meditation and heart disease

Cardiologist says meditation could be beneficial

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Recently, FOX 2 sat in on a group meditation session. You could almost feel the stress slipping away, which is good for the mind and body.

“So, what happens when we have elevated stress levels is the stress hormones in the body are produced in excess and there is a chronic elevation of those hormones. Those actually cause damage to the vascular walls, to the heart and to the other organs, and that is what raises the blood pressure,” said Beaumont [Mich.] Cardiologist Kavitha Chinnaiyan, M.D.

To mediate, all you really need is a quite place and the ability to still your mind. Dr. Chinnaiyan said just a few minutes every day could have tremendous benefits.

“Adding this aspect of meditation actually has been shown to decrease blood pressure, decrease blood cholesterol, reverse heart disease in some instances and actually prevent its progression,” she said.

“I go into my favorite room in the house, which is the living room, where it’s quiet and nobody’s out of bed yet, and this is where I usually find my time and my peace,” said Sandy Kovach.

“Having high blood pressure is not a normal thing,” Chinnaiyan said.

On the path to a healthier heart, Kovach is one of several local women taking part in the American Heart Association’s My Life Check Makeover. She and Kim Pratt are learning how this quiet relaxation can inspire change.

“Meditation … for one, has helped me lower my blood pressure. It’s helped me calm down and actually enjoy things around me. I just went on a trip last week, and I actually noticed the scenery more than I would normally just kind of (rushing) through,” said Pratt.

“If you’re driving and you get to some place and you have two minutes, that’s all it takes. Make it a habit. The issue is not about sitting down for 20 minutes every day. The issue is about making it a habit like brushing your teeth,” said Chinnaiyan.

Stress is one of the risk factors for heart disease. During the month of February, which is heart month, we’re focusing on how to reduce your risk of the number one killer.

To learn more about managing your stress or the My Life Check Assessment, check out the link below:

American Heart Association: Four Ways to Deal with Stress

My Life Check

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Can’t get the hang of meditation? Relax a minute, it’ll come to you

While medical science remains uncertain whether prayer has the power to heal, experts are pretty sure meditation works.

Yet another study released last month — this one in the journal Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging — reports that those who meditated for about 30 minutes a day for eight weeks had measurable changes in brain density in areas related to memory, sense of self, empathy and stress.

Exactly what those brain changes mean is not clear, but there also have been studies confirming that meditation can reduce blood pressure — in healthy people as well as in those with heart disease. And those who meditate report that at the very least it improves their sense of the quality of their lives.

Trouble is, meditation can be frustrating. And many of those who try it, quit.

We are all tangled up, I think, in a distinctly American idea of meditation. We believe there is a right way to do it, a method to be mastered and something to be achieved.

Meditation is, in fact, exactly the opposite of those things. It is not about doing. It is about being. Being still, being quiet and being with yourself for a few minutes each day.

There are a couple of videos on YouTube of yoga students in the resting pose at the end of a class, with hilarious voice-overs of what is going through their minds. Mashed potatoes. Chinese food. That dress on eBay. The guy who hasn’t texted back.

Anybody who has ever tried to meditate will relate immediately. You can drive home from work and upon arrival have absolutely no memory of the commute. But trying not to think about anything pretty much guarantees that you can’t…

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stop thinking about everything.And there are plenty of everyday distractions, too: the cat, the phone, the kids, the husband. All of them are reasons to get up before the rest of the house in order to meditate — another reason to quit.Meditation requires only a seat in a quiet spot, but there is lots of meditation help out there. There is guided meditation in which the voice on the CD or on your iPod talks you through. Concentrating on the instruction helps to shut down at least part of your mind.

And there is music that is perfect for mediation. It not only sets the mood, it helps you concentrate if you try to follow the notes or the voice. And there are sounds to help you meditate: the ocean, rainfall, a brook, birds. Saying prayers or the rosary can be a form of meditation. You can simply follow your breath, in and out.

Meditation has another side effect — besides a healthy resting heart rate or a lower blood pressure. It teaches something called mindfulness — the ability to be in the moment wherever we are, whatever we are doing. A kind of zone in which we are only aware of the person or the task in front of us.

Those people we love can certainly benefit from a little more of our mindfulness — our attention, our focus, our interest in what they are saying or doing. It is what they deserve from us.

There are shelves full of books on meditation written by experts. I am not one of them. And I have started and stopped meditating about as many times as I have started and stopped dieting, but with this difference: I have stopped beating myself up about what might seem like failure in any other endeavor.

In meditation, my yoga teachers tell me, there is no succeeding because there is no doing. There is just being.

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How meditation may change the brain (New York Times)

Over the December holidays, my husband went on a 10-day silent meditation retreat. Not my idea of fun, but he came back rejuvenated and energetic.

