What does stress do to the human body

How many saber-toothed tigers tried to maul you to death today? Hopefully, the stressors in your life don’t involve an apex predator chasing you through the bush, as was the case for our cavemen ancestors. Still, stress affects us the same way it did them. We are wired for stress physiologically much the same way we were millennia ago, with our primordial fight or flight response well alive within us to keep us alert and safe.

Though not all stress is bad, we need a break from bad stressors, otherwise our health may begin to deteriorate.

Modern humans battle bad stressors that might not seem like a fight or flight scenario — staying in an unhealthy or challenging relationship with a partner; financial hardships; job dissatisfaction; drug and alcohol abuse; nagging in-laws — all this distress may cause the body to:

• Elevate blood pressure
• Increase heart rate
• Slow down digestion and metabolism
• Flood the bloodstream with chemicals like adrenaline and cortisol
• Tense up muscles

Have a white-knuckle commute on the freeway to work every morning? Welcome to this modern life’s version of the caveman being chased by the saber-tooth tiger. Though you might not have to flee your car and run, the same chemical cocktails are coursing through your body as the caveman’s.

Cortisol is one of those chemicals. Like adrenaline, it helps us deal with stress, but too much of it can be harmful to the body. Research has linked it to body fat storage around the abdomen. In turn, piling on the pounds around the belly can lead to heart disease.

Excessive cortisol flooding the bloodstream can lead to adrenal exhaustion. Some doctors believe that adrenal exhaustion (think: someone who is constantly tired) is the main culprit behind every chronic disease. Dr. Lawrence Wilson isn’t alone in thinking that the mainstream medical profession often fails to recognize adrenal burnout as a real health concern.

WebMD reports that 75 to 90 percent of all doctor visits are stress-related, but in its assessment of stress on the body, nowhere does it mention adrenal fatigue due to excess cortisol, which is sometimes referred to as “the stress hormone.”

Failing to cope with bad stress, and thus severely fatiguing the adrenal glands (which rest over the kidneys), has a domino effect on the body’s many symptoms and functions, including:

Hormonal (hormonal pathways can be disrupted)

Musculoskeletal (you won’t burn fat as efficiently and gain muscle)

Immune (adrenal fatigue from bad stress wreaks havoc on the immune system)

Digestive (bad stress slows digestion, chronic digestion problems may arise)

Cardiovascular (adrenal fatigue can lead to heart palpitations and other problems)


People who suffer long-term stress may also be more prone to obesity, according to a new study from University College London. The research, which involved examining hair samples for levels of cortisol and was published in the journal Obesity, showed that exposure to higher levels of cortisol over several months is associated with being more heavily, and more persistently, overweight.

While stress and weight long have been thought to go hand-in-hand (think stress eating and comfort foods), this study confirms the link by examining long-term cortisol levels in more than 2,500 men and women over a four-year period.

“People who had higher hair cortisol levels also tended to have larger waist measurements, which is important because carrying excess fat around the abdomen is a risk factor for heart disease, diabetes, and premature death,” Dr Sarah Jackson (UCL Epidemiology and Public Health) who led the research, said in a press release. “Hair cortisol is a relatively new measure which offers a suitable and easily obtainable method for assessing chronically high levels of cortisol concentrations in weight research and may therefore aid in further advancing understanding in this area.”

Weakened immune system:

As if mounting bills and a tenuous marriage weren’t enough stress to make your blood vessels dilate, your pupils enlarge, your breathing rapidly increase and your sweat glands kick into overdrive, perhaps reading that eating an unhealthy diet also plays a major role in contributing to adrenal fatigue.

How? Eating the wrong foods over many years can break down the mucosal barrier in your gut. Think of the mucosal barrier as the body’s second skin as well as the body’s first line of defense against pathogens, or unwanted nasty critters invading your gut.

Your immune system lies mostly in your gut, so if over the years you continue eating poorly, the integrity of the mucosal barrier system becomes severely compromised. In the long run, digestion is compromised. With most of your immune system residing in your gut, your immune system will weaken.

Concerned about what stress has done to your body? Seek a medical professional or alternative health practitioner who understands adrenal fatigue and knows how to restore hormonal pathways. A nutritional approach to battling stress should also be applied.

credit: Judd Handler

16 signs that your working out to hard

Make no mistake about it, regular exercise is probably the biggest factor in living a long and healthy life (not discounting healthy eating). But with boot camp-style workouts, triathlons, marathons and even ultra-marathons becoming increasingly popular, more athletes — both professionals and weekend warriors — are at risk for overtraining.

Here are several ways to tell that you’re working out too hard. The first five are acute, short-term symptoms, while the second group comprises more uncommon long-term consequences of overtraining.

