Use Your Mind to Heal Your Body
Your body’s best friend? Your brain! Cutting-edge research proves mind/body techniques can ease aches, illness, insomnia and more. A skeptic’s guide to thinking yourself well —Erin Bried
There’s a good reason you feel like a goddess when you walk out of yoga class, and it’s not because you finally got your money’s worth out of your gym. It’s because yoga and similar mind-quieting methods have the potential to work as well as many medications at treating what ails you. “We now have compelling scientific proof that the mind can heal the body,” says Herbert Benson, M.D., director emeritus of the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital and author of Relaxation Revolution. The latest promises:
Your body dials down stress. Dr. Benson’s research has found that mind/body practices—meditation, yoga, tai chi, deep breathing, visualization—all elicit the relaxation response, quelling the release of stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline. Your heart slows, blood pressure falls and digestion eases.
Your immunity soars. The relaxation response causes cells to release micropuffs of nitric oxide, a gas that dilates blood vessels and stabilizes the immune system, Dr. Benson reported in Medical Science Monitor. Mind/body methods worked as well as drugs designed to do the same thing, without the side effects.
Your brain grows. As you get older, your brain begins to shrink. But in a study in NeuroReport, researchers discovered that the prefrontal cortex and the anterior right insula, areas linked to attention and sensory processing, were thicker and more robust in those who meditate. “It’s like exercise for the brain, making it stronger,” says Rick Hanson, Ph.D., a neuropsychologist in San Rafael, California, and author of Buddha’s Brain.
Your genes change. Here’s the real slap-your-forehead news: In a study in PLoS ONE, Dr. Benson compared the genes of 38 people, half of whom meditated regularly and half of whom never did. Controlling for other factors, he found that genes associated with stress-related illness behaved differently in the two groups. “These genes control not only stress but also premature aging and inflammation,” he says. It seems meditators’ genes were essentially telling their body to stress less and age more slowly.