He said the experience was so transformational that he has committed to meditating for two hours a day, once in the morning and once in the evening, until the end of March. He’s running an experiment to determine whether and how meditation actually improves the quality of his life.

I’ll admit I’m a skeptic.

But now, scientists say that meditators like my husband may be benefiting from changes in their brains. The researchers report that those who meditated for about 30 minutes a day for eight weeks had measurable changes in gray-matter density in parts of the brain associated with memory, sense of self, empathy and stress. The findings will appear in the Jan. 30 issue of Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging.

M.R.I. brain scans taken before and after the participants’ meditation regimen found increased gray matter in the hippocampus, an area important for learning and memory. The images also showed a reduction of gray matter in the amygdala, a region connected to anxiety and stress. A control group that did not practice meditation showed no such changes.

But how exactly did these study volunteers, all seeking stress reduction in their lives but new to the practice, meditate? So many people talk about meditating these days. Within four miles of our Bay Area home, there are at least six centers that offer some type of meditation class, and I often hear phrases like, “So how was your sit today?”

Britta Hölzel, a psychologist at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School and the study’s lead author, said the participants practiced mindfulness meditation, a form of meditation that was introduced in the United States in the late 1970s. It traces its roots to the same ancient Buddhist techniques that my husband follows.

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“The main idea is to use different objects to focus one’s attention, and it could be a focus on sensations of breathing, or emotions or thoughts, or observing any type of body sensations,” she said. “But it’s about bringing the mind back to the here and now, as opposed to letting the mind drift.”

Generally the meditators are seated upright on a chair or the floor and in silence, although sometimes there might be a guide leading a session, Dr. Hölzel said.

Of course, it’s important to remember that the human brain is complicated. Understanding what the increased density of gray matter really means is still, well, a gray area.

“The field is very, very young, and we don’t really know enough about it yet,” Dr. Hölzel said. “I would say these are still quite preliminary findings. We see that there is something there, but we have to replicate these findings and find out what they really mean.”

It has been hard to pinpoint the benefits of meditation, but a 2009 study suggests that meditation may reduce blood pressure in patients with coronary heart disease. And a 2007 study found that meditators have longer attention spans.

Previous studies have also shown that there are structural differences between the brains of meditators and those who don’t meditate, although this new study is the first to document changes in gray matter over time through meditation.

Ultimately, Dr. Hölzel said she and her colleagues would like to demonstrate how meditation results in definitive improvements in people’s lives.

“A lot of studies find that it increases well-being, improves quality of life, but it’s always hard to determine how you can objectively test that,” she said. “Relatively little is known about the brain and the psychological mechanisms about how this is being done.”

In a 2008 study published in the journal PloS One, researchers found that when meditators heard the sounds of people suffering, they had stronger activation levels in their temporal parietal junctures, a part of the brain tied to empathy, than people who did not meditate.

“They may be more willing to help when someone suffers, and act more compassionately,” Dr. Hölzel said.

Further study is needed, but that bodes well for me.

For now, I’m more than happy to support my husband’s little experiment, despite the fact that he now rises at 5 a.m. and is exhausted by 10 at night.

An empathetic husband who takes out the trash and puts gas in the car because he knows I don’t like to — I’ll take that.

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Exercise expert says seniors can win back strength

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Judy Magid, The Times-Herald, PA:W hen it comes to aging, “use it or lose it” appears to be a no-brainer.

The mantra propels countless motions on treadmills, leg presses and stationary bikes, helping prevent heart disease, reducing stress, jump-starting reflexes, increasing bone density and energizing the brain. And inspiring a little guilt.

The downside is that those who might describe themselves as “extreme middle-agers” have not used “it” for a while and figure “it” is gone.

“Not true,” says Colin Milner, chief executive of the International Council on Active Aging, a Canada-based group that focuses on exercise for folks 50 and older. He acknowledges that most people begin to lose strength at about 35, and more than half of their strength is gone by 70.

“But you can regain strength and become stronger at any age,” he says. “All you have to do is keep moving.”

From personal trainers to Feldenkrais movement classes to tai chi to walking in a straight line at home, there are plenty of ways to practice “active aging,” what Milner defines as being “engaged in life.”

Although diet modification and genetics figure in the mix, exercise has the best potential for keeping people healthy as they grow older, he says.

“There is no magic pill,” Milner says. “But if there is a magic formula, it would be exercise.”

As an exercise therapist, Milner was impressed by a Tufts University study on the benefits of intensive strength training for seniors. “In the Tufts study, people up into their late 90s trained at the same level of intensity as younger people. No one got hurt. They got stronger,” he says.

Milner defines “level of intensity” as doing repetitive lifts at 70 percent to 80 percent of the maximum amount of weight you can lift.