Here are the obvious ones:

Trouble breathing or maintaining a conversation
Disorientation, foggy mental processing
Rapid heart beat
Dr. Guy Hornsby, director of the human performance lab at West Virginia University, adds another obvious sign that you’re working out too hard: injury.
“Many of us have gone out to the track and tried to sprint without properly training and have developed an acute musculoskeletal injury,” says Hornsby, who adds that when people work out in competitive, high-endurance environments like Crossfit and beach boot camps, many people may not pay attention to signs that they are overtraining or improperly executing movements.

“Take an Olympic lift like snatches,” he says. “The form may be fine for the first two or three repetitions, but when performed for an extended period of time, the nervous system begins to shut down, and if you keep going beyond your threshold, you’re setting yourself up for an injury like a long-term stress fracture.”

Here are some other not-so-obvious signs that you’re training too hard:

Disrupted or skipped menstrual cycles: An article in Journal of Family Practice suggests that excessive exercise could be one cause of secondary amenorrhea, which occurs when a woman who has been having normal menstrual cycles stops getting her periods for six months or longer.

Myocardial fibrosis: A thickening of the heart valves may occur with excessive training. A study published in the Mayo Clinic Proceedings says “long-term excessive endurance exercise may induce pathologic structural remodeling of the heart and large arteries.” If you don’t have a medical degree, it may seem innocuous — or even beneficial — if your heart and arteries go through some restructuring. Could it be that this restructuring improves blood flow? According to the study, “chronic training for and competing in extreme endurance events such as marathons, ultra-marathons, ironman distance triathlons, and very long-distance bicycle races, can cause … after months and years, patchy myocardial fibrosis. … Additionally, long-term excessive sustained exercise may be associated with coronary artery calcification, diastolic dysfunction and large-artery wall stiffening.” Even without a medical degree, you know this sounds bad. But endurance athletes can find solace in this: the study’s authors admit that endurance athletes generally have low mortality rates and excellent functional capacity.

Withdrawal symptoms: Excessive exercise can be addictive, and according to a study in Behavioral Neuroscience, lab rats that were given a drug that produces withdrawal in heroin addicts — naloxone — went into withdrawal after running excessively in exercise wheels. Rats that ran the hardest had the most severe withdrawal symptoms. The study’s authors argue that excessive running causes physiological responses in the brain’s reward system, similar to those associated with drug-taking behavior.

Hormonal imbalances: In addition to disrupting the female sex hormones and adversely affecting menstruation, training too hard can produce excess levels of cortisol, the so-called “stress hormone.” One study, published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, concluded, “Significant increases in salivary cortisol concentration occur in response only to long-duration, high-intensity exercise.” Excessive cortisol levels may lead to a decrease in testosterone and a weakened immune system, to name a couple of adverse reactions.

Immune function: Speaking of a weakened immune system, a study in the Journal of Applied Physiology concluded, “Post[-]exercise immune function depression is most pronounced when the exercise is continuous, prolonged [greater than an hour and a half], of moderate to high intensity (55–75 percent maximum oxygen uptake), and performed without food intake. Periods of intensified training (overreaching) lasting one [week] or more can result in longer-lasting immune dysfunction.”

Not seeing any of the signs above? If you’re experiencing any of the following remaining five symptoms, you may also be exercising too hard:

Moody, easily agitated or depressed
Disrupted sleep patterns
Apathetic, lethargic and averse to competition
Decreased appetite accompanied by weight loss, particularly muscle mass
Frequent sickness or flu-like symptoms
Last but not least, the #1 sign you’re overtraining
“Overtraining is marked by cumulative exhaustion that persists even after recovery periods,” says Dr. Mark Jenkins, associate team physician for Rice University and a contributor to Runner Triathlete News. If you’re too beat to function at work or finish those chores around the house, you may have overdone it.

How much is too much?

Everybody is different, but the American Heart Association currently recommends that adults stick with 150 minutes per week of moderate exercise or 75 minutes a week of vigorous activity. Stay within that zone and you’ll likely avoid any symptoms of overtraining.

source: Judd Handler

Meditation helps alleviate gut symptoms by altering genetic signals

If you thought meditation was only good for your emotional well-being, think again. A new study shows that meditation may actually alleviate the symptoms of two gut disorders by altering certain genetic signals.

The study looked at people who had either irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) or irritable bowel disease (IBD). It found that doing yoga and meditating regularly for two months eased the symptoms associated with the two gut disorders, the researchers said.

This mind-and-body intervention seemed to work by inducing genetic changes in the body, the study authors said. The findings suggest that stress-relieving meditation can suppress the activities of certain genes responsible for causing inflammation and other immune system problems in patients suffering from IBS or IBD, the study stated.

Previous research has shown that meditation can change people’s gene expression in some ways, but the new study is among the first to show an impact on gene expression in patients with a specific disease, said lead researcher Dr. Braden Kuo, a gastroenterologist at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. The study used a mind-body technique called Relaxation Response, which a Harvard University doctor developed in the 1970s.

