The connection between mind-body has been well accepted for thousands of years by Eastern medicine and is now being recognized by conventional medicine. Unfortunately, as society becomes busier and “more productive”, the lack of our ability to slow down and rejuvenate is taking its toll.

According to Harvard Health:

The fight or flight response began as a survival mechanism that helped humans (and other mammals) react quickly to life-threatening situations. In the modern world, repeated activation of the stress response takes a toll on the body, contributing to high blood pressure, the development of artery-clogging plaque, and brain changes that may contribute to anxiety, depression, and addiction.

These chronic stress effects are not only affecting our body and mind negatively, but also our pocketbooks. WebMD reports:

  • Forty-three percent of all adults suffer adverse health effects from stress.
  • Seventy-five percent to 90% of all doctor’s office visits are for stress-related ailments and complaints.
  • Stress can play a part in problems such as headaches, high blood pressure, heart problems, diabetes, skin conditions, asthma, arthritis, depression, and anxiety.
  • The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) declared stress a hazard of the workplace. Stress costs American industry more than $300 billion annually.
  • The lifetime prevalence of an emotional disorder is more than 50%, often due to chronic, untreated stress reactions.

In fact, chronic stress can even lead to alternations in brain functioning on a more pathological level. The scientific journal Neuron studied this stress-mind connection and reported: “Chronic stress could trigger maladaptive changes associated with stress-related mental disorders.” They reported the mechanism of this connection via the excessive output of stress hormones affecting the neurotransmitter, glutamate. This decreased signal effected transmission to the prefrontal cortex (a part of the brain responsible for executive decision making, planning, and forethought).

I’ve spoken in the past about the gut-mind connection. Dr. Mercola summarizes this connection in his recent article:

  • Chronic stress results in alterations in your brain-gut connection, which can cause or worsen numerous gastrointestinal disorders, including inflammatory bowel disease, irritable bowel syndrome, food allergies, GERD and more
  • The stress response contributes to a number of detrimental events in your gut, including changes in gastrointestinal secretions, negative effects on intestinal microflora and an increase in intestinal permeability
  • Increasingly, scientific evidence shows that nourishing your gut flora with the friendly bacteria known as probiotics is extremely important for proper brain function, and that includes psychological well-being and mood control
  • Stress-reduction tools used in combination with dietary approaches to heal and support your gut can help improve your overall health on both physical and emotional levels

Further proof of this mind-gut connection is exhibited by the treatment of mood disorders with probiotics and other gastrointestinal support of the guts own nervous system, the enteric nervous system. This is due to the fact that over 70% of your brain’s neurotransmitters are actually made in the gut!  Last week, I highlighted this point when I focused on autism.

So, what to do about stress? Besides supporting your body physically with a strong foundation of healthy foods, meditation and other techniques have been shown to reduce the impact of stress:

Benefits of Meditation (Chopra Newsletter)

Here are just a few recent discoveries:

  • A study led by scientists at UCSF found that schoolteachers who underwent a short, intensive meditation program were less depressed, anxious, and stressed, while also experiencing greater compassion and awareness of others’ feelings. The study was published in the April issue of Emotion.
  • In study released in March, researchers at UCLA found that long-term meditators have larger amounts of gyrification (folding) of the brain’s cortex, specifically in the area of the insula – an area of the brain whose many vital roles include emotional awareness, attention, self-recognition, decision making, and sensing. The researchers found a direct correlation between the number of years study participants had practiced meditation and the amount of brain change, offering further possible evidence of the brain’s plasticity.
  • A groundbreaking study led by Harvard University and Massachusetts General Hospital in 2011 found that as little as eight weeks of meditation not only helped people experience decreased anxiety and greater feelings of calm; it also produced growth in the areas of the brain associated with memory, empathy, sense of self, and stress regulation.

What happens in the brain during meditation?
The emotional effects of sitting quieting and going within are profound. The deep state of rest produced by meditation triggers the brain to release neurotransmitters, including dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin, and endorphins. Each of these naturally occurring brain chemicals has been linked to different aspects of happiness:

  • Dopamine plays a key role in the brain’s ability to experience pleasure, feel rewarded, and maintain focus.
  • Serotonin has a calming effect. It eases tension and helps us feel less stressed and more relaxed and focused.  Low levels of this neurotransmitter have been linked to migraines, anxiety, bipolar disorder, apathy, feelings of worthlessness, fatigue, and insomnia.
  • Oxytocin (the same chemical whose levels rise during sexual arousal and breastfeeding), is a pleasure hormone. It creates feelings of calm, contentment, and security, while reducing fear and anxiety.
  • Endorphins are the chemicals that create the exhilaration commonly labeled “the runner’s high.” These neurotransmitters play many roles related to wellbeing, including decreasing feelings of pain and reducing the side effects of stress.

Read more ways to reduce stress at my blog.

WebMD. The Effects of Stress on Your Body. Reviewed by Amal Chakraburtty, MD on March 08, 2010. 2010 WebMD, LLC.

Mercola, J. How Stress Wreaks Havoc on Your Gut — And What to Do About It. Posted By Dr. Mercola. April 09, 2012.

Harvard Health Publications. How stress harms your physical and psychological health, from the Harvard Mental Health Letter. March 2011.

Yuen, E. et al. Repeated Stress Causes Cognitive Impairment by Suppressing Glutamate Receptor Expression and Function in Prefrontal Cortex. (abstract). Neuron, Volume 73, Issue 5, 962-977, 8 March 2012

The anxiolytic effect of Bifidobacterium longum NCC3001 involves vagal pathways for gut-brain communication. Neurogastroenterol Motil. 2011 Dec;23(12):1132-9. doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2982.2011.01796.x. Epub 2011 Oct 11.

Chopra, D. Rewire your Brain for Happiness. Chopra Center April 2012 Newsletter.