“If you can lift 100 pounds, you train by lifting 70 to 80 pounds in two or three sets of eight to 10 lifts. It does not matter how old you are.”

That goes for balance, too. The National Institutes of Health reports that 1.6 million older American adults wind up in emergency rooms for fall-related injuries, and names falls as the No. 1 cause of debilitating fractures, loss of independence and injury death, seniors can relearn good balance and strengthen bones with exercise.

Getting started is the problem for most.

“Find something you enjoy doing and stick with it,” says Milner. “If you get bored by lifting weights or running, you won’t stay with it long.”

Milner says soccer provides his motivation to move. “I play every week. Like any other (baby) boomer, I take bumps and bruises and go back for more,” he says.

At 50, that may be easier for him to say than it will be at 65.

But, he adds, consider this: “When I was a youngster, there were no 50-year-old soccer players.”

Do-it-yourself fitness

For folks who shun gyms and workout classes, experts suggest four types of exercises that can be practiced at home: strength-training (weight lifting); balance exercises (walking a straight line placing heel to toe); flexibility (slow stretching); and endurance training (walking, swimming, jogging).

Some tips:

— Before starting an exercise program at any age, have a word with your physician.

— Exercise can be in 10-minute shifts.

— Walk up and down stairs for one minute. Rest for one minute, then repeat. Work up to climbing for two minutes, resting for one minute. Repeat.

— No stairs? Walk briskly for seven minutes.

— For strength training, try biceps curls with a 2-pound soup can in each hand. Arms by your sides, palms facing forward, bend each arm at the elbow and bring the weight toward the front of your shoulders. Lower and repeat. Do two sets of eight or 10 repetitions.

— Breathe out as you lift or push a weight and breathe in as you relax.

— Use smooth, steady movements to bring weights into position; avoid jerking or thrusting movements; avoid locking the joints of arms and legs into a strained position.

— Muscle soreness lasting a few days and slight fatigue are normal after exercise. Exhaustion, sore joints and painful muscle pulls are not normal.

— You should do strength exercises for all major muscle groups at least twice a week.

— If you can lift a weight more than 15 times in a row, it is too light for you.

— Drink water even if you are not thirsty.

Sources: AARP The Magazine (November & December 2006, May & June 2007); Newsweek (March 26); Wall Street Journal (Feb. 1);

Journal of the American Medical Association (July 12, 2006); NIH Senior Health (

Personal training: Workouts as unique as you are

Walker and Sue Wallace are committed to strength training, but a regular gym doesn’t cut it for them.

“The twentysomethings and the wild music are not the problem. Being forced to watch Fox News while using the treadmill or bike is too much to ask,” Walker Wallace says, joking.

That is why they followed personal trainer Paul Holbrook to AgeWell Center in Salt Lake City, which is geared to people 50 and older. They get an hour’s workout with Holbrook’s full attention and empathy, if not sympathy.

“Paul knows exactly what we need to work on and what we are capable of doing,” Sue Wallace says, doing leg lifts after a knee replacement. Meanwhile, Walker is busy on the “Skiers Edge” machine, looking like a man who has been on a downhill run a time or two.

Holbrook loves it. He became interested in senior exercise when he watched an uncle deteriorate in a nursing home.

“There were no activities to help him maintain strength, let alone build it. I decided to concentrate on helping older adults keep fit,” he says.

Barbara and Norm Tanner also work out at AgeWell Center. At 90, Barbara plays tennis, has myriad volunteer and philanthropic interests and is patiently waiting for her grandchildren to have children. Norm, 92, doesn’t play tennis anymore, but he and his wife train with Holbrook twice a week.

Workouts at AgeWell include treadmills, leg presses and pneumatic machines, which are easier on the joints than weight-stacked machines. Holbrook is at a client’s elbow to avoid falls during freestyle balance exercises. An hour long session runs about $85.

Like the Wallaces, the Tanners appreciate working one-on-one with a personal trainer. “We have been with Paul since he opened,” Barbara Tanner says. “He makes us work, and I know very well I wouldn’t do it on my own.”

And while she knows people can gain strength after losing it, she also is aware how quickly it can be lost.

“I have always worked at it. I used to swim a lot when I was young. I took dancing lessons for years. But if you stop doing all that, it takes longer to get strong. And you can lose it faster.”

(Tai chi: Awakening a mind-body connection

Tai chi is described as moving meditation by Ellie Ienatsch, who teaches classes for the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at the University of Utah.

Her classroom for the Osher class is the dance room of the Jewish Community Center in Salt Lake City. With soothing music in the background, students follow Ienatsch’s lead with slow, graceful, deliberate movements combining balance, flexibility, aerobic and toning exercises.

