3 reasons mindfulness is crucial to an integrative health approach
This past weekend I attended the MINDD International Forum, a yearly 3-day integrative health forum for doctors, practitioners and lay people (like me) who are interested in taking a more holistic approach to their clients’ or family’s health.
‘MINDD’ stands for Metabolic, Immunologic, Neurologic, Digestive and Developmental. The forum looked at how these factors link with the frightening increase in disease and mental health disorders, especially in children, including autism, ADHD, and depression. The focus was on how we can improve or even cure these disorders by avoiding toxins, healing ourselves with nutrition and using targeted nutritional supplements to support the biochemistry of our bodies instead of relying solely on drugs to fix the symptoms.
The line up was impressive. Among other things, we learned about Gut and Psychology Syndrome (seriously, how amazing is Dr Natasha Campbell-McBride!), metabolic syndrome and diabetes, the nasty effects of glyphosate and roundup on the human microbiome, infection-triggered autoimmune disorders that affect the brain (scary stuff!), mitochondrial health and how we make and sustain our energy pathways and how vital the methylation cycle is for our health. We also got science lessons on neuro-inflammation, the thyroid and adrenals, and the devastating effect of Pyrroles on mental health.
It was basically 9 hours a day of biochemistry and neuroscience and although I walked out at the end of the day with a headache from concentrating, and a mile-long list of things I desperately need to attend to regarding my family’s health, I felt somewhat enlightened. I also walked out with a strong feeling that mindfulness is crucial to an integrative health approach. Just to recap, mindfulness is being fully aware in the present moment, without judging it in any way.
Here are my top three reasons why mindfulness is crucial to an integrative health approach;
1. Thyroid and adrenal health
Thyroid disease and adrenal fatigue are on the rise in both children and adults. Thyroid hormones are responsible for brain and bone growth and development, metabolism, reproduction, muscle reflexes and our ability to regulate heat. Some of the main causes of thyroid disease are iodine deficiency (Australia has very high rates), problems with the adrenal glands due to chronic stress and exposure to ‘goitrogens’ or hormone disruptors which include common toxins like phosphates, heavy metals, too many raw cruciferous vegetables (like kale, broccoli, and cauliflower), and nitrates in our food.
Interestingly, Rachel Arthur, one of Australia’s leading naturopaths and nutritionists, told us that:
The number one hormone disruptor in the human body is cortisol.
You’ll remember that cortisol is the fight or flight hormone naturally produced by the adrenal glands during the body’s response to stress. It triggers a myriad of other chemical changes in the body to help us respond to an immediate and present threat. However, if we don’t lower our cortisol levels after the threat has passed by burning it off while physically fighting the tiger or by running for our life, then levels in the body remain high, and get even higher the more we are exposed to chronic stress. This creates all sorts of problems in the body, including damage to the thyroid and the adrenals.
Meditation has been shown to reduce the body’s stress response when its no longer needed by bringing levels of cortisol down and can restore our body to a healthier state of rest and repair by turning up our relaxation response. Practicing mindfulness meditation over a period of 8 weeks can also literally change the brain to help us to stress less, so the load of stress hormones in our bodies is reduced and less damage is caused to other organs.
One of the common themes across all of the health issues was that persistent inflammation in the body is a major cause of damage and disease including arthritis, inflammatory bowel disease, heart disease, Alzheimer’s, and most autoimmune diseases. Inflammation is there to help us to survive a trauma to the body but when it continues past the immediate threat and we are unable to switch over into healing mode, its like a festering ulcer in our body. Chronic inflammation prevents our bodies from functioning properly and can actually damage the tissues. It is now well known that stress, including psychological stress, can both create and increase inflammation in the body.
Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) which has traditionally been used to help patients with chronic pain, anxiety and depression, can also help to reduce stress-induced inflammation in the body. MBSR is an 8 week program of daily mindfulness meditation which focuses on formal training in mindfulness and body awareness. You can learn MBSR here in Australia and its proving very useful not just for dealing with inflammation already present in the body but also to prevent it.
By the way, insulin is the master pro-inflammatory hormone. Chronic overproduction of insulin is due to glucose overload from eating too many processed carbohydrates. This leads to insulin resistance and diabetes. The best way to combat this is to eat less processed carbohydrates (bread, cereals, biscuits etc), switching to higher saturated fats instead (the good fats), and engage in regular meditation to help reduce inflammation in the body. Interestingly, practising mindfulness meditation allows us to become more aware of what is happening in our bodies, including our responses and reactions to what we eat. The more in touch we are with our bodies, the easier it is to feel the effects of our nutritional choices and we are more inclined to make better ones.
3. Genes and sleep
It is now known that we all have genes which are responsible for triggering inflammation in the body, but the key thing is whether they are turned on or not. Our genes do not necessarily always determine our health, as our internal environment is crucial in whether or not these genes are expressed. Studies have shown that by increasing the rest and relaxation response, meditation can switch on genes involved in energy metabolism and turn off genes linked to inflammation and stress.
Linked to this is the importance of getting a good night’s sleep. The brain actually detoxes while we sleep. Not getting enough sleep or having poor quality sleep affects our ability to detoxify our brains and bodies. This increases the toxic load our bodies have to deal with every day and can affect whether those genes that trigger inflammation are turned on. One thing most people report after having practiced mindfulness meditation for a few weeks is better quality sleep.
For me, the moral of the story is that the strength of our emotional wellbeing has just as much influence on our health as the food we eat and the supplements we take. Mindfulness is intricately related to our biochemistry and impacts on our ability to withstand the variety of stress-inducing factors we deal with in today’s world. If we can awaken the ancient wisdom of healing within, we will know for ourselves what we need to become healthy.