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.
Can meditation really help with Alzheimer’s dementia, depression, anxiety and stress? If so, how?
This is the big question in meditation research, the short answer is yes, but it depends. It’s important to point out that meditation also protects you against mental illness in several different ways. But before you start your online search for a meditation cushion and some incense, there are a few qualifications you need to be aware of.
Firstly what do we mean by mental health? From a psychological point of view, mental health is a broad term that encompasses almost every functional and structural mental disorder that a human can experience. If you take a look at the current Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM V), you’ll find over 150 conditions listed (I’ve included the main sub-headings and examples in a table below). Most scientific meditation and mindfulness research is linked to one particular condition or group of conditions. Therefore if you are looking for a meditation method to help treat a diagnosed disorder, you must take advice from an expert health care practitioner in that field. The idea that any one meditation or mindfulness method can be used to treat a range of mental health problems has no basis in evidence or anecdote. However, just as a walk in the open air or a visit to the seaside might make people feel happier, meditation can offer general support to many different people.
We now have to consider a second qualification; there are profound differences between spiritual and medicalised (modern) forms of meditation. This is not surprising because traditional meditation seeks to offer a permanent, holistic cure to the more general issues we face in our lives. In contrast, medicalised meditation, at least those methods that have been scientifically validated, focus on treating a particular problem, not finding a solution. Without wishing to oversimplify, we see traditional meditation linked to improved overall mental stability, increased happiness, and subsequent benefits. Medicalised meditation has been developed to address quite specific psychological and physiological issues. Before you start any course of meditation or mindfulness it’s always good to share your goals with your teacher; they should be able to explain technically how the meditation works and what it is likely to do for you.
Resilience is the mental resource to cope with life’s problems; when we have good resilience we are much less likely to develop chronic or acute mental illness. This is probably the area where meditation is most useful, improving mental health and protecting us from illness. There is evidence that even a few weeks of meditation can help, but in all probability, only a lifelong meditation habit can deliver lifelong protection. For example, we know that meditation can create new brain structure in older adults with early stage dementia. So if you begin meditating in your 30s or 40s, you start to build the brain functions and structures to create resilience now and for the future.
Traditionally we associate meditation with happiness and joy. If you find the right teacher and the right method, regular meditation should be a pleasure that will offer a wide range of benefits for your life. Leading you to greater happiness and (probably) improving the quality of life of the people around you.
If you need advice on any particular meditation methods, drop me an email, and I’ll try to point you towards relevant resources.
The current categorisation of mental health disorders
Communication disorders, stuttering, autism spectrum disorder and Aspergers. Motor disorders, including tic disorders such as Tourette syndrome.
Schizophrenia spectrum and other psychotic disorders
Includes delusional disorder and catatonia.
Bipolar I, bipolar II and anxious distress.
Persistent depressive disorder.
Agoraphobia, panic disorder, social anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorders.
Trauma- and stressor-related disorders
Post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), acute stress disorders.
Depersonalisation and dissociative identity disorder.
Somatic symptom and related disorders
Chronic pain (inked to certain psychological conditions).
Feeding and eating disorders
Binge eating, bulimia nervosa and anorexia nervosa.
Insomnia, narcolepsy, hypersomnolence, sleep apnea and sleep-related hypoventilation.
Sexual desire and arousal disorders.
Disruptive, impulse-control, and conduct disorders
#Anxiety in middle age linked to higher risks of #dementia. If you suffer from moderate or high levels of anxiety act today!
Anxiety in middle age linked to higher risks of dementia
It is no surprise that anxiety at any age is not good for you, anyone that has experienced strong feelings of anxiousness knows how unpleasant they can be. But the recent revelations that there is a proven link between anxiety in middle aged and late onset dementia is shocking news. Details of research published at the BMJ Open website describe how over an interval of a decade, midlife anxiety is linked to increased risk of dementia.
“The main point is to protect yourself from increased risks of developing late stage dementia”
Stephen Gene Morris
There are three issues that jump out of the report for me. Firstly that medium and strong forms of anxiety are dangerous, they should carry government health warnings. If you suffer from anxiety don’t let this report worry you further, take it as a sign that it’s time to do something. Secondly I don’t like the ten year interval between the reported anxiety and a diagnosis of dementia. It suggests that day to day living doesn’t return brain function and structure to ‘normal’ after strong bouts of anxiety, we don’t automatically recover from the wear and tear. But on a more positive note the study describes anxiety as a ‘modifiable risk factor’. That means you can probably do something about it!