The new findings are especially interesting given that researchers have established a relationship between stress and digestive problems. Research has shown that psychological trauma can contribute to IBS, a disorder that leads to abdominal pain, constipation and diarrhea.

The condition is fairly common in the United States, affecting about 1 in every 10 people at some point in their lives, according to the International Foundation for Functional Gastrointestinal Disorders. Yet scientists do not exactly know what causes the disorder. [7 Biggest Mysteries of the Human Body]

Although IBS and IBD can be mistaken as the same condition, they are actually very different, and IBD is much less common. Unlike IBS, IBD involves chronic inflammation of the digestive tract. The two main types of IBD are ulcerative colitis, which affects the colon, and Crohn’s disease, which mostly affects the intestines, but can also occur anywhere in the digestive system.

However, IBS and IBD also share some common factors: Both can be triggered by stress, and neither one has real treatment options. The drugs currently available can only lessen the severity of symptoms and bring some temporary relief.

In the new study, researchers enrolled 19 patients with IBS and 29 patients with IBD. They all underwent a nine-week program that included breathing exercises, meditation and yoga. The patients met for a 1.5-hour group session every week, and practiced the activities at home for 15 to 20 minutes every day. The researchers assessed the patients’ symptoms before, after and midway during the study, and took blood samples for genetic analyses. However, the study design did not incorporate a separate control group of patients who did not practice meditation.

At the end of the study, the patients reported a reduction in their symptoms compared with what they experienced at the study’s start. A genetic analysis of their blood provided evidence of changes in genetic pathways related to the two disorders.

Significantly, more genetic changes were observed in IBD patients than in patients with IBS, said Manoj Bhasin, who co-authored the study and is the director of bioinformatics at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston. Researchers found that more than 1,000 genes were altered in IBD patients over the study period, whereas only 119 genes changed in the people with IBS.

There was one inflammation-related gene, called NF-kB, whose activities were suppressed in both groups, according to the study. This indicates that meditation and similar practices can offset stress and inflammation, the researchers said.

“In both IBS and IBD, the pathway controlled by a protein called NF-kB emerged as one of those most significantly affected by the relaxation response,” Dr. Towia Libermann, a senior researcher in the study and an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School in Boston, said in a statement. It’s possible that relaxation techniques could help both people with IBS and those with IBD, he said.

The researchers noted two important limitations in their study: First, two tests that measured certain markers of inflammation in the blood showed no changes over the study period. Second, previous research has shown that even a placebo can sometimes produce adequate relief of IBS symptoms.

More studies, such as randomized trials that include a control group, are needed before a program of meditation and yoga could be suggested as a treatment for patients with these disorders, the researchers said.

The study was published on April 30 in the journal PLOS ONE.

Read more: http://www.mnn.com/health/fitness-well-being/stories/at-one-with-the-belly-meditation-may-ease-gut-ailments#ixzz3fA79EBoi

25 Minutes of This Will Get Rid of Your Stress

In just half an hour, by focusing on your breathing, you can start to relax and melt away your cares.

Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University investigated how effective mindfulness meditation can be in countering the body’s stress response. For that type of meditation, you need a laser-like focus on your breathing, and, some advocates say that as your body fills up with air, your muscles contract. That helps you to push out other distractions — like deadlines or your to-do list — and start to relax.

They randomly assigned 66 volunteers to either participate in mindful meditation for 25 minutes for three days, or go through a cognitive training program in which they learned how to analyze poetry passages. The people who meditated reported less stress, and even showed that they were better at coping with stress compared to those who relied on their behavior training.

The new study, published in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology, is not the first to show the positive effects of mediation. An analysis from February showed that Transcendental Meditation (TM)–a 20 minute mediation that simply requires closing your eyes and quieting down outside thoughts — sometimes by repeating a mantra — significantly lowered teacher stress and burnout. Fans of TM include chef Mario Batali, music mogul Russell Brand, Paul McCartney, Arianna Huffington, and Dr. Mehmet Oz. Now it looks as if there’s some promising science to back them up.

Source: Time

Yoga’s variance helps bodies stretch out, work out and chill out

I used to think yoga wasn’t for me because I can’t touch my toes. Can’t even come close.

But it turns out that just as people come in all shapes and sizes and levels of bendiness, yoga, too, is anything but one-size-fits-all.

Some classes are set to music, while others see value in silence. In one class, you might move quickly from one pose to another, but other styles of yoga get you into a pose and have you stay a while.

What all kinds of yoga have in common are the benefits.

“Originally people thought of yoga as a cult or a religion, or just sitting, meditating,” said Raleigh yoga instructor Roxane Banville. “Yoga is so much more than that. It’s connecting your mind with the body, but it’s the letting go, it’s the exercise, it’s all the benefits that it gives you – physical, emotional, medical, spiritual.”

Yoga practitioners gain flexibility and strength, of course, but they also find it relieves stress, improves sleep, eases back pain and other problems and can even enhance athletic training.