Health and exercise mavens tout the non-impact tai chi as an especially good fit for people over 50, helping them improve balance, enhance blood circulation and ease pain caused by arthritis.

Based on an ancient Chinese martial art, today’s tai chi, or tai chi ch’uan, is practiced by some enthusiasts for its spiritual nature, while others engage in tai chi solely for health benefits. Many practice tai chi as a “soft fist” martial art, translated as “shadow boxing.”

Ienatsch practices tai chi on more than one level.

“I was not successful at transcendental meditation,” she says, speaking of the technique defined as seeking serenity through regular meditation centered on repetition of a mantra.

“I wanted to move, to hike in the mountains,” she continues. “The beauty is relaxing. When you are moving, you breathe deeply because you have to. The slow circular moves needed to go up a trail become a rhythm.”

Her classes often consist of beginners mainly interested in the physical rewards of tai chi. She begins with awakening exercises such as joint rotations and neck turns.

Class members stand, gathering the chi or qi, fundamental life energy, from the earth and sky, then “stretch wings toward the sky with the crane” before Ienatsch guides them through a series of tai chi movements that make up a form. A form can take up to 20 minutes to complete.

“Tai chi is more than a choreographed set of movements,” Ienatsch says. “It is about moving. For hundreds of years, Chinese doctors prescribed physical exercises to cure physical ailments.

“You cannot get young again, but you must keep moving, no matter how infirm you are. Just imagining a movement can be almost as beneficial as doing it.”

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Explaining why meditators may live longer

The image of the ancient but youthful-looking sage meditating on a mountaintop might be closer to reality than you think, according to a new study that found that after a three-month stay at a meditation retreat, people showed higher levels of an enzyme associated with longevity.

The study is preliminary and didn’t show that meditation actually extends life, but the findings suggest a possible means by which it could.

Researchers led by Tonya Jacobs of the University of California-Davis compared 30 participants at a meditation retreat held at the Shambhala Mountain Center in Colorado with matched controls on a waiting list for the retreat. Participants meditated six hours per day for three months. Their meditation centered on mindfulness — for instance, focusing solely on breathing, in the moment — and on lovingkindness and enhancing compassion towards others.

After the three-month intervention, researchers found that the meditators had on average about 30% more activity of the enzyme telomerase than the controls did. Telomerase is responsible for repairing telomeres, the structures located on the ends chromosomes, which, like the plastic aglets at the tips of shoelaces, prevent the chromosome from…

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unraveling. Each time a cell reproduces, its telomeres become shorter and less effective at protecting the chromosome — this, researchers believe, is a cause of aging. As the chromosome becomes more and more vulnerable, cell copying becomes sloppier and eventually stops when the telomeres disintegrate completely. Telomerase can mitigate — and possibly stop — cell aging.

“Something about being on a retreat for three months changed the [amount of] telomerase in the retreat group,” says Elizabeth Blackburn, a study author who has won a Nobel Prize for her previous work on telomerase. “We didn’t prove that it was meditation [that caused the change]. A lot of things happened during the retreat. But the interesting thing was that the changes we saw tracked quantifiably with the change in people’s psychological well-being and outlook.”

In other words, people with higher levels of telomerase also showed more increases in psychological improvement. In retreat participants who showed no psychological change, telomerase levels were not any higher than in controls. (Researchers were unable to compare telomerase levels in the groups both before and after the retreat for logistical reasons.)

“It’s a very good study with interesting results in terms of health implications,” says Alan Marlatt, a professor of psychology at the University of Washington who has studied meditation for decades but was not associated with this research.

Of course, the relationship between health and telomerase is complex. In a recent study in mice by Harvard researchers, they found that boosting levels of telomerase reversed signs of aging, restoring graying fur and fertility, increasing brain size and sharpening scent perception. Too much telomerase activity can also be a problem, however. A cell that reproduces endlessly sounds like a good thing at first — that cell would be immortal. But this is exactly what happens with cancer cells — infinite replication. “If telomerase levels go too far up, that’s [associated with] cancer,” says Clifford Saron, associate research scientist at the University of California-Davis Center for Mind and Brain and a co-author of the new paper. He notes, however, that the difference is one that is orders of magnitude higher—so that meditation could not possibly cause cancer.

So how does meditation affect the machinery of cellular reproduction? Probably by reducing stress, research suggests. Severe psychological stress — particularly early in life and in the absence of social support — has been linked with poorer health, increasing risk for heart disease, stroke and some cancers. This is likely due to the negative effects of high levels of stress hormones on the brain and body. By reducing stress hormones, perhaps meditation contributes to healthier telomeres.

In a study published a few years ago in Lancet Oncology, researchers compared 30 men before and after adopting lifestyle changes following a diagnosis of low-risk prostate cancer. The patients started meditating, switched to a healthy plant-based diet, exercised and attended a support group. Like the new study, the Lancet Oncology paper found increases in telomerase linked with reduced psychological distress.

