As many of you know, I have been exploring more natural ways to deal with adrenal/HPA dysfunction. I have a bit of an issue with cortisol, norepinephrine, and epinephrine production that sometimes leaves me feeling a bit like a tired but manic squirrel who’s constantly worried about when and where he’s going to find his next nut. It’s not pretty. I have researched several different alternative therapies including massage, acupuncture, and supplements. I’m happy to report I am feeling a bit better, although I have no lab reports to show just yet. I think in large part my feeling better has to do with what we’re talking about today – meditation.
I think meditation has a bad reputation or maybe it’s just misunderstood by those who are unfamiliar with what it involves. I know I sure had some misconceptions about what it means to meditate. I was chatting with a friend several months ago about how I didn’t think I would ever be able to meditate. I couldn’t imagine just sitting and thinking about nothing. Who does that? Honestly, I think those of us who can’t even fathom sitting still long enough to try to clear our minds of some of the excess worry and chatter are the ones that need meditation the most. But, I won’t lecture you because that would definitely be the pot calling the kettle black. But I do want to talk about how mediation may in fact be what I, and possibly you, need to balance our adrenals and find a little more serenity in our days.
The Science of Meditation
First, I bet a lot of you are second-guessing the actual efficacy of meditation. It’s all a little too “woo woo” for some people. I admit, I had my own doubts. To my surprise, there are tons of studies examining the benefits of meditation on adrenal hormones, blood pressure, heart rate, endorphin levels, and mood. A recent study done on individuals before after a three-month meditation retreat showed that participants’ cortisol levels were inversely related to their mindfulness scores. This mindfulness score “measures the participants’ propensity to let go of distressing thoughts and attend to different sensory domains, daily tasks, and the current contents of their minds.” In other words, the score reflects the success of the student’s mediation practice. Among the study participants, high mindfulness scores correlated with low cortisol levels. A study also revealed that meditation resulted in a similar endorphin release to a run. So, that “runner’s high” can be elicited from simply meditating. Nice, right?
Hundreds of other studies have found similar results in respect to cortisol levels, blood pressure, and pulse rate in various test subjects ranging from those well versed in meditation to those with little to no training. Stress hormones and the physical signs of stress and the fight-or-flight reaction (like blood pressure and heart rate) are shown to be consistently lower in individuals who regularly meditate. So, just like a strength training program, the longer you stick with it, the stronger and bigger your muscle become, and you can eventually lift some pretty heavy weights. The longer you meditate, the stronger your meditation muscles become, and the more stress you can cope with without jacking up your adrenals.
How to Get Started
Now, you might be thinking that sounds lovely but how do I even begin to meditate? Do I just sit on a pillow cross-legged, light some incense, and think about nothing until I can’t stand it anymore? That doesn’t sound like too much fun and in fact none of that is really necessary. There are many types of meditation with different ways of going about the practice. Mindfulness meditation isn’t just thinking about nothing, but it’s also about observing your thoughts. So, you don’t have to worry about trying to eradicate any and all thoughts. That would be impossible. It’s just about not engaging in them. Just watching them come and go. Other mediation practices have you focus on an image, phrase, or sound. Others focus on breathing. All of them result in a calmer you with lower stress hormones and an enhanced ability to handle difficult situations.
I’ve gathered some information about some of the better-known types of meditation below to help you seek out resources that will fit your personality and needs:
- Mindfulness or Vipassana Meditation – This is probably the most popular in the Western world. The focus of this type of meditation is observation of your thoughts and breath. You should avoid from getting sucked into a train of thought. Just observing the thoughts and letting them come and go is the goal.
- Transcendental Meditation – This meditations focus is on “rising above all that is impermanent” and using breath to “leave the body.” Thoughts about your self or purpose are to be avoided. Lotus or half lotus is the preferred meditation position.
- Zazen Meditation – This is the minimalist approach to meditation. There is little instruction other than just sitting with your back straight for long periods of time. Some focus on a scripture or text. There is no particular attention to the breath, nor an attempt to change the breath. Some people like simple but for newbies and those without a lot of time this might not be the best approach because there is very little instruction. You might be left asking, “So, I just sit here?”
- Kundalini Meditation – The focus of this meditation is on self awareness and delivering an experience of your highest consciousness. There is focus on the breath and upward movement of the breath and energy.
- Qi Gong Meditation – This is a Taoist meditation that focuses on circulating the breath and energy throughout the body.
- Guided Visualization – I bet you’ve heard of this one. This is simply concentrating on an image or imaginary place, usually pleasant, and usually involves slowing the breath. It is used to calm and relax participants. This was definitely introduced in my nursing studies.
I encourage you to seek out practitioners, books, and resources that can guide you through different types of meditation until you find something that feels right. There are actually quite a few guided meditations on YouTube that may help you find your mediation groove. Adopting a mediation practice can literally change how you feel every day of your life and keep you physically healthier and avoid adrenal burnout. That sounds like a win, win, win to me.
1. Jane L. Harte et al., The effects of running and meditation on beta-endorphin, corticotropin-releasing hormone and cortisol in plasma, and on mood, Biological Psychology, Volume 40, Issue 3, June 1995, Pages 251-265, ISSN 0301-0511, http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/0301-0511(95)05118-T.
2. Tonya L. Jacobs et al., Self-Reported Mindfulness and Cortisol During a Shamatha Meditation Retreat.. Health Psychology, 2013; DOI: 10.1037/a0031362
3. Ratree Sudsuang et al., Effect of buddhist meditation on serum cortisol and total protein levels, blood pressure, pulse rate, lung volume and reaction time. Physiology & Behavior, Volume 50, Issue 3, September 1991, Pages 543–548
4. KG Walton et al., (2004), Lowering Cortisol and CVD Risk in Postmenopausal Women: A Pilot Study Using the Transcendental Meditation Program. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1032: 211–215. doi: 10.1196/annals.1314.023
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