You can find many kinds of yoga in studios across the Triangle, and there’s no need for a beginner to be shy.

Many studios offer the first class free or for a low cost. For people who want to sample many different studios and yoga types, there’s the Passport to Prana ( tryyoga.com), a card that for one $30 fee lets you take one class at each participating studio – currently, there are 30 studios on board in the Triangle, said Banville, who is a local coordinator for the program.

Shopping around is important, because the right fit of style and teacher can really make or break your yoga experience. It can also help keep you safe.

I was curious to know more about yoga myself, so I decided to put on some yoga pants and find out.

Vinyasa yoga

Vinyasa yoga, put simply, is “meditation in motion.”

That’s how Nicole Nichols, owner of Republic of Yoga in Cary, describes it.

“Vinyasa involves a sequence of events that are combined with breath and movement,” she told me. “Your movement is continuous and never stops, and the inhale is connected to the exhale so the breathing is seamless.”

Even when a sequence is challenging to your strength or balance (or both!), she said, “the idea is to keep the breath the same, even and steady throughout the duration of the practice regardless of the level of challenge.”

In the 90-minute “Slow Flow” class I took, we moved from pose to pose, with Nichols talking us through both the movements and the breathing. Toward the end of class, the movement slowed down a bit, leading to a meditation session.

Frankly, this was the part I was most worried about. I have a brain that never shuts up. But after a while, the meditation actually started to work. I can’t say I reached enlightenment, but then again that’s not the goal.

“Our minds are now being trained to multitask at such a high rate that it’s very hard to focus anymore,” Nichols said. “I think in doing that, we miss a lot of the beauty of the present moment. So meditation is just a way to take a few minutes out of your day, to go off of auto-pilot and just tune in and just listen to yourself.”

Alignment yoga

I am not a patient person.

So I wasn’t sure how I’d do in an alignment-based yoga class, where the point is to get the poses just right and then stay in them for a long time. Up to two minutes sometimes, which doesn’t sound like much until you’re standing on one foot, legs deeply bent and torso twisted to one side, staring at a spot on the wall to hold your balance.

But I also believe in doing things right, and that’s why alignment yoga takes such a methodical approach.

B.K.S. Iyengar developed the yoga style that now bears his name in India in the 1960s, with an emphasis on alignment, careful sequencing of poses and the use of props.

Jane Barrett of Raleigh Yoga Center, whose training has been from Iyengar teachers, brings that focus to her classes. On a stormy Friday morning, Barrett led students through a sequence of twisting poses (other classes focus on other movements, such as splits or handstands). We used straps to deepen leg stretches, blocks to keep our backs straight and arms firmly planted during deep lunges and bolsters (a firm rectangular cushion) to enable some gentle back bends.

Through it all, Barrett offered corrections to the class and, as needed, to individuals. The adjustments seemed small – straightening a leg or moving a hip just a little bit that way – but made a big difference in how the pose felt.

“Alignment is really important for the safety and the structure of the pose,” Barrett said. “It’s like creating a building. If your foundation is solid and level, that building is safe, sturdy, you can go right up to the top floor.”

It wasn’t easy to stay in some of those poses for a long time. My legs shook from fatigue, and I struggled to keep my breathing calm. But with all that time to think, and to really feel the pose, I got tuned in to my body in a way that rarely happens in everyday life. And that was a feeling I wasn’t so inclined to rush out of.

Hot yoga

While I wasn’t exactly huffing and puffing through the classes I took, I most certainly did work up a sweat at each one. And in a hot yoga class, that’s the whole point.

The idea of doing yoga in a hot room was pioneered in the 1970s by Bikram Choudhury, but since then the practice has evolved in many directions, and these days not all hot yoga is Bikram yoga. But it is all hot. Like around 100 degrees hot.

“Beginners tend to push too hard and not hear all the instructions going around the room from the teacher,” said Monica Shannon, owner of Open Door Yoga in Raleigh. So Bikram introduced heat to keep people safe, and the idea caught on.

“You’re warmer, so you’re going to be a little more flexible and a little looser, which means that when you kind of push into areas that are tight or restricted, or let’s say you push really hard in a posture with bad alignment, you’re less likely to irritate the muscle fibers because they’re soft and pliable,” said Shannon, whose style is different from Bikram’s in both sequence and temperature.

Open Door’s studio is 90 degrees on one side and 105 degrees on the other. There were maybe a few seconds of “ahhhh” when I placed my mat in the middle of the room after coming in from a chilly day outside, but before long I started to panic a little. Because 100 feels really hot in the middle of winter. And knowing you’re in for an hour and a half of some pretty serious stretching and bending in that heat is enough to make you sweat before you even start moving.

Within 10 minutes of starting class, I was drenched. Sweat rolled from my forehead, down my nose, and dripped onto the towel on top of my mat. It soaked my shirt and made my feet slippery – which sounds pretty miserable, I realize, and yeah, it was uncomfortable at times. And certainly stinky. But after a while, I didn’t notice so much.

