I’m going to take a break from nutrition in this blog post to talk about another tool that has been used for centuries to reduce inflammation, although the first people who used this tool probably didn’t know it had that effect). I’m talking about meditation.
When we hear the term meditation, most of us probably envision a bald man in a robe sitting on a hard wood floor chanting “OMMMMM” while calming music plays in the background. But a quick Google search of the word will reveal an endless list of articles touting the benefits of a regular meditation practice. One of my favorite writers/podcasters is Tim Ferriss. Mr. Ferriss is well known for interviewing people who are top performers in their field (athletics, business, arts, etc.). Out of hundreds of interviews, Tim deduced that top performers share a few common habits and that daily meditation is one of those. Now, why am I interested in meditation in the pain management context? Because research has shown that it can have a profound effect on anxiety, depression, sensations of pain, and of course…inflammation. Not to mention that a daily meditation practice can be done in as little as 5 minutes, costs nothing, and The Doleys Clinic can teach you how to do it. There are numerous versions of meditation requiring different levels of skill. Some methods do revolve around chants or repeated words, hand positioning, sounds, etc.
The meditation I want to discuss is called “mindfulness meditation.” The goal of mindfulness meditation is to bring one’s complete attention to the present experience on a moment to moment basis. It’s simply a way of paying attention to how you feel right now without labeling the feeling as good or bad (a nonjudgmental approach). Recent research out of Carnegie Mellon University shows us that there is a connection between mindfulness meditation training and reductions in inflammatory health markers. In one particular study, 35 adults under high stress were randomly exposed to either a three day mindfulness meditation program or a relaxation program that did not include mindfulness training. Brain scans and blood samples were obtained from each subject at the beginning and end of the study. For the subjects who received mindfulness meditation, results showed an increase in the resting functional connectivity of the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and reductions in Interleukin-6
I know I threw some big words at you there so let’s break this down into some usable information:
What is functional connectivity? Functional connectivity refers to relationships between regions of the brain that are separated by space. Resting functional connectivity is a test used to evaluate interactions between areas of the brain when a subject is not performing a specific task. In the context of the study mentioned, this is important because it tells us that the mindfulness meditation improved how areas the subject’s brains were communicating even when they weren’t actively meditating.
What does the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex do? The dorsolateral prefrontal cortex is the part of the brain located toward the front and along the top and side. This part of the brain is most typically associated with working memory and attention, but is also believed to be involved in emotion regulation.
What is Interleukin-6? In our bodies, there are large white blood cells called macrophages. Macrophages are important to our immune system because they have the ability to locate and literally eat harmful things like bacteria and parasites. In order to accomplish their goal, macrophages make substances called “cytokines” that signal other cells in the body to do something. Interleukin-6 is one of these cytokines and its job is to signal the immune system to fire away. So, when levels of Interleukin-6 are elevated in our blood, we are inflamed (and vice versa). Readers of this blog know that our long-term goal is to reduce chronic inflammation for overall health. The fact that meditation, not medication, has been shown through before and after blood samples to have a significant effect on inflammatory markers in as little as three days of training is astonishing!
IL-6 has many functions, some of which are inflammatory. (Image credit: Lazzerini, Capecchi, Guidelli, et al., 2016)
A mindfulness meditation session can be done anywhere and at any time, but when first starting out it may be helpful to be in a quiet place. There are many websites and apps dedicated to helping people develop meditation habits. Apps like HeadSpace are highly rated for being effective. HeadSpace has a free introductory program and there are modules to purchase that specifically address issues like chronic pain (read more here: https://www.headspace.com/blog/2017/03/31/headspace-for-pain-management/).
Personally, I like the guided meditations from Tara Brach (https://www.tarabrach.com/guided-meditations/) . Tara spent several years studying in a monastery and her website is free and full of guided meditations ranging from 3 minutes to an hour. If you have an internet connection, you can go to her website and start taking advantage of a daily meditation practice without even having to sign up for an email list.
If you’d like even more help learning to develop a daily mindfulness practice for your specific physical or emotional condition, our very own Dr. Leanne Cianfrini has received additional education specifically in this area and can assist you at The Doleys Clinic in a few individual therapy sessions. She recommends Ronald Siegel’s approach at: http://www.mindfulness-solution.com/DownloadMeditations.html.
Regardless of what tools you use to learn more about mindfulness meditation, I want to encourage all readers to explore this topic more and make an effort to add even just a few minutes to your day. One can even do mini-mindfulness practices while walking, taking a shower, or eating a slow meal. The readers of this blog know that I look for tactics that are science-based and easy to implement. Mindfulness meditation fits that description. The science is there to support the anti-inflammatory benefits of mindfulness meditation for pain and other chronic conditions – long-lasting benefits don’t have to cost much more than a few minutes each day.
Yours In Good Health,