What Actually Is Mindfulness?
Mindfulness refers to a meditation practice that cultivates present moment awareness. It can be defined as paying attention to one’s inner and outer experiences in a nonjudgmental manner from moment to moment. Or, more simply put, it is paying attention to the current situation that you find yourself in, not flicking through Facebook while you’re at the dinner table.
Historically, it is thought to be a Buddhist practice, however mindfulness has been practised in many different religions including Hinduism, Christianity and Judaism for centuries.
The original purpose of mindfulness in Buddhism—to alleviate suffering and cultivate compassion—suggests a potential role for this practice with medical patients and practitioners  and this is why, for the last 30 or so years, the primary focus on mindfulness has been how it can improve our physical as well as our mental health.
Mindfulness And Our Health
It is actually quite astonishing how simply paying attention and focusing on the present situation improves our health. It truly shows just how fast life is zooming by and, with all the new, fancy, technological inventions that are occurring every second, we are letting it and actually not even noticing because we are too ‘focused’ on a million other things and not seeing our own health deteriorate. There are many ways that practicing the daily art of mindfulness is suggested to improve our physical and emotional health, and susceptibility to and recovery from disease, they are :
- Decreased perception of pain and severity
- Increased ability to tolerate pain and/or disability
- Reduced mental health ailments such as stress, anxiety and depression
- Minimise dependency on pharmaceutical drugs thereby reducing adverse effects
- Greater confidence in decision making regarding personal health care and medical choices
- Improved adherence to medical treatment
- Increased motivation for lifestyle changes
- Enriched interpersonal relationships and social connectedness
- Alterations in biological pathways affecting health such as the autonomic nervous system, neuroendocrine function, and the immune system
Really though, this list could be a lot shorter. All of these things could fall into three categories:
- Decreased psychological stress, thereby improved mental health
- Improved immune system
- Improved gut health
Mindfulness and Stress
The affect that stress has on our overall health is absolutely overwhelming. Everyone has some sort of stress in their life (don’t I know it!). The concept of stress originated in physics and is defined as an external force applied to a system, and strain is the change in the system that is due to the applied force . Simply put, stress occurs from an external force which, when regarding the human body, could be from many different sources including environmental, physical, behavioural, psychological, and of course dietary, and these forces then create a strain within the body.
That strain can manifest itself in a multitude of ways and, unfortunately with stress-related illness and diseases, they are a cascading event starting small and eventually turning chronic.
The three primary (and early) markers of stress influencing our health begin to show in our cortisol, our blood pressure and our heart rate.
Cortisol is our stress hormone; it is released from our adrenal glands in response to any stress to the body. This may be good stress (such as exercise) or bad stress (such as emotional trauma). The thing with cortisol is it is self regulating, meaning that it increases to help our bodies deal with whatever stress is occurring and then it will decrease and re-regulate when said stress is removed. The reason it is now becoming a health concern is because we are living our lives at full speed, doing a million things at once and exposing our bodies to continual, chronic stress. Even at night the exposure of EMFs from Wi-Fi, mobile phones and iPads can cause stress within our bodies. We are never, ever really giving our poor bodies a break!
You see, we only have so much stored cortisol. Our adrenal glands are teeny little things that sit just above our kidneys and they produce and store just enough cortisol to get us through a couple of standard stressors daily. With continual, chronic stress exposure our adrenal glands need to put in a lot of overtime (with no pay) causing them to burn out and simply give up! Excess cortisol (which can actually lead to not enough cortisol, which ironically is just as bad!) affects our health in a plethora of ways – it affects our sleep, it makes us tired in the morning and wide awake at night, it affects our mental health, can cause anxiety and other mood disorders, it affects our other hormones, our thyroid function, our sexual health, our digestion, our cognitive functioning and the list goes on.
Mindfulness has been studied on the effects it has at restoring our cortisol levels to within the normal and healthy ranges. A systemic review that was conducted earlier this year on the effects that mindfulness has on stress and anxious symptomatology revealed that mindfulness in either the form of meditation, yoga, focus or daily breathing exercises showed a decrease in salivary waking cortisol levels as well as depressive and/or anxious symptoms . The time frames in which these studies were conducted varied between 6-12 weeks indicating that the simple task of mindfulness can restore health quickly without the use of medication.
Our blood pressure and heart rate also fall victim to the attack of stress. Although these are also increased by cortisol they can cause their own long term chronic health conditions such as heart attacks and stroke. In the same systemic review, research has shown that mindfulness in the form of meditation, relaxation and breathing exercises all decreased both systolic and diastolic blood pressure as well as resting heart rates and anxious symptoms. It was also shown to improve emotional comprehension and emotional responses to further stressful situations .
Mindfulness And Our Immune Systems
Our immune system is made up of a network of cells, tissues, and organs that work together to protect the body. It is known to be greatly affected by our outside environment, what we choose to fuel our bodies with and the health of our mental and emotional wellbeing.