It depends on you

In each of the classes I sampled, there were high points (like that one time I got just a little closer to touching my toes than I’ve ever gotten before) and low points (all those times I heard “right leg” and promptly moved my left). But I came out of each class feeling great, physically and mentally, and empowered to try again. Because it’s not about what you do “right” or “wrong,” or whether you can keep up with the class or whether maybe you need to sit out a few poses toward the end. It’s about how you feel, during and after. And that all depends on you.

“I think as long as people remember that the idea is to breathe, and relax, and do what you can, they’re going to come out feeling more relaxed, they’re going to come out feeling a lot better, more blissful,” Banville said. “They’re going to sleep better that night.”

Source: NewsObserver.com

Aummm…Intel employees use mindfulness and meditation to cut stress

Jobs in the high-tech sector can be stressful, requiring serious multitasking and taxing one’s ability to focus. But 1,500 Intel Corp. employees have looked within and taken to meditation and mindfulness training to combat stress and increase focus.

The chip maker, based in Santa Clara, Calif., with 102,000 global employees (including almost 1,400 here in Austin), has been offering Awake@Intel for the past year. It started in Hillsboro, Ore., where most of the participants are located, but it has also been adopted at Intel’s Folsom site and is offered virtually to some teams around the globe.

It started with an informal Tuesday lunchtime group, led by Lindsay Van Driel, an operations manager in Intel’s Business Client Platform division who is certified in yoga and meditation instruction.

Van Driel said she learned about mindfulness programs at Google and General Mills and attended “Wisdom 2.0,” an intensive, two-day conference that delves into “the intersection between high tech and mindfulness.”

She started to blog internally at Intel and connected with Qua Vega, an IT strategy and market research analyst who also had a Tuesday mindfulness group.

They collaborated on developing a nine-week mindfulness program, led by Van Driel and Anakha Coman, who has also coached employees at Nike Inc. and Oregon Health & Science University.

The program, now in its sixth quarter with up to four groups going at once, costs $500 per employee, which comes out of the training budget for each business group. Intel’s total investment so far has been about $75,000.

The 90-minute weekly sessions receive quite a few newbies — at least half of whom typically have never meditated before, Van Driel said. Many of them stick with the classes.

“A switch gets flipped and they want more,” she said.

Marne Dunn, a digital literacy strategic program manager at the Folsom campus, took Awake@Intel twice and has co-taught it.

“The main benefits are aroused awareness of myself and how critical I am of myself and not allowing negative self-talk. It was a matter of being frustrated that I wasn’t getting anywhere and I wasn’t being heard. I was finding when you have negative stuff going on, you’re projecting that,” Dunn said.

She feels that the classes have improved her interactions with her peers and direct reports alike and made her more aware of “what’s going on with them and to read their body language.”

A typical session starts with five minutes of meditation. Everyone gets in a comfortable position, closes their eyes and focuses on the flow of their breath.

“You’re taking your consciousness from external factors to the inner landscape, using your breath as a focal point,” Van Driel said. “It helps you build that muscle that is awareness. We’re asking people to arrive in the present moment and let go of everything outside the doors.”

This is followed by the reading of a poem and reflection questions. Everyone writes in a journal for a few minutes. A sample topic might be, “How would you like to use the power of intention in your life?”

Next, they share their writings and sometimes view a slide show related to the topic. The session ends with more meditation related to the topic at hand.

The results, based on surveys, have been positive so far. Participants have reported increases in focus and decreases in stress.

“From what we’ve seen anecdotally, a myriad of feedback, they’re engaging with their team in a way that’s more productive and solving problems faster, and there are instances of people coming to technical breakthroughs,” Van Driel said.

While the benefits are difficult to monetize and quantify, it’s important to have something to show for if corporate support for the program is to continue.

“We pretty much have to prove results to do this,” Van Driel said. “At the end of the day, the executives want to know how we’re impacting the bottom line.”

Yoga, Meditation Does Away with High-Blood Pressure Medications

An intervention program that combines yoga and meditation can help manage prehypertension, often referred to as borderline high blood pressure.

he study reported in Psychosomatic Medicine: Journal of Biobehavioral Medicinefound that the mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) program helped lower blood pressure in people diagnosed with prehypertension.

Mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) is a program developed by Dr Jon Kabat-Zinn from the University of Massachusetts Medical Center in the US that combines mindfulness meditation with yoga.

Researchers looked at 56 people, both men and women. All participants had prehypertension, a situation where blood pressure crosses the normal level, but does not reach a point where medication is required. The condition is among the major medical concerns as it can increase the risk of cardiovascular diseases, including heart disease.

The participants were divided into two groups. The first group received the MBSR program for two-and-half hours per week, while the rest took a program that included lifestyle advice and muscle relaxation activity. The program concentrated on body scan exercises, yoga and meditation.