“The mind has a big influence on the body. If you get anxious, your heart beats faster and your stomach churns,” says Blackburn. “But we don’t know yet [if meditation is linked to] a reduction in stress hormones. The physiology is very complex.”

Recent evidence supports a connection: a study published this month in the Archives of General Psychiatry showed that mindfulness meditation can reduce relapse in patients who recovered from depression just as well as antidepressants.

Of course, the increases in telomerase seen in the current study could be due to some other unknown factor that separates the meditators from the controls. That’s another reason why it’s too early to suggest that stress-reducing mind-body interventions like meditation be prescribed as a treatment for any diseases or disorders. The study also did not show that meditation actually extends life, only that it may increase the activity of an enzyme that is associated with longevity.

Still, research on meditation is expanding dramatically, with studies finding it helpful for pain, depression, addiction and many other conditions. “There’s a very exciting dialogue going on,” Marlatt says of the research. “It works for many different kinds of clinical problems. It’s very promising.”

That noise you hear in the background? Millions of new meditators chanting, “Om.”

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Psychologist, students: Meditation an effective path to stress-relief

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Emilia Luna, the Tufts Daily: College students turn to a long list of activities to relax and blow off steam — working out, socializing, playing sports — the list goes on. But Christopher Willard, staff psychologist at Counseling and Mental Health Service (CMHS) and member of the board of directors at Boston’s Institute for Meditation and Psychotherapy, recommends they add another, more exotic activity to that list: meditation.

The practice of meditation, according to Willard, can be quite simple, though not always easy.

“Meditation is essentially just paying attention to what is happening in the present moment and deliberately avoiding distraction,” he said. “When I say paying attention to what is happening, that can mean what is happening internally in our minds and bodies or to objects and events around us.”

Meditation involves paying attention to one’s breathing and trying to keep that breath constant even if one’s mind starts to wander, Willard said.

“In this way, we build concentration and also start to get to know our minds better as we start to see the patterns of where our attention tends to wander — for some of us, it’s the past; for some it’s the future or [a] certain situation — and gradually see these patterns that get us stuck and then start to change them,” Willard said.
Although the personal benefits of meditation vary from person to person, studies have proven meditation to be healing for both the mind and body, Willard said. In particular, he said, research has shown meditation helpful with trauma, depression and insomnia, along with other physical disorders, including immune system functioning, heart disease, chronic fatigue syndrome and addictions.

Beyond physical ailments, meditating can also improve athletic performance, creativity and concentration, Willard said.

While many students do not suffer from specific conditions they are looking to treat with meditation, anyone can achieve a greater state of calmness by practicing it, according to Willard.

“What people find is that they stop having to believe their thoughts so much; they don’t believe the worried thoughts that tell them they will fail the test or the depressed thoughts that tell them they are unlovable or give in to the impulsive thoughts that tell them to snap at their friend, go on an eating binge or cut themselves,” Willard said. “People come to realize that these are just thoughts and feelings, not facts that are true or inevitable.”

Despite its restorative qualities, Willard said the practice isn’t without its drawbacks. Beginners often struggle with making the time to meditate and sometimes find the process harder than expected. Additionally, some use meditation as a way to escape from reality, which may be problematic.

“It is true that for some people, they try to use meditation as an escape from what they really need to be doing — dealing with work, studies or important relationships,” Willard said.

Meditation is an accessible practice to pick up, Willard said; anyone interested in starting can try it in his or her dorm room or house and can easily establish a short, regular meditation time of five minutes or so. Integrating the practice into one’s daily routine is crucial for its effectiveness, he said.

Graduate student Nicholas Matiasz, leader of the Buddhist Sangha group at Tufts, said that meditation has become an important aspect of his life.

For Matiasz, meditation is a route to finding happiness and pleasure on a consistent basis.
“Meditation helps me in answering the question, ‘Can we find happiness from the very nature of the awareness we bring to the world, rather than always expecting something from the world?'” he said.

Meditation has now become a part of Matiasz’s daily routine, even though his schedule does not always easily lend itself to such a habit.

“I think of it as a form of mental hygiene — like I wouldn’t skip a shower, I try not to skip meditation,” Matiasz said. “[However], it is difficult to be a student and lead a contemplative practice as well.”

Sophomore Thomas Eley, a member of the Buddhist Sangha and a new meditation enthusiast, said that the practice has helped him see the world in a more balanced way.

“For me, it is a way of being more aware of my environment and a time to relax,” he said. “It makes things clear; it is a time where everything sort of goes away.”

Eley, introduced to the practice in high school, found his way to meditation through art.

