Does the effect of saunas and showers on mental health tell us anything new about meditation and mindfulness?
I’ve recently come into contact with some exciting research linked to depression and dementia. Several academic papers suggest changes to blood circulation may positively affect mental health. A scientific study of middle-age men who practised sauna bathing in Finland indicated they were less likely to experience dementia than their peers who didn’t take saunas. A degree of support in this general direction comes from other evidence that cold showers may have a beneficial effect on depression. Over the last decade, we have also started to see claims linking open water swimming (cold water swimming) with improved mental health.
Saunas, cold showers and cold water swimming affect us in different ways, but they all share the ability to alter the body’s temperature. A rapid increase in body temperature leads to a widening (dilation) of the blood vessels, increasing the blood flow. The reverse is true when we get cold, the blood vessels become narrower, constricting the flow. We are uncertain of exactly how rapid temperature changes alter blood flow in the brain, but we can be sure it does have an impact.
So what have showers, sauna and swimming got to do with meditation? What may surprise many people is meditation can also change our heart rate and blood pressure. Since the beginnings of the scientific investigation of meditation, both physiological and psychological effects have been visible. If we go back to the 1930s, the first studies of meditators using electroencephalographic (EEG) technology observed changes to alpha waves in the brain. However, by the 1950s, scientists looked at a much more comprehensive range of changes in meditators, such as the lowering of heart rate, blood pressure and increases in skin conductivity. So from its earliest origins, contemplative science has recognised that practising meditation can lead to physical changes correlated with our mental states.
There is no question that meditation acts differently compared to physical activities in warm or cold environments. But we may find, coincidentally, that cold water swimming, saunas and meditation can all lead to fluctuations in blood flow to the brain.
The term meditation is imprecise; there are, of course, thousands of different meditation and mindfulness methods. Each distinct method is likely to have a particular effect on your mind and body. Rather like physical exercise, mind training will make most of us ‘fitter’ but not in the same way and at the same rate. So when we think about physical and mental changes from meditation, we should always be mindful of not overgeneralising. But even with the limited evidence available there is a case to argue that circulatory changes during meditation may be linked to improved mental health. And that other activities like open water swimming may possess a similar potential to mediate mental states and traits through changes to blood flow.
A strong correlation between cognitive decline and berry consumption is well established.
As regular visitors to this blog will know we are committed to delivering improved brain function through reliable meditation methods. However it’s clear that practicing meditation while maintaining habits linked to cognitive decline like smoking or eating unhealthy foods will reduced the benefits of your practice. This is one of the problems of researching meditation, regular meditators tend to adopt lifestyles generally associated with improved health and wellbeing (like eating berries), so separating the benefits of regular meditation from eating less meat or not drinking excessive amounts of alcohol becomes problematic. This is a key point to consider, adopting one measure likely to boost brain health has to be seen in a wider context. The benefits from meditation will be meditated positively or negatively by a range of factors.
Scientific findings confirm that many berries are generally a good source of a substance called flavonoids, particularly anthocyanidins which in turn are correlated to improved brain function. I recently followed some links posted by Michael Gregor MD to key research into this area. The Nurses’ Health Study1 found that a greater intake in blueberries and strawberries appeared to slow down the rate of cognitive decline across a very large population. Allowing for a number of other confounding factors the participants that consumed berries had an improved performance in a range of cognitive tests indicating a brain age 1.5 to 2.5 years younger when compared to non berry consumers.
In conclusion regular meditation has been shown to reduce cognitive ageing by 7 years at the age of 50. It seems probable that additional support to brain health can be achieved through combining meditation with changes to lifestyle such as an improved diet.
Several features in the media this week have giving some clear indications about the science behind keeping our brains in the best possible shape. Some of the advice falls into the generic wellbeing wisdom which now seems to be be associated with most health messages;
eat more fresh fruit and vegetables, consume less processed meat
take regular exercise
give up smoking
stay socially engaged
avoid stress, relax and sleep the right amount
keep the brain working with appropriate activity and brain training
The last item on this wish list is unsettlingly vague given that it probably has the most significant impact on brain health. For example how can we define brain training (as almost everything we do can train the brain)? What is an appropriate level of activity and which parts of the brain should we focus on?
“In one study the brains of regular meditators were found to be years younger than non meditators”
In today’s Guardian, attention was drawn to a key finding of the MacArthur Studies of Successful Aging; that typically lifestyle and environment are more influential in our quality and length of life than genetic factors. This is also the general direction that brain science seems to be moving in with regards neurodegeneration. That although there are many questions left to be answered, limiting cognitive decline and reducing the risk of dementia may rest largely in our own hands.
Returning to the question of brain training, the big issue is to establish what kinds of intervention bring the greatest overall benefit? It is becoming increasingly apparent that narrow single task training such as Sudoku or word searches have a limited effect. Whereas maintaining high levels of brain activity and cognitive challenge are likely to keep a much broader area of the cortex young and healthy. The same principle needs to be applied if meditation systems are being used to maintain cognitive function. That the meditation or mindfulness method should be broad based and able to tap into both the intrinsic (internal) and extrinsic (task or external) networks. Activity in and between different neural networks is a key element in brain health and one frequently overlooked and poorly understood. To illustrate consider tonglen meditation, it combines compassion, nondual awareness and mindfulness, it allows the meditator to work with our internal visualisation and empathy systems. In addition it engages the important connectivity between introspection and external awareness.
Given what we know already about neurodegeneration, it seems likely that long term protection against cognitive impairment can be found in meditation methods built on nondual compassionate approaches.
No simple answers to dementia prevention but some clear signposts are starting to emerge.