At the end of the study, the researchers found that the yoga and meditation-based program helped lower systolic blood pressure in the first group -both the first high number (5mm Hg) and the second lower number (2mmHg), compared to the second group (1 mm Hg and 1 mm Hg, respectively).

“Our results provide evidence that MBSR, when added to lifestyle modification advice, may be an appropriate complementary treatment for BP in the prehypertensive range,” Dr. Joel W. Hughes, from the Kent State University, Ohio in the US, said in a news release. The authors added that mindfulness-based interventions can help avoid the need to take antihypertensive medications.

“Mindfulness-based stress reduction is an increasingly popular practice that has been purported to alleviate stress, treat depression and anxiety, and treat certain health conditions,” Dr Hughes added.

The power of yoga in keeping the mind and body relaxed and curing many deadly diseases is well known. A study presented at the International Conference on Endgame for Tobacco, held in Delhi last month, provided solid evidence to prove that yoga can help smokers to quit their habit.

Another study published in the Journal of Yoga and Physical Therapy, recently reported that yoga can treat early stage diabetes and heart disease, effectively.

How Yoga Might Save the U.S. Trillions of Dollars, And A Lot of Lives

Scientific evidence is mounting daily for what many have long sensed: that practices like mindfulness, meditation, and yoga can help us address certain intractable individual and societal problems.

Prominent companies – Google, General Mills, Target, Apple, Nike, AOL, and Procter & Gamble among them – and prominent individuals have already embraced this possibility. Tim Ryan, the Ohio congressman who wrote the book A Mindful Nation, has been a big proponent of bringing mindfulness to the masses. He, along with others, believes that mindfulness should be a part of everyone’s day, to help wire our brains to deal with our many modern stressors.

And, perhaps more importantly for our global health, for kids dealing with extreme stressors, traumas and abuse, putting these practices into schools could be the difference between failure and success.

Last month, a group of American and Canadian scholars, researchers, businesspeople, and yoga teachers came together for a weekend at Omega Institute to discuss how this group of practices that helps us self-regulate as individuals could, quite possibly, help us regulate on a society level. The issues the country is facing – the massive dropout rate of school kids, substance abuse among all age groups, PTSD among veterans, the staggeringly high incarceration and recidivism rates – cost the country volumes in human potential, not to mention trillions in dollars. There are no single solutions, but the evidence suggests that some or all of these problems may be amenable to the practices that have been shown to redirect attention, improve concentration, increase self-control, and endow people with reliable and healthy coping mechanisms in the face of stress and trauma.

Some of the faculty at Omega’s conference have been key players in making this happen. BK Bose, PhD, of the Niroga Institute, a former Silicon Valley engineer who grew up practicing yoga, now works to make mindfulness/meditation/yoga the game-changer that many believe it can be. Rob Schware, PhD, who heads the Give Back Yoga Foundation and the Yoga Service Council, and writes for the Huffington Post, brought his two decades of management experience with World Bank to help grow the movement as a second career. Many, including Bose and Schware, say that the “school-to-prison pipeline,” a famously insidious and costly problem in lives lost and money wasted, is one of several that could be altered by a little mindfulness training early on in life.

In terms of economic cost alone, Cecelia Rouse at Princeton estimates that one high school dropout “costs” about $260,000 in lost earnings over his or her lifetime. Given the fact that at least a million kids drop out of school every year, the annual cost of school failure alone is estimated at $260 billion. As Bose points out, “Over ten years, the cost is upwards of 3 trillion dollars. And this is just for dropping out alone.”

If you continue the trajectory a little further, he says, based on the relatively common course that can include juvenile hall and prison, the numbers grow. “The school-to-prison pipeline is incredibly costly,” says Bose. It can cost upwards of $250,000 per year to keep an inmate in prison, if you factor in all the direct and indirect costs that tend to come with it, like loss in productivity, damage to the family, the escalated health and mental health costs. “Folks have been looking at career criminals – and estimates over their lifetimes are between $4-7 million. If you apply this to all those who land in jail over and over again, the numbers become stratospheric.”

One approach is to increase school retention; the national dropout rate is between 25% and 35%, and up to 50% in inner city schools. But if you go back a necessary step, Bose argues, the real culprits are enormous stresses and traumas that are so often present in the kids’ lives. “The single common denominator is stress: Chronic stress, toxic stress, traumatic stress, primary and secondary post-traumatic stress. Trauma is endemic. The tentacles of stress and trauma run right through – domestic abuse, substances abuse, poverty, racism. And once a kid drops out, homelessness, substance abuse, juvenile delinquency, crime, violence are just waiting to pounce. Not to mention the boatload of chronic disease, metabolic syndrome, hypertension, diabetes… You start to see this powerful trajectory between school failure and adult outcomes.”