“Art is similar in that you are only making one thing, and you are in an extreme focus that is similar,” he said. “I was meditating without realizing because when you are in your space doing art, it’s you and whatever you are creating.”

Meditation can often accompany other personal, mental and spiritual journeys, Willard said.

“For some people, meditation can be the start of a spiritual journey as well, though not necessarily,” Willard said. “Some people just do a brief meditation before they start studying or writing, or for others they learn some techniques that help them on the playing field or in the performance hall. Others find that it is the start of a creative journey of self-improvement.”

At the same time, Matiasz believed many people misperceive the actual meaning of meditation, sometimes conflating it with religious ideas.

Though meditation does exist as a secular practice, Willard said it is also an integral part of many religions, both ancient and modern.

“Judaism, Islam and Christianity all have wonderful, deep meditation traditions that have gone through historical periods where they are emphasized more or less or perhaps have been more emphasized in a monastic setting than for later practitioners,” he said.

Despite its benefits, Eley stressed that mediation may not be for every college student, especially if they fear solitude.

“It is a solitary activity, but those that are not scared of being alone could definitely benefit from it. It is a time to really center yourself and see things more clearly,” he said. “It is very important to incorporate it in your life because it keeps your mind fresh.”

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Study will see if calm mind can mean healthy body

A new study is under way at Emory testing the value of meditation in helping people cope with stress. The Compassion and Attention Longitudinal Meditation Study (CALM) will help scientists determine how people’s bodies, minds and hearts respond to stress, and which specific meditation practices are better at turning down those responses.

“Anything that affects the normal functioning and integrity of the body tends to activate a part of the immune system that’s called inflammation,” says Charles Raison, associate professor in Emory’s Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, and principal investigator of the study.

“Inflammation includes processes that the immune system uses to deal with virus or bacteria, or anything foreign and dangerous,” says Raison, clinical director of the Emory Mind-Body Program. “Data show that people who practice meditation may reduce their inflammatory and behavioral responses to stress, which are linked to serious illnesses including cancer, depression and heart disease.”

Raison and principal contemplative investigator, Geshe Lobsang Tenzin Negi, senior lecturer in the Department of Religion, collaborated on a 2005 study at Emory showing that college students who regularly practiced compassion meditation had a significant reduction in stress and physical responses to stress. Negi, who is president and spiritual director of Drepung Loseling Monastery, designed the compassion meditation practices.

The success of the initial study led the pair to embark on the expanded protocol for adults

The CALM study has three different components.

The main component, which is funded by a federal grant, is called the “Mechanisms of Meditation.” This aspect of the study compares compassion meditation with two other interventions — mindfulness training and a series of health-related lectures. Participants are randomized into one of the three interventions.

A second component involves the use of an electronically activated recorder (called the “EAR”) that is worn by the participants before beginning and after completion of the meditation interventions.

The recorder will be used to evaluate the effect of the study interventions on the participants’ social behavior by periodically recording bits and pieces of ambient sounds from participants’ daily lives.

The third component involves neuroimaging of the participants to determine if compassion meditation and mindfulness meditation have different effects on brain architecture and the function of empathic pathways of the brain.

Secular compassion meditation is based on a thousand-year-old Tibetan Buddhist mind-training practice called “lojong.” Lojong uses a cognitive, analytic approach to challenge a person’s unexamined thoughts and emotions toward other people, with the long-term goal of developing altruistic emotions and behavior toward all people.

Mastering meditation takes dedication and time.

“Meditation is not just about sitting quietly,” says Negi. “Meditation is a process of familiarizing, cultivating or enhancing certain skills, and you can think of attentiveness and compassion as skills.

“Meditation practices designed to foster compassion may impact physiological pathways that are modulated by stress and relevant to disease.”

Raison and Negi hope to show that centuries of wisdom about the inner mind and how to nurture it, combined with Western science about how the body and brain interact, will be tremendously helpful to humanity, personal well-being and health.

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Three books on mindful eating: a review

The Zen of Eating, by Ronna KabatznickWith so many of us being overweight or having “issues” with food, there’s been a welcome interest in — and a slew of books about — learning to eat more mindfully. Freelance writer Mandy Sutter gives us a “taste” of what three of these books has to offer.

As a former yo-yo dieter, ‘mindful eating’ was an idea I skirted around when first encountering Buddhist practice. It sounded too much like a diet. But the phrase still lurked in a corner, like a giant spider you can’t help looking at. Eventually I had to coax the spider onto a piece of cardboard, cover it with a beer glass and take it outside — in other words, buy three books on mindful eating: The Zen of Eating, by Ronna Kabatznick, Ph.D, Eating the Moment by Pavel G Somov, PhD, and Meal by Meal by Donald Altman.

