All Stressed Out? Lean In and Breathe.

It’s not a big surprise to anyone that meditation leads to increased feelings of peace and tranquility. Thanks to scientists at UC Davis, we now have a better biochemical understanding of how this happens in our bodies.

A newly published study by the Shamatha Project at the UC Davis Center for the Mind and Brain shows an inverse correlation between mindfulness meditation and that nasty “stress hormone,” cortisol. Turns out, as we integrate the benefits of meditation, the cortisol levels in our bodies drop.

Cortisol has a long rap sheet. Mostly it gets mentioned alongside conditions like diabetes, excess belly fat, and heart disease. But, it’s actually not all bad all the time. Under normal circumstances, cortisol is a helpful little hormone secreted by the adrenal glands to assist our bodies in regulating our energetic resources through metabolism, blood sugar levels, insulin production, and blood pressure. It’s also part of the bolt of energy (along with adrenaline) that helps us protect ourselves from threats in the environment. But it’s this last function that gets us into hot water.

The problem is, what ought to be temporary stressors in today’s complex world have become both chronic and too numerous. We feel overmatched by the quantity and complexity of demands placed on us, and these stressors just go on and on, seemingly without any end in sight. So we are riddled with chronically high levels of cortisol in our blood stream, which leads to the slow degradation of our cardiovascular system and that stubborn belly fat. But it gets even worse than storing fat and dying from a heart attack or diabetes. Cortisol at chronically high concentrations in our bodies is a neurotoxin that may contribute to short-term memory loss, and even increase our risk for Alzheimer’s Disease.

This is to say nothing about our poor little adrenal glands. At some point, they become fatigued to the point that we can’t manufacture these essential hormones, and we then experience a syndrome that includes chronic fatigue, a sense of constant overwhelm and anxiety, constant craving of unhealthy foods, and problems healing from illness or injury.

Enough with the bad news. What kind of meditation practices did the scientists at UC Davis find to help bring our cortisol levels back into natural balance?

In the new study, the folks at UC Davis used a mindfulness assessment questionnaire to measure aspects of mindfulness among a group of volunteers before and after a three-month meditation retreat. (I know, right?! Who has 3 months to go on retreat?!) They also measured cortisol levels in their saliva.

During the retreat, an amazing Dharma teacher and scientist, Dr. B. Alan Wallace of the Santa Barbara Institute for Consciousness Studies, taught mindfulness of breathing, observing thoughts, and observing the nature of consciousness itself. The study participants also practiced generating warm feeling states like loving kindness, compassion, empathic joy and equanimity.

At the end of the study, the scientists found an inverse correlation between a high score for mindfulness and a low score in cortisol both before and after the retreat. Not surprising. Here’s the kicker: For the folks who showed an increase in their mindfulness score after the meditation training, they also showed a decrease in cortisol.

Of course, this isn’t enough evidence to prove cause and effect. And we can’t really isolate whether it was just mindful attending to the present moment that was responsible for this shift, or the cultivation of positive emotional states, or both that lowered cortisol. I suspect that it may have been a combination, given my experience with the research done by the HeartMath Institute regarding heart rate variability (HRV) and adrenal function. In the HeartMath work, we always include both present moment awareness of breath, with an intentional positive emotional shift.

In any case, it would be interesting to compare mindfulness of breathing alone vs. compassion meditation to see which practice has a more dramatic impact on our stress response. In the mean time, I think I’ll just continue to practice both.

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