And this is where the capacity to cope becomes highly relevant. Methods that train the brain attend differently, self-regulate, and respond to stressors are one part. “If you look to neuroscience,” says Bose, “it tells us that stress, among other things, disrupts brain functioning, especially in the prefrontal cortex. And the same neuroscience is also saying there’s also class of practices that mitigate all of this: Mindfulness.”

There’s some good evidence for the idea. In 2011, a Harvard study showed that mindfulness is linked to increased gray matter density in certain cortical areas, including the prefrontal cortex and regions involved in self-referential thoughts and emotion regulation. There seems to be a strong connection between mindfulness and the brain machinery involved in self-regulation. Other work has shown mindfulness to be linked to relative de-activation of the default mode network (DMN), the brain system that’s active during mind-wandering and self-referential “worry” thoughts, which are generally stressful in nature. Indeed Jon Kabat-Zinn, MD at UMass has developed his career to developing the mindfulness-based stress reduction program (MBSR) to helping people learn to change the stress response.

This is all well and good, Bose adds, but there’s an obvious caveat. When they’re in the midst of stress and trauma, few kids have the ability to sit still enough to take part in a sitting practice. “If you’re not ready to sit in classroom,” says Bose, “you’re not ready to do sitting meditation. If you have drugs and gangs and violence all around you, you simply can’t sit still. Teachers tell us that they often yell at kids 100 times a day to sit and pay attention. It doesn’t work. And to ask them to do this in the context of meditation can have a worse-than-neutral effect – it could be disastrous.”

So, you have to go beyond the neuroscience-of-meditation field and look to the trauma research, which tells us that physical activity can help the brain deal with stress and trauma. “Trauma research tell us that we hold trauma in our bodies… The dorsolateral prefrontal cortex doesn’t even talk to the amygdala. Neuroscience says mindfulness; trauma research says movement. All of the sudden you’ve got moving meditation or mindfulness in motion. Mindfulness alone isn’t going to cut it for these kids.” One theory is that because the executive areas of the brain can be affected by stress and trauma, “getting in” through another avenue is key. Indeed, some studies have shown that physical activity can enhance cognitive control via the prefrontal cortex in children, and exercise is well known to enhance neurogenesis in brain regions like the hippocampus, in you and old alike, which can be affected by stress.

Therefore, Bose and his colleagues have done what are also beginning to, combining movement and mindfulness into one program, called Transformative Life Skills (TLS), which incorporates elements of movement, attention training and relaxation skills. The 18-week program can be introduced to schools relatively cheaply. The research so far has shown that it can be extremely helpful in helping kids reduce levels of negative thinking, negative affect, revenge motivation, depression, emotional arousal, physical arousal, rumination, perceived-stress, attitudes toward violence; and it’s been associated with greater levels of self-control, tolerance for distress, and school engagement.

The return-on-investment seems to speak for itself. The cost of training and coaching 50 teachers in TLS is $5,000. And if they work with 1,000 students, works out to be about $5 per kid. If even one kid took a different path in life, the program would be worth the investment many times over.

And similar programs, like the one run by the Holistic Life Foundation, Inc. (HLF) serving inner city schools in Baltimore, have found just this. Ali Smith, Executive Director, who founded the program along with his brother and college friend as a way to bring meditation to “at-risk” kids, has seen the results firsthand. So has the early research. Smith and his brother grew up in this hectic environment, but his parents had them mediate every day before school. He says he didn’t understand its purpose so much back then, but it made a difference on some level, and sparked his and his brother’s desire to give back in the same way as they got older. He hopes that mindfulness will be a part of every school day in the future: “Even just to give kids a moment of stillness in their day, so that they stop, and can have inner and outer silence… That would be amazing.”

One problem with this type of service at this juncture is the relatively small size of the operations. Though service programs are growing, many are still local in reach, and affect people only on the order of tens or hundreds per year. “What I see happening,” says Schware, “is a lot of very fired up yoga teachers who want to serve; so they go work in drug rehabs or jails.” After a year or two, though, many realize they can’t pay their bills while doing this work, so find themselves in a difficult position. “And if you’ve set up a nonprofit,” adds Schware, “it’s even harder financially.” The Yoga Service Council helps many of these small non-profits become sustainable, but it’s unclear where the future of the industry really lies here, or in a larger domain.

“The math is pretty simple and clear,” says Schware. “We’re going to get our money back many, many times over. There’s a huge potential return on investments, if we’re going to implement these thingssystematically.” Policy-level initiatives would, of course, be ideal, and they may come in time. Hopefully the right people will see the connection sooner than later.

“This is about more than just mindfulness,” says Bose. “It’s about the integration of these modalities. This is not some feel good, foo-foo practice from the Himalayas. This is based in cutting edge neuroscience, trauma research, and in somatic psychology. This is vital to ensure our well-being, and to our economy.  Let’s come together under the banner of transformative practices, and put forward the essence of yoga, not the hype. This is simple. Anyone can do this, anytime, anywhere. If you can move, if you can breathe, then you can do the practice.”