Kabatznick presents herself as a specialist in weight management first and a long-time mindfulness practitioner second. But The Zen of Eating is a book about spiritual practice: she sets out to show how accepting the Buddha’s Four Noble Truths can stop you overeating. She goes on to analyse the Eightfold Path in terms of its relevance to food choices. It’s a worry that the Middle Way might end up being pressed into the service of fatties everywhere, and sometimes the text creaks as detailed aspects of Buddhist practice are forced into relevance with eating, but most of the book works very well. In her section on ‘Right Aspiration’ for example, Kabatznick talks about how mindful eating can be undermined when motivated by vanity. If a choice to restrict certain foods is made to benefit others though, there can be meaning behind the action. She suggests dedication of merit: offering any benefit that comes from your commitment to healthy eating to specific people or groups of people (for example cutting back on red meat could be dedicated to heart disease patients).

Verdict: although contrived in places, The Zen of Eating is a thoughtful, intelligent read.

Eating the Moment, by Pavel G. Somov

Pavel G. Somov’s Eating the Moment offers a completely different take on the subject. It’s practical and it’s funny. Somov has the florid, enjoyable writing style of a raconteur, addressing us as ‘dear reader’ and advising us to phone in sick to make time to experiment with all the different ways of cooking eggs.

His book is a collection of varied suggestions to overcome overeating: 141 in all. Some relate to spiritual practice as much as to eating: for example, he suggests watching a lava lamp as a visual metaphor for the morphing nature of thought. Another suggestion ‘The Admittedly Annoying Thorough Chewing Exercise’ is geared at self-awareness, and another ‘The Carrot Cake Fight’ has us throwing ‘snowballs’ of carrot cake at a tree in order to stop carrot cake saying simply ‘eat me.’

Verdict: delightful to read, but will you practice the techniques? I tried three then got overwhelmed by the number of suggestions.

Meal by Meal by Donald Altman

Meal by Meal by Donald Altman offers a third approach: a year of daily meditations. I’m a sucker for being told what to do on certain days, even though in voracious frames of mind I’m capable of reading and even doing a whole week’s worth of suggestions. In dilatory states I fail to pick up the book at all, of course, and am tempted to time travel if I don’t like one particular day’s suggestion. So, right from page one, the book’s format brings you into contact with yourself.

The meditations themselves are quite lengthy, exposing you to a quotation, asking you at least one probing question, then suggesting an action. Some are beautiful, if pious. On March 15th, you quiet a diet-crazed mind by repeating a meaningful word, like Om, to yourself at the table. Some verge on the polemical, and are therefore complicated. On July 21st you’re asked, ‘do your current food choices leave you wanting fewer side effects and discomforts? Is temporary food pleasure worth discomfort or even long-term health problems?’

Others are imaginative: on October 21st you reflect on how cookbooks and diet books are often placed opposite each other in bookshops. It’s a metaphor for your conflicting desires: can you walk through the aisle without grabbing either?

Verdict: overcomplicated, but containing real gems.

All three books are worth a look. The Zen of Eating came top for me, because I loved its rigour and commitment; the way it reached into all the little corners of its subject. I trusted its author the most. But if you want something practical I’d recommend Eating the Moment and if you value answering questions about yourself as a way to awareness, I’d recommend Meal by Meal.

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Does stress feed cancer?

Here’s another good reason for taking up meditation — a new study shows that stress hormones make it easier for malignant tumors to grow and spread.

From Scientific American:

A little stress can do us good—it pushes us to compete and innovate. But chronic stress can increase the risk of diseases such as depression, heart disease and even cancer. Studies have shown that stress might promote cancer indirectly by weakening the immune system’s anti-tumor defense or by encouraging new tumor-feeding blood vessels to form. But a new study published April 12 in The Journal of Clinical Investigation shows that stress hormones, such as adrenaline, can directly support tumor growth and spread.

For normal cells to thrive in the body, “they need to be attached to their neighbors and their surroundings,” says the study’s lead author Anil Sood from The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. Cells that detach from their environment undergo a form of programmed cell death called anoikis. “But cancer cells have come up with way to bypass this effect—they avoid anoikis,” Sood says. This allows cancer cells to break off from tumors, spread throughout the body (in blood or other fluid) and form new tumors at distant sites—a process called metastasis. So Sood wondered: Could stress affect anoikis? “It surprised us that this biology hadn’t been studied before,” he notes. “Stress influences so many normal physiological processes. Why wouldn’t it be involved in tumor progression?”

Sood and his team first studied the effects of stress hormones on human ovarian cancer cell anoikis in culture. Cells that were exposed to stress hormones were protected from self destruction—meaning they could survive without being anchored to their surroundings. The stress hormone treatment activated a protein called FAK (focal adhesion kinase), which is known to protect cells from anoikis. Inhibiting FAK reversed the effects.