Anxiety is not the only lifestyle or behavioral factor associated with dementia but the science shows it does matter. So if you suffer from anxiety what can you do? Firstly take action to roll back the behaviours that lead to medium and strong forms anxiety. As someone who has suffered with this condition I know that is easier said than done, but at least acknowledge that you need to do something. Meditation was the intervention that worked for me, compassionate meditation! It might seems strange I know, but by generating compassion I gradually dissolved almost all of the strong anxiety I had. The main point is to protect yourself from increased risks of developing late stage dementia. Your solution doesn’t have to be linked to meditation, but if you only do one thing today plan to reduce your levels of anxiety.
Stephen Gene Morris is a meditation teacher and trained scientist, he has taught meditation to hundreds of students of all ages. If you’d like to attend a class or take part in an online session get in touch.
A leading TV show suggests Australian scientists may be close to a cure for different forms of dementia!
Australian documentary suggests a cure for dementia may be close
It was my impression that a cure for dementia was some distance away. Dementia is a complex syndrome that encompasses a number of different illnesses that appear to have both lifestyle and genetic causes. But today my attention was drawn to an episode of 60 minutes, an award winning TV show broadcast on Australia’s Nine network.
Personally I am skeptical of any potential ‘silver bullet’ cure for Alzheimer’s dementia, vascular dementia and different forms of early onset dementia. There is every chance that each of these diverse illnesses has a number of different contributory factors. However when I was told to about the 60 minute video I was happy to watch it with an open mind. Essentially an Australian scientist has been carrying out research in a small town in Colombia where the residents have a 50% probability of developing early onset dementia, leading to premature death before the age of 50. In identifying a genetic cause for the early onset dementia the researchers felt sure it would open the door to a cure for both vascular and Alzheimer’s dementia within five years. The show was broadcast in 2017 so if the work had progressed I would have expected to see more interest in the project by now. A quick search through the internet failed to find significantly more details than were contained in the actual TV show.
Feel free to take a look at the clip and if anyone out there uncovers more information about this project I’d welcome an email with some details. There is a fine line to tread between sensationalist claims and promising scientific research. I’m not yet sure which category this TV show falls into, take a look and make up your own minds.
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
Although certain cognitive functions may weaken as we get older, the science demonstrates we do get wiser. In some regards this offsets the gradual decline of short term memory and other processes.
Your brain, change isn’t all bad!
Getting old is not an illness, it’s natural, it’s what happens to us. Nobody flips a switch when you reach 65 to change the nature of who you are, and yet is seems increasingly that ageing is being treated as an illness or disability. As someone in my 50’s it is apparent that a number of my capacities are in decline, for example my eyesight. I’m not an ageing denialist, we will grow older and it will have an effect on our minds and bodies. Where I have a problem is when I encounter the fixed attitude that reaching retirement age is a point at which your value to society is dramatically reduced. This is clearly a nonsense and is part of the pervasive attitude towards the elderly in many contemporary industrialized societies.
To demonstrate the lack of science, compassion and common sense on which the negative stereotyping of older people is based let me introduce you to a well established scientific concept. Unless you work in an area linked to brain ageing the chances are that you have never heard of ‘crystallised intelligence’. We all know that older people may start to think a bit more slowly and reaction times can drops off. But this is normally offset throughout our 60’s and 70’s by a steady increase in experience based reasoning or wisdom! The total of our life experience leaves an imprint on our decision making and planning abilities because we have seen many things and generally learnt a lot. This wisdom is often referred to as crystallised intelligence, the ability to draw on long standing and established knowledge. In the view of many neuroscientists it can compensate for decline in the more fluid cognitive functions that we tend to see eroded from the age of 40 onward.
It is this ‘wisdom’ or life experience that many cultures revered and respected in parents and grandparents. The idea that people in old age may have stores of knowledge and experience able to benefit their communities, rarely features in discussions about the aging process in contemporary society. Yet we know that many politicians, thinkers and performers continue to play important roles in our lives into their 80s and 90s. Yes we will age but how we age is dependent on a number of factors such as what we do with our brains, our diet and the extent to which we take responsibility for our own brain health.