Alter the Brain to Deal with Stress with Meditation and Yoga
By John M. de Castro, Ph.D.
“Brain researchers have detected improvements in cognition and emotional well-being associated with meditation and yoga, as well as differences in how meditation and prayer affect the brain.” – Michaela Jarvis
There has accumulated a large amount of research demonstrating that mindfulness has significant benefits for psychological, physical, and spiritual wellbeing. One way that mindfulness practices may produce these benefits is by altering the brain. The nervous system is a dynamic entity, constantly changing and adapting to the environment. It will change size, activity, and connectivity in response to experience. These changes in the brain are called neuroplasticity. Over the last decade neuroscience has been studying the effects of contemplative practices on the brain and has identified neuroplastic changes in widespread areas. In other words, mindfulness practice appears to mold and change the brain, producing psychological, physical, and spiritual benefits.
In today’s Research News article “Meditation and yoga practice are associated with smaller right amygdala volume: the Rotterdam study.” (See summary below or view the full text of the study at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6302143/), Gotink and colleagues utilized the data on participants in the longitudinal Rotterdam Study who were 45 years of age and older at the time of recruitment and at the time of measurement had a mean age of 64 years. They were interviewed to determine if the practiced meditation and yoga and whether these practices improved their coping with stress. They were also measured for body size, blood pressure, blood fat, diabetes, smoking, alcohol use, stress, anxiety, and depression. In addition, their brains were scanned with Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI).
They found that practitioners of meditation and yoga reported higher stress levels than non-practitioners, but reported that the practice helped them cope with the stress. In addition, meditation practitioners had higher depression levels than non-practitioners. It is possible that people who are under high levels of stress or are depressed tend to engage in meditation and yoga practices to help cope with it.
They also report that the practitioners had smaller volumes of the brain structures right side amygdala and left hippocampus. In addition, over a five-year period the practitioners had a significant decrease in amygdala volume. The amygdala is associated with negative emotions and its smaller volume may suggest fewer or weaker negative emotions in practitioners.
This was a cross-sectional study and causation cannot be determined. It is possible that people with certain types of brains are more likely to practice. It will require a randomized controlled trial to determine what effects yoga and meditation practice may have on the psychological state and nervous system volumes.
Alter the brain to deal with stress with meditation and yoga.
“Studies show that yoga increases relaxation in the brain, improves areas of the brain that help us manage pain, and protects us against age-related decline. Together, these benefits begin to reveal the scientifically validated effects of yoga practice on brain health.” – Angela Wilson
CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies
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Gotink, R. A., Vernooij, M. W., Ikram, M. A., Niessen, W. J., Krestin, G. P., Hofman, A., … Hunink, M. (2018). Meditation and yoga practice are associated with smaller right amygdala volume: the Rotterdam study. Brain imaging and behavior, 12(6), 1631–1639. doi:10.1007/s11682-018-9826-z
To determine the association between meditation and yoga practice, experienced stress, and amygdala and hippocampal volume in a large population-based study. This study was embedded within the population-based Rotterdam Study and included 3742 participants for cross-sectional association. Participants filled out a questionnaire assessing meditation practice, yoga practice, and experienced stress, and underwent a magnetic resonance scan of the brain. 2397 participants underwent multiple brain scans, and were assessed for structural change over time. Amygdala and hippocampal volumes were regions of interest, as these are structures that may be affected by meditation. Multivariable linear regression analysis and mixed linear models were performed adjusted for age, sex, educational level, intracranial volume, cardiovascular risk, anxiety, depression and stress. 15.7% of individuals participated in at least one form of practice. Those who performed meditation and yoga practices reported significantly more stress (mean difference 0.2 on a 1–5 scale, p < .001) and more depressive symptoms (mean difference 1.03 on CESD, p = .015). Partaking in meditation and yoga practices was associated with a significantly lower right amygdala volume (β = − 31.8 mm3, p = .005), and lower left hippocampus volume (β = − 75.3 mm3, p = .025). Repeated measurements using linear mixed models showed a significant effect over time on the right amygdala of practicing meditation and yoga (β = − 24.4 mm3, SE 11.3, p = .031). Partaking in meditation and yoga practice is associated with more experienced stress while it also helps cope with stress, and is associated with smaller right amygdala volume.