But real tumors behave differently than cancer cells in vitro, so Sood and his team extended their exciting findings into a mouse model of cancer. After receiving a transplant of ovarian cancer cells, mice were restrained to cause stress. As such, their tumors grow more quickly. Isoproterenol (a drug similar to adrenaline) had the same accelerative effect. The tumor-feeding effects of behaviorally and pharmacologically induced stress, both of which were mediated by FAK, were inhibited by the adrenaline-blocking drug propranolol.

But how closely does the stress caused by restraining a lab animal mimic that experienced by human patients? Sood and colleagues looked at samples from 80 cases of human ovarian cancer grouped according to patient stress using the National Institutes of Health’s Center for Epidemiological Studies Depression scale as a surrogate marker. Patient stress (according to the scale), along with elevated stress hormone activity were associated with higher levels of activated FAK, which was in turn linked to faster disease progression.

Ovaries contain high levels of stress hormones compared with other organs, but Sood plans to investigate whether the stressors could still be involved in other types of cancer. He hopes to identify ways to interfere with the tumor-feeding effects of stress hormones either behaviorally or pharmacologically. “Reducing the hormone levels may not be so easy,” Sood says. “Blocking the receptors using drugs like beta-blockers or antidepressants may be a better strategy.” Teaching patients to manage their stress using cognitive behavioral therapy might also be effective, he adds. “We’re really trying to understand the biology. We hope it will help us identify better therapeutic strategies.”

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Meditation may be the future of anti-aging (part II)

Scientific experts now believe we have in-built mechanisms that can fight and reverse the aging process. Innovative research into the reversal of aging is well underway and, while scientists debate the many different theories, research has revealed that meditation dramatically affects the production of three important hormones related to stress, longevity and aging.

Cortisol, DHEA and Melatonin.

Cortisol, the ‘stress hormone’, is naturally produced by the adrenal glands. Our bodies produce cortisol (and adrenaline) when we react to stress. Long term or chronic stress however means that the body is over exposed to these hormones, and this can lead to increased anxiety, depression, an inability to cope, and ultimately, physical illness.

David Zava, Ph.D., a biochemist and prominent researcher and speaker on the topic of hormones says, “Too much cortisol, caused by stressors, over a prolonged period of time, results in excessive breakdown of all structural tissues of the body including muscle, bone, skin and brain, causing accelerated aging.”

DHEA, known as the ‘youth’ hormone, is also produced by the adrenal glands and acts as a buffer against stress-related hormones (like cortisol). It is a key determinant of physiological age and dramatically decreases as we get older. When DHEA levels are low we are more susceptible to aging and disease. Anxiety and stress lower DHEA levels.

DHEA has extended rodent lifespans by up to…

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50%. The animals not only lived longer, but they also appeared younger. DHEA levels are directly related to mortality (the probability of dying) in humans. In a 12-year study of over 240 men aged 50 to 79 years, researchers found that DHEA levels were inversely correlated with mortality, both from heart disease and from all other causes.

Melatonin is a key determinant of restful sleep and is known to have a calming effect, improving our mood and feelings of contentment. Current research has also revealed melatonin to be a powerful antioxidant but as we age we create less and less melatonin.

Studies by immunologist Dr. Walter Pierpaoli of the Biancalana-Masera Foundation for the Aged in Ancona, Italy, and various colleagues have shown that melatonin treatments extended the lifespan of mice by as much as 25 percent. Moreover, mice that had been treated with melatonin not only lived longer, but they also appeared younger, healthier, more vigorous, and sexually rejuvenated.

Studies conducted by pioneering University of Texas melatonin researcher Dr. Russel Reiter show melatonin to be the most potent scavenger of free radicals – unstable molecules that promote cancer and heart disease by damaging DNA, cells, and tissue.

Dr. Vincent Giampapa, M.D., head of Longevity Institute International and Past-President of the American Board of Anti-Aging Medicine, plays a prominent role in some of the latest scientific research into aging. His study, using specific audio technology designed for deep meditation, revealed:

* Cortisol decreased by an average of 46.47%, with positive changes in 68% of the people
* Over 68% had increases in DHEA levels, with an average increase of 43.77%
* Melatonin levels increased an average of 97.77%, with positive changes happening in over 73% of the people

Regular meditation practice brings a whole range of health benefits but the most fascinating, at the forefront of modern medicine, is how it seems to activate the body’s natural anti-aging capabilities.

“Most people think that aging is irreversible and we know that there are mechanisms even in the human machinery that allow for the reversal of aging, through correction of diet, through anti-oxidants, removal of toxins from the body, through exercise, yoga and breathing techniques, and through meditation.” – Deepak Chopra

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