every day had the effect after patients breathed through a device that created resistance.

And even the American Heart Association says it could have a ‘beneficial effect’, although they warn it should not be used in the place of other treatments. 

Scientists suggested it may be due to the practice dilating blood vessels, allowing more to flow through them.

Another paper from 2012 involved 101 adults who did 20 minutes of meditation a day for several months while their blood pressure was monitored. 

The group that did the meditation had a 48 per cent lower risk of death from heart disease and strokes up to seven years later. Blood pressure is a key risk factor for these conditions.  

Some papers have, however, found ‘no significant difference’ in blood pressure after meditation including one from 2013 in the American Journal of Hypertension where participants meditated 45 minutes a day for two months.

Another study from 2009 that looked at 298 university students with moderate blood pressure also found little drop in it after 40 minutes of meditation per day with their eyes closed for three months.

Both papers note that their results may be down to the small sample size they used, or because participants did not have severely high blood pressure.

In a statement last year, the AHA said: ‘Meditation was a reasonable adjunct to other cardiovascular risk reduction methods given its low cost and risk and its potential benefits.’

Nearly half of American adults — or more than 110million people — have high blood pressure, the CDC says. 

Improved Orgasms

Mindful meditation may be able to improve orgasms and sex lives, studies suggest.

One of the most well-known is a paper from 2018 that interviewed 450 women between 17 to 70 years old including 198 participants who already practiced meditation.

The researchers found that these women had higher scores for sexual arousal, lubrication, orgasm and desire than those who did not use the method.

Experts suggest this may be because meditation can reduce stress.

What is mindfulness? 

Mindfulness is a popular form of meditation in which you focus on being intensely aware of what you’re sensing and feeling in the moment.

The practice involves breathing methods, guided imagery, and other practices to relax the body and mind and help reduce stress.

It is often touted as a universal tool for boosting mental wellbeing by reducing stress, anxiety and depression.

Mindfulness has become popular in recent years as a way to improve mental and physical well-being. 

Celebrities endorsing it include Emma Watson, Davina McCall, Angelina Jolie and Oprah Winfrey.

How can it lower blood pressure?

It is thought that taking in deep breaths helps dilate blood vessels, allowing more blood to flow through them and lowering blood pressure.

Scientists believe having strong respiratory muscles allows for deeper breathing, increasing the effectiveness of the practice.

But researchers say it should not be a replacement for other healthy habits like exercise, which have benefits beyond just blood pressure. 

They also say it could help raise levels of dopamine and serotonin —  reward chemicals in the brain —, which may in turn raise sexual desire and appetite.

Another study from 2014, 26 women were asked to do three 90-minute mindfulness sessions over two weeks. Their sexual arousal was scored before and after the sessions via surveys, with results showing there was a ‘significant benefit’ to undertaking the arousal.

There have also been studies on men experiencing erectile dysfunction showing the method can raise their sexual enjoyment.

Little research has been carried out on this area, however, and more papers are needed. 

Better sleep

Mindfulness meditation may be able to help people struggling to settle down at night sleep longer.

But little evidence is available suggesting it improves the quality of sleep for those who get enough shut-eye.

Studies suggesting a link include a 2015 paper where 49 people who were about 66 years old and struggled to get to sleep were asked to either meditate for up to 20 minutes a day or take part in a ‘sleep hygiene’ course over a 10-week period.

Sleep hygiene is a Food and Drug Administration-approved treatment for trouble sleeping where participants are asked to try room changes — such as black-out curtains and having only dimmed lights — to improve their sleep.

Surveys showed that while both groups got better sleep and were less fatigued, improvements were significantly larger in the meditation group.

This may be because meditation reduces stress.

But could also be linked to the fact that it boosts melatonin levels — the sleep chemical — in the brain, helping someone to relax. 

Of the studies to look at how sleep improved in non-insomnia patients was a 2013 paper involving 336 women who had received operations for breast cancer.

It found that meditation only improved sleep among those who were already struggling to get some shut-eye, while there was no improvement for the rest.

Scientists suggest mindfulness can improve sleep because it may reduce stress in the brain and increase relaxation for users.

It can also lower levels of inflammation, which has similarly being linked to feelings of being more relaxed.

As many as 50 to 70 million Americans are thought to struggle to get the recommended eight hours, leaving them open to a host of health risks including heart disease, struggle focusing and even high blood pressure.

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