Water: font of health and happiness

Science has made great claims about the health benefits of spending time in nature, but what about the evidence to support the benefits of cold water swimming?

Swimming and your mental health

Have you ever meditated by the sea or a stretch of open water? It does have a quality of its own, and I would recommend it. Avoid extremes of temperature and places that are crowded or noisy. However, the benefits of water to health and wellbeing extend far beyond a relaxing place to meditate.

Last week the New Scientist magazine ran a feature dedicated to the health benefits of proximity to water. ‘Why spending time near water gives us a powerful mental health boost.’ This article reminded me of the health benefits of open water swimming, particularly in the winter. Open water swimming carries its own risks and benefits, and it shouldn’t be tackled in the winter without appropriate training, equipment and consideration. If you search the internet or the archives of the mainstream media, you’ll see several TV programmes dedicated to the mental health benefits of swimming in the winter. You’ll also find research in this field if you access academic databases. The scientific explanations are patchy, although anecdotal evidence is overwhelming.

New Scientist 13th July

I first tried winter swimming at the end of 2020. I swam through the summer as normal but just never stopped. By the start of October, the water began to feel uncomfortably cold. I began swimming with other cold water swimmers who shared their knowledge and encouraged me to wear a wet suit, gloves, boots and hood. It took time to become comfortable with the kit and the cold water. By the end of November, the water temperature was around 11oC and entering the English Channel on a grey winter’s day was uninviting. But the feeling of returning to dry land 15 minutes later was epic.

It’s actually quite hard to explain the sensations. Upon entering the water, I feel some fear and a sense of danger, but once immersed, all mental functions are reduced to simply coping with the cold. Even with the wetsuit, the first few minutes are challenging. A degree of acclimatisation occurs as the water inside the suit becomes slightly warmer. After that, however, the blood retreats away from the extremities, and the hands and feet become bitterly cold. Fifteen minutes is as much as I can manage in mid-winter. As soon as I come back onto the beach, I strip the wetsuit off, dry myself down and change into several layers of warm clothing. At this point, the sense of well-being becomes palpable, a wave of joy and satisfaction moving over me; it feels great. I take a warm drink from the flask as soon as I’m dressed. The effort, the fear and the cold all seem a small price to pay for this sense of well-being.

I can only imagine that the return of blood to almost normal levels of circulation underpins this great sense of wellness. Perhaps there is a flushing of toxins from the major organs, even the brain. The truth is, the scientific research doesn’t help much in explaining why cold water swimming makes me feel like this. Afterwards, I tend to use hand warmers to counter numbness, but the sense of well-being endures for hours despite this. The ‘high’ eventually passes, and in seven days, when I’m standing in front of the sea again, I feel only trepidation. But I remember how it will feel afterwards, a thought which propels me back into the icy water.

Friendly Advice: cold water swimming should only be undertaken by experienced swimmers in groups with appropriate equipment and safeguards. In the first instance, contact your local open or wild water swimming club for more information. Be advised that some wetsuits are specifically designed for swimming in cooler water.

Meditation, cortisol and stress

One of the great successes of meditation research is the evidence that both medicalised mindfulness and belief-based methods such as shamatha and tonglen reduce the physiological effects of stress, such as high cortisol and elevated blood pressure levels.

Both scientific and belief based meditation reduce stress levels

There are several symptoms connected with abnormally high stress levels. These include pain, tiredness, headaches and dizziness, elevated levels of blood pressure, muscle tension and related problems such as jaw clenching and a wide range of issues linked to the stomach and digestive systems. Stress is quite a complicated concept, with many triggers related to emotional,  psychological or physiological states. Circumstances in our day-to-day lives such as overwork,  relationship problems and financial worries can create conditions where higher stress levels are much more likely. Ironically, stress can be self-perpetuating, where for example, worries over one problem can lead to poor health, triggering further long-term stress and anxiety.