There are little things (they are proteins, actually) called antibodies that are made by the immune system to fight antigens (these can be viruses, bacteria, fungus and even cancer cells). Antibodies are specific to each type of foreign substance, e.g. if you get chicken pox your immune system will make specific chicken pox fighting antibodies. If your immune system makes low levels of antibodies you are at greater risk of developing recurrent infections of colds, flus, viruses, etc.
There are five main types of antibodies: they are IgA, IgG, IgM, IgE and IgD. They all have slightly different roles but work for the same company, so to speak. IgA’s main role is to protect body surfaces that are exposed to the outside environment such as the eyes, nose, genitalia, and digestive tract (huh?! I hear you say, how is our digestive tract exposed to outside? Well, it starts at our mouth and ends at our anus – these are both exposed to outside.) In fact our gastrointestinal levels of IgA are a great marker of our overall gut health and therefore immunity. As well, over 70% of our immune cells are located in the mucosal layer of our gut lining. So a healthy gut means a healthy immune system.
Individuals who participate in mindfulness meditation have been shown to have higher levels of salivary IgA, than those who do not participate at all ,.
Our White Blood Cells (WBC) are also very important to a well functioning immune system. These guys are like the soldiers who come and attack the invading antigen and kill it. There is a specific WBC that has been studied in its response to mindfulness and that is our CD4 (or T-lymphocyte) cell. This is the cell that is targeted by HIV, so it is very important to maintain CD4 levels if you are infected with HIV. Mindfulness is being closely researched in the role it has in this area. So far it is looking very promising and has already shown some benefits in certain studies , .
What About Our Gut?
Well, it wouldn’t be a Kultured Wellness blog without reference to the gut now, would it? Although the affect that mindfulness has on our direct gut flora has not been researched specifically (I’ll get there one day!) the areas that we have just discussed have.
Stress has a huge impact on our gut flora. Elevated and excess cortisol can affect the health of our beneficial guys dramatically by wiping them straight out. This can give rise to pathogenic bacteria dominating our gut environment.
It was mentioned earlier how over 70% of our immune cells are found within the mucosal layer of our gut. Our gut IS our immune system, and our immune system IS our gut. By actively participating in a practice that directly benefits the immune system, you are directly helping your gut. You are helping to keep inflammation down and create a habitable environment for our beneficial lactobacillus and bifidobacterium strains. Having a strong and healthy immune system will also help to keep invading pathogens and parasites at bay.
How Do I Be Mindful?
The art of practicing mindfulness doesn’t have to involve a full meditation whilst chanting OM over and over. It is simply all about focus, paying attention and not to judge the thoughts that arise. Just acknowledge that they have occurred and go back to focus.
You can apply mindfulness to many aspects of your life. Here is a list of activities that you may like to try.
- Pay attention to your breathing, nothing else. Just breathing in and out.
- Notice sounds around you. What can you hear right now?
- Notice what you can feel, e.g. the feeling of your clothes, air on your skin.
- Sit and colour or draw and pay attention to each line.
- Really listen to your friend or whoever you are talking to.
- Hear the music or radio or TV and really connect with the words.
- Taste your food. What are the flavours? Smells? Colours? Textures?
- Read slowly and try to focus. If your mind wanders, return your attention.
- Pay attention whilst you brush your teeth, or shave, or have a shower.
- Walk with purpose and notice your body and surroundings.
- Pay attention when you drive. Take your mind away from impatient thoughts.
- Take your mind away from your concerns by focusing on your house chores.
The simplest way to introduce mindfulness is just before bed. Lay in bed, no phone, no iPad, no TV. Put some calming music on if you feel it will help you focus. Lay still in the darkness listening to your breath. Hear the cars drive by or listen to the wind blowing outside. Really focus in to your surroundings and your emotions. Don’t let your mind drift to the things you didn’t achieve today or what needs to be done tomorrow. Just start with a few minutes until you find it easier to maintain focus. The benefits will start immediately.
Remember, time goes by in the blink of an eye and soon another year is coming to an end. Be grateful for your presence, be grateful for the people around you and give them your full focus and attention. Be mindful - don’t let your mind be full. As you can see, it pays off and everything else can wait.
- D. S. Ludwig; J. Kabat-Zinn, Mindfulness in Medicine, 2008, Pubmed
- S. Ayers; A. Steptoe, Stress and health. In: Cambridge Handbook of Psychology, Health and Medicine, Second Edition, 215-219, Pubmed
- M.C Pascoe; S.G Crewther, A Systematic Review of RCTs Examining the Effects of Mindfulness on Stress and Anxious Symptomatology, 2016, 12-17, Pubmed
- N. Morgan, MR Irwin, M. Chung, C. Wang, 2014, The Effects of Mind-Body Therapies on the Immune System: Meta-Analysis. PLoS ONE 9(7): e100903. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0100903
- J.D Creswell, H.F. Myers, S.W. Cole, M. R. Irwin, Mindfulness meditation training effects on CD4+ T lymphocytes in HIV-1 infected adults: A small randomized controlled trial, Brain, Behavior, and Immunity, 23, 2,184-188