Is everyone constantly telling you about meditation and why you should, but never giving you an actual reason? Does it all just sound like a bunch of BS? It’s not. Meditation can change the structural makeup of our brains and therefore change how our nervous system reacts to stress. Bear with me while I get a bit into the weeds of how our brain and hormonal system respond to stress, so we can get to the bottom of why meditation helps.
The HPA System
When we perceive a physical or psychological stressor, an area of our brain called the amygdala becomes active. The amygdala then sends out a slow signal and a fast signal. The fast signal goes to your brain stem which then releases a cascade of epinephrine and norepinephrine, better known as adrenaline. This quickly ignites our fight or flight response. Heart rate increases, blood pressure increases, blood flow increases, and focus increases. Basically it alerts that body that it is game time.
At the same time, a slower process is beginning that takes about 15 minutes. The initial burst gets you moving to start running from the lion, and this second system keeps you going until you are safe. Once again, the amygdala begins the cascade. This time, it sends a signal to an area of your brain called the hypothalmus. Once the amygdala alerts the hypothalamus it releases Corticotropin Releasing Hormone (CRH) into your system. The pituitary gland has a bunch of receptors for CTH. Once the pituitary gland senses enough of the hormone, it releases another hormone Adrenocorticotropic Hormone (ACTH) into the bloodstream. There are receptors to ACTH all over the body, but they are most concentrated in the Adrenal Glands. Once the adrenal glands sense enough of this hormone, they begin to release Cortisol into the bloodstream. The system also comes included with a feedback loop, so when cortisol levels get to a certain point, the hypothalmus and pituitary gland stop producing CRH and ACTH, allowing the system to go back to baseline.
Despite getting a bad rap, this cortisol release is a vital part of our makeup and necessary to handle these short stressors, immune system function, and sleep wake cycles. However, the system is not designed for our modern lifestyles. Our physical bodies have not adapted to our current environment, nor will they in our lifetime. Our nervous system is designed for short periods of stress. Think about being attacked from another tribe or by an animal. Rebuilding and relaxation follow the short periods of intense stress.
In modern society, we have a constant amount of mild stressors: deadlines, emails, phone calls, bills, etc. We are constantly connected secondary to our technology and therefore, never get a break from stress. Even jobs like police officer or firefighter that have intense high stress levels get no break from the minor stress of modern society.
The constant minor stress over time leads to dysfunction in the amygdala, hypothalamus, pituitary, and renal gland system. All of a sudden minor stresses get significantly intensified. The pituitary gland and adrenal glands become less sensitive to CRH and ACTH and therefore the system adapts and just starts pumping more hormones when stress is perceived. This leads to increased inflammation. Also, the amygdala becomes stronger to overcome these barriers. Basically you have strengthened the stress muscle. Because we are constantly under low level stress, the amygdala becomes super-charged. Basically, a bad combination of increased inflammation and a super-charged nervous system response occurs.
On the other side, when we are at relative rest Cortisol levels plummet. Our bodies need a certain level of cortisol to maintain sleep wake cycles, immune system function, and general well being. Our cortisol should be lowest in the evening right before bed, so we can fall asleep and then ramp back up in the morning to help us wake up and be alert. When the amygdala, hypothalmus, pituitary gland system is out of whack, this doesn’t occur. We then see disturbed sleeping patterns, chronic pain, increased stress, and chronic fatigue. This then turns into a vicious cycle and the story seems grim. Don’t worry, you don’t have to move to the hills and avoid modern society. There is something you can do!
How mediation helps
Mindfulness meditation is shown to decrease the overall size of the amygdala and help normalize function. Basically, you take the amygdala off the steroids and return it back to normal. This then leads to the downstream effect of assisting bringing cortisol levels back to normal. Therefore, decreasing stress, pain, and sleep disturbance. Stress, sleep disturbance, and pain are a nasty triad that the amygdala, hypothalmus, pituitary gland, adrenal system sits in the middle. To truly change sleep, pain, and stress we have to attack from the source: the brain.
Great news: researchers, Holzel and Lazar, found in 2011 that after just 8 weeks of mediation, individuals had changes in brain structures. Specifically, the amygdala. These were individuals who had no prior meditation experience. After 8 weeks of daily, short periods of mediation they showed significant brain structure changes on fMRI. Incredible. If you want to have a fighting chance to decrease stress, chronic pain, and sleep disturbance, you have to influence these brain structures. Meditation is a research-backed and completely free way to attack those systems with absolutely zero adverse effects.
There you have it folks. The science is catching up to the woo woo. If you want more information or to chat about this, follow us on Facebook or instagram. To schedule an appointment, visit us at Www.onwardrichmond.com.