Meditation’s potential to reduce stress’s physiological and psychological symptoms, such as high blood pressure, has been known about for more than 50 years.  So it’s not a surprise to find scientific studies demonstrating that regular meditation correlates with lower levels of damaging chemicals created by stress reactions, like cortisol.  Because of its relationship with stress, cortisol is called the ‘stress hormone’, and it plays a vital role in the human stress response.  Although cortisol has some critical functions, such as regulating blood sugar levels and metabolic states, too much in the blood can be a serious health problem.  Among the symptoms of high cortisol levels include weight gain, thinning skin and a tendency to bruise easily, problems concentrating and high blood pressure.  Although all of the symptoms can be severe, elevated blood pressure levels for prolonged periods is particularly dangerous.

Details of several scientific experiments linking meditation to lower levels of cortisol have been published in recent decades.  Convincing data illustrates both medicalised mindfulness and Buddhist meditation methods can lower cortisol levels in the blood; however, reliable comparative data are scarce. The point is that most of these studies show that following meditation, serum cortisol levels are significantly lower.  As you might expect, meditation also mediates blood pressure and breathing, but we still don’t know how these relationships work. Does meditation lower all of these physiological signs of stress, or just one leading to a knock-on effect, or does the cause lie elsewhere?

There are several exciting experiments in published journals, Kees Blase and Adeline van Waning explored heart rate variability, cortisol and attention focus during shamatha quiescence meditation in 2019. They found that six weeks of practice in methods including tonglen and loving-kindness reduced stress and increased attention focus. The experiment was written up in the Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback journal. The take-away message is that regular meditation is correlated with lower levels of stress; the bonus is that all positive brain functions impeded by stress will experience a boost as well.

This is also a meditation for health podcast.

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Can meditation help to lower blood pressure?

There’s plenty of evidence that links meditation and mindfullness to lower blood pressure, but there’s a few factors to consider.

Is meditation a short cut to better health?

It should not be a surprise to hear that meditation might be related to our health and wellbeing. We know, for example, stress, anxiety and anger can all increase our blood pressure and heart rate. It, therefore, follows that calming and relaxing activities might help to reduce blood pressure.  Scientists have been studying the relationship between meditation and the performance of the heart and circulatory system for at least 60 years.  Many scientific studies have been produced that indicates meditation and mindfulness have a calming effect.  If you have a simple blood pressure monitor at home, you can test this for yourself.

However, from a scientific perspective, the problems occur when we try to repeat these experiments.  Just because positive results are achieved in one scientific study, it doesn’t automatically follow that this can be scaled up to all populations.  There are many reasons why in psychological experiments, an individual study may not reflect typical human behaviour. Therefore the scientific method requires that we repeat the study in different times and places to see if the same effect is evidenced in other circumstances. Within the psychological sciences, only at this point can we say that there is clear evidence.

Many of the hundreds of experiments looking at the relationship between blood pressure and meditation are individual studies, very few of which have been replicated.  This doesn’t mean that meditation doesn’t lower blood pressure; I’m very confident that it does.  But we need much better scientific evidence before we use it as a universal mainstream clinical treatment. There is also a second problem; it’s essential to understand how effective meditation is in lowering blood pressure in relation to other therapies. Unfortunately, many studies don’t compare the effects of meditation with any other potential treatments.  For example, we know that art therapy, spending time in nature, gardening or other relaxing activities can reduce blood pressure.  But we have very little data on the effectiveness of meditation compared to other potential treatments.

There are thousands of different forms of meditation, and each method can influence our mind and body in different ways.  How often you practice and for how long may impact the health benefits of meditation. Your meditation teacher’s knowledge and experience are also essential, as is where you meditate and the people you meditate with. From my research, I know that achieving a lowering of blood pressure while meditating or shortly afterwards is a relatively simple effect to achieve. But to translate that short-term effects to permanent 24/7 improvements is much more problematic.

So if you are concerned about high blood pressure, you might want to talk to your doctor about the best possible course of action for you. There is a wealth of evidence suggesting that meditation is likely to be a helpful tool, but the amount of benefit you receive may depend on several factors, not least what you do with your mind while you meditate.

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