How to protect your brain from dementia
This is not a simple question and there isn’t just one answer. Dementia is a term used to describe symptoms from a number of different illnesses, so different forms of dementia may require alternative approaches. However an article about how Jessica Langbaum keeps her brain young makes some points that we all can learn from. Jessica is the Associate Director of the Alzheimer’s Prevention Initiative at the Banner Alzheimer’s Institute in Phoenix, so she knows a thing or two about reducing the risk of developing dementia.
There is an enduring belief that activities such as Sudoku or app based brain training can offer some benefit is the battle against neurodegeneration. But Dr Langbaum makes the point that any exercise as narrow in scope as single task brain training is probably too limited to be of significant benefit. So that while Soduko for example, might help to keep the parts of the brain linked to simple calculations in good working order, this may offer little protection against Alzheimer’s dementia. The presumption is that maintaining large areas of brain function at high levels of performance is likely to keep overall brain health for longer. This idea is often described at the use it or lose it hypothesis, that once we start to scale down the demands on our brain we may unwittingly increase the risks of permanently losing function and structure.
“regular meditators have been observed to have both younger brains and thicker cortex than non-meditators”
The use it or lose it approach isn’t an ultimate answer but it does give us some great signposts about how to maintain brain health. I have often considered that continued use of meditation into middle and old age by Buddhists may be directly linked to the anecdotal evidence suggesting lower rates of dementia in certain groups of meditators. Many long term Buddhists increase their meditation practice in retirement and can frequently be found working for a range of good causes in voluntary and paid capacities, even at advanced ages. There is research that suggests spiritual practice per se might have a preservative effect on cognitive function but I think we must also consider the more direct influence of meditation methods on the regular renewal of brain function and structure.
Many well established Buddhist meditation practices such as tonglen have been designed as mind training systems. Their original goal was almost certainly not to reduce the risks of dementia, but they have long been associated with increasing wisdom, clarity and compassion. From the neuroscience point of view this means the methods are linked to activity in several of the most important brain networks, such as those connected to empathy, memory, attention, visualization and planning. This is specifically why Brain Renewal Meditation (BRM) has been developed with reference to reliable traditional methods and is also supported with research from neuroimaging and cognitive psychology.
The best advice we can offer to reduce your risks of developing dementia is to,
start early, cognitive decline begins in our late 20s
keep your brain as active as possible for as long as possible
stay socially engaged
stay physically active
watch your diet
try forms of brain training able to keep a range of brain structures firing
Meditation for seniors. Meditation supports a healthy brain at any age.
Meditation for seniors; boost your own brain
Brain Renewal Meditation (BRM) is a simple system developed by meditation expert and trained neuroscientist Stephen Gene Morris. It offers methods designed to improve brain health and slow down the rate of cognitive (brain) decline. Aspects of our brain function such as memory and attention begin to deteriorate in our late 20s, however most of us don’t start to notice any changes until we reach our 40s. The point of BRM is that there are a number of things we can do to slow or perhaps even reverse aspects of cognitive decline at any point in our lives, even at 60, 70 or 80. If you have the capacity to concentrate there is a good chance that you can make a positive impact on your brain’s function and structure.
Meditation is probably the single most useful thing a person can do to help maintain brain health. There are hundreds of scientific studies that show an effect on cognitive performance linked to regular meditation. A key point to make is that different forms of meditation lead to different effects. BRM draws together elements of compassion, nondual and mindfulness meditation into one integrated practice. It is a secular practice which requires no previous experience of meditation, it can be undertaken sitting in any chair that allows you to keep your back straight. It can be practiced in a traditional meditation class or through online training in your own home.
Almost all of the evidence from neuroscience, psychology and traditional meditation systems points to our ability to improve our own brain function throughout our lives. For example a major strategic review of research into strategy-based cognitive training in older adults, strongly indicated than brain function can be enhanced even in middle and old age. The crucial point is that no mater what your age your brain remains plastic and can adapt to the demands of brain training in many forms, particularly meditation.
Meditation can support a healthy brain and limit age related cognitive decline.
Help shape your own future
The brain reacts to everything it comes into contact with, this includes stimulus from the senses and internal processes such as those created during meditation. Recent scientific studies indicate that brain structure and function can be positively meditated by methods such as Brain Renewal Meditation (BRM).
One of the big deals with cognitive decline is we don’t really understand how it works. There is of course an inevitability that human brain performance must eventually decline, it is unrealistic to assume brain structure can remain intact for eternity. But as a command and control system the human brain is unrivaled in the universe. We are currently unable to count the billions of neurons in a human brain, and mankind still doesn’t have the computing power to run a biologically reliable digital simulation of our brain, even if such a model could be created. What we do know is that the brain is able to develop new function and structure (plasticity) and there is some evidence that new neurons can be generated in the adult hippocampus (neurogenesis).
The ability of the brain to restructure makes understanding brain aging particularly problematic. Structures are continually changing, new functions require support and obsolete functions can fall into decay. These changes take place against a backdrop of an incalculable amount of stimulus, almost everything we experience or think about can have an impact on the brain. The average rate in the reduction of human cognitive function is generally referred to age related cognitive decline. The factors linked to ‘typical’ rates of decline are still not fully understood and the nuanced way that structures change and interact is far from clear.
The idea that from the age of thirty adults lose a little bit more of cognitive function every year is completely wrong. Whilst cognitive decline is correlated with age, regional and global improvements in brain function during middle and old age have been observed.
From the point of view of meditation, we know from traditional sources and modern science that certain forms of meditation exert an effect on different regions of the human brain. Long term meditators have been found to have ‘younger’ brains than non meditators and meditation is also associated with increased cortical thickness. Meditation is not the only way of maintaining or increasing brain health but it is one of the oldest and most reliably established. The message is pretty simply, if you want to maintain or improve brain age or brain health think very seriously about meditation.