In previous newsletters, we’ve discussed the deleterious effects stress has on brain health. Stress is linked to headaches, stomachaches, missed periods and erectile dysfunction. It is also tied to type 2 diabetes, heart attack, stroke, depression and insomnia. It may be a risk factor for cancer and, by weakening the immune system, make us vulnerable to illnesses of all kinds.
There is a growing body of knowledge of how using various techniques of controlled breathing can offset stress effects.
The Science of Deep Breathing and Breath Control
Medical science discovered the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems years ago. Among other functions, those systems control our breathing automatically. At the base of the brain is the brain stem which includes the medulla oblongata. The medulla oblongata extends from the spinal cord into the brain. Among its functions are monitoring carbon dioxide levels in the blood and adjusting as appropriate.
Doctor Matthew MacKinnon uses an automobile metaphor to explain those systems: the sympathetic nervous system is an analog to the gas pedal, while the parasympathetic nervous system is the brake. Sensors in our lungs use the sympathetic system to notify the brain stem that our lungs need to expand, e.g.-put on the gas. Then the parasympathetic system kicks in telling the lungs to put on the brakes. When contracting, the lungs push the blood, freshly filled with oxygen, throughout the body.
Researchers at Trinity College of Neuroscience and the Global Brain Health Institute at Trinity in Dublin set out to find the exact mechanism that makes this work, and whether breathing exercises might influence it. Here’s what they found: Noradrenaline, or norepinephrine, is a chemical messenger that is released in the brain stem. It focuses attention, increases alertness and is responsible for the effect known as fight or flight. They found that it is produced in the locus coeruleus, which is also in the brain stem. Michael Melnychuk, PhD candidate at Trinity, was the lead author of the study. He noted “When we are stressed we produce too much noradrenaline and we can’t focus. When we feel sluggish, we produce too little and again we can’t focus. There is a sweet spot of noradrenaline in which our emotions, thinking and memory are much clearer. This study has shown that as you breathe in locus coeruleus activity is increasing slightly, and as you breathe out it decreases. Put simply this means that our attention is influenced by our breath and that is rises and falls with the cycle of respiration. It is possible that by focusing on and regulating your breathing you can optimize your attention level and likewise, by focusing on your attention level, your breathing becomes more synchronized.”
Buddha Had It Figured
In other words, medical science is catching up with what The Buddha, Isaac and countless Yogis have known for 2,500 years or so. By consciously instituting deep breathing, we take control away from the brain stem temporarily and give everything an oxygen booster shot. Further, by relaxing and remaining still, we reduce the need for oxygen.
According to Dr. MacKinnon, taking control of your breathing for a while can be relaxing and calming. Your heart is also tuned-in to all this respiration work as well; you can read more with this link to MacKinnon’s work.
Ian Robertson, PhD is Co-Director of the Global Brain Health Institute at Trinity and Professor of Neuroscience and Psychology was also involved in the Trinity study. He noted: “It is believed that by observing the breath, and regulating it in precise ways-a practice known as pranayama-changes in arousal, attention and emotional control that can be of great benefit to the meditator are realized. Our research finds that there is evidence to support the view that there is a strong connection between breath-centered practices and a steadiness of mind”. Another comment from Robertson: “Brains typically lose mass as they age, but less so in the brains of long term meditators. More ‘youthful’ brains have a reduced risk of dementia and mindfulness meditation techniques actually strengthen brain networks.” Link for more information about this research here.
Seems like rather good rationale to meditate.
In Case You Missed It
We covered the diet almost guaranteed to grow a bigger brain. Link here.
We discussed how experiencing certain positive emotions are positive for brain health. Link here.
Very Important Note
We’ve sold all of our activity blankets for dementia sufferers. We’re getting our micro factory here in MA geared up to make more ASAP. With recommendations from customers and the help of our blanket (OK- she insists it is a quilt) designer, we have some ideas to make the next ones even better. If you’ve been thinking about ordering one for a family member or friend afflicted with dementia, please send Blane an email Blane@BigBrain.Place so that he can reserve one for you.
We know that many of you already meditate. We offer two books that are suitable for both beginners and experienced meditators who want to expand their practice. We selected “unplug A Simple Guide to Meditation for Busy Skeptics and Modern Soul Seekers” by Suze Yalof Schwartz, and “Meditation Made Easy More Than 50 Exercises For Peace, Relaxation and Mindfulness” by Preston Bentley only after reading a number of titles on the topic. Link to learn more or purchase here.