Three ways yoga can improve your career

We’ve all heard about the benefits of yoga for reducing stress, but can it directly benefit your career?

The founder and principal teacher of Adore Yoga, Nikola Ellis, says yoga has the potential to improve your confidence and performance in the workplace – and not just because it makes you feel less stressed.

Traditional yoga and yoga therapy uses different practices to address psychological issues, as well as the physiological, changing the way our bodies move and how we perform in a high-pressure work environment.

  1. Be more powerfulAccording to Ellis, what you do with your body can influence your mindset and this directly affects your behaviour and outcomes in the workplace.

    “For women, the benefits of performing strong, powerful poses has been amply demonstrated by Harvard psychologist Amy Cuddy, who noticed that the reticent body language of female MBA students corresponded to their lower levels of engagement in the ‘hands on’ components of the program, when compared to their male counterparts,” Ellis explains.

    “She ran a study that showed that ‘power positions’, similar to yoga’s Warrior poses, can change our brain chemistry and behaviour in a way that creates stronger engagement, confidence and performance.”

    This, says Ellis, is what yoga has been doing for centuries. Working with students in private sessions up to groups of no larger than six, Ellis helps people prepare for a challenging day ahead or that important pitch or meeting by using physical poses and breathing practices that are designed to create stability, strength and power, allowing people to stand their ground in the office and keep their minds calm.

    “This helps to steer them towards the outcomes they want, rather than being reactive to a pressured environment,” she says.

    “In yoga we move people’s body in a way that changes how they feel and then that allows them to move forward with confidence.”

  2. Be better at decision-makingYoga ensures that our decision-making is based in reality and helps us to be more mindful, according to Ellis.

    “Our decisions are often informed by past experiences or projections that rely on a flawed understanding of the situation,” she says. “Yoga teaches you to be mindful of every moment, taking your perceptions off ‘auto-pilot’ so that your decisions are based on a real-world understanding, rather than assumptions or reactive triggers.”

    Yoga teaches us to pay attention to how our thoughts are affecting our body and our breath. Ellis says it’s through this process of continually watching ourselves and picking up on our own patterns of behaviour that yoga can teach us to become present and not to react to someone in a work environment by projecting past experiences into the future.

  3. Become a better leaderThe practice of yoga requires us to work on our ‘edge’, which Ellis describes as “the place where we fully challenge and extend ourselves, yet remain calm and comfortable”.

    Constantly working along this edge, says Ellis, yoga teaches us how to continually challenge ourselves while staying controlled.

    “That is how we achieve and sustain peak performance. When we work with yoga, the idea is that it doesn’t matter what poses you are doing, you take yourself to a point where it’s challenging and sometimes to a place you didn’t think you could go,” she says.

    “In a work environment we need decision-makers who are not afraid and who are able to challenge themselves in new ways and push themselves right up to that edge, but know when to pull themselves back before the challenge turns into unmitigated risk.”

    Yoga teaches self-discipline and self-control which are key to good leadership.

    “A leader is like a parent,” says Ellis. “You cannot have low self-awareness to inspire confidence, trust and inspiration and that’s exactly what yoga teaches.”

Meditation Beats Anxiety By Activating Certain Brain Regions, Study Finds

Mindfulness meditation — nonjudgmental awareness of thoughts and emotions — is known for its anxiety-busting powers, and now scientists are getting a better understanding of why it has this impact in the brain.

Researchers from Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center found that meditation has effects on activity of particular brain regions, namely the anterior cingulate cortex — which controls thinking and emotions — and the ventromedial prefrontal cortex — which controls worrying. Meditation seems to increase activity in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, and decrease activity in the anterior cingulate cortex.

“Mindfulness is premised on sustaining attention in the present moment and controlling the way we react to daily thoughts and feelings,” study researcher Fadel Zeidan, Ph.D., a postdoctoral research fellow in neurobiology and anatomy at the medical center, said in a statement. “Interestingly, the present findings reveal that the brain regions associated with meditation-related anxiety relief are remarkably consistent with the principles of being mindful.”

The study, published in the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, included 15 people who had normal levels of everyday anxiety (with no history of anxiety disorders) and who had never meditated before. The participants underwent brain scans to track their brain activity at the start of the study, and also had their anxiety levels measured, before taking classes to learn how to do mindfulness meditation.

After the training — which consisted of four 20-minute classes — researchers measured the participants’ anxiety levels again, and also had them undergo brain scans again.

Researchers found that anxiety levels decreased by up to 39 percent after the mindfulness meditation training, and that those decreases in anxiety seemed to be linked with the activation and deactivation of particular brain regions.

“These findings provide evidence that mindfulness meditation attenuates anxiety through mechanisms involved in the regulation of self-referential thought processes,” the researchers wrote in the study.