Meditation Vs. Gut Health. Maybe Ancient Practices Were Pretty Clever After-All?:
A doctor friend once told me that when he went to his first lecture class the professor started it with this statement,
“Half of what we’re about to teach you is wrong. The problem is, we don’t know which half.”
How many times have people turned to supplements, Kung Fu, ufos, etc. to fix a problem that wasn’t getting solved in the standard way?
Probably more than once. Even with their less-than-great record of success.
So it will come as no surprise that as modern science advances, it occasionally circles-back to what used to be ancient superstition.
And a small team from China is making the case yet again, that meditation is a kind of magic…
The Short Answer:
- Sometimes even doctors recognize there is a lot still to learn.
- Every once in awhile ancient superstitions turn out to be +/- “right”.
- Yogurt and fermented foods are good for your guts.
- But recently, we’re finding out they’re also good for your psychology, too.
- The brain actually has a special high-speed connection to your gut.
- It may be able to read and influence what is going on in the gut.
- A study on 37 monks and 19 civilians found the monks all have more helpful microbes.
- In some cases, the difference was as high as 8-12x the normal people.
- These were all related to better mood, lower inflammation, and better cardio health.
- It’s possible that meditation puts the monks in a permanently low-stress state.
- This may create the environment that all the good microbes need to flourish.
- Elevated stress hormones are associated with the opposite case.
- It is possible for regular people to influence their stress hormone levels with meditation also.
Read on to find out the details…
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For awhile now, we’ve all been bombarded by ads selling the need for probiotics.
Even long after Jamie-Lee Curtis mercifully stopped hinting to us about her gastrointestinal problems with Activia,
We may have heard about the old-fashioned probiotic sources as they become popular again.
The perfect examples being traditionally fermented foods like kimchi, kombucha, and kefir.
Still further, more in-depth research on probiotics found they weren’t just great for physical health.
We found out that they’re great for your psychology too.
In some cases, as much as 50% of your body’s mood-based neurotransmitters are made in the gut.
It’s that type of revelation that led researchers to delve deeper into “The Gut-Brain Axis“.
Which is where the current research picks up, and promptly gets weird.
Because while the vagus nerve runs from the gut to the brain and provides a high-speed connection to tell upstairs every single thing that’s going on downstairs.
Modern Western science really didn’t think there was much going the other direction; until now.
In a small study of 37 Tibetan monks and 19 ordinary neighbors, some striking differences in gut microbes were found.
The monks all practiced meditating for 2 hours/day for between 3 and 30 years, and had been taken off of any supplement or unusual food that could really alter the gut for 3 months before the work.
They were also matched for comparison to ordinary people of similar age, diet, and general cardio health.
So except for the orange robes and the hair-styles, they seemed similar enough to their neighbors.
Now here’s where the woo-woo kicks in.
All of the monks tested between 8-12x higher in 4 different types of gut microbes, all of which positively affect mood and mental health.
(Bacteroidetes, Faecalibacterium, Megamonas, and Prevotella for the microbe-nerds out there)
So far, the researchers theorize the monks have better-functioning anti-inflammatory and metabolism pathways.
Then as a bonus, some blood-work was done and the team also found out the monks have better cholesterol and heart-related blood-chemistry as well!
Now some of the objections may be that they were all small men who lived at high altitude.
But so were the “control” group they were compared to.
So how the hell is this working?
Is the brain really sending signals down the vagus nerve in the other direction that somehow reverse or change the gut microbes?
I get the feeling a lot of this is about how hormones and neurotransmitters affect more than just your brain.
So if you ever get startled or stressed, ex: by a thought or external event etc., your body releases stress hormones.
These are cortisol and adrenaline and are probably released in different quantities & ratios depending on the type & size of event.
For example, if you’re too wound-up at the end of the day to go to sleep, that might be too much of both and probably more adrenaline.
Well, it turns out that meditation can lower stress-hormone levels in the body, both in the short-term and also over the longer-term.
Elevated cortisol and adrenaline levels are associated with:
1) Reduced digestion
2) Reduced production of anti-inflammatory compounds in the gut
3) Lowered defenses of the GI tract
4) Increased GI permeability and “leaky gut”
5) Increased production of bad bacteria due to the previous 3
6) Increased inflammation due to gut-permeability
6a) This inflammation could make its way into the brain, also.
7) Altered gene-expression in microbes that can increase inflammation and cardiovascular disease
So maybe the work that meditators & monks do isn’t just something to mitigate a stress-condition that’s always there.
Maybe that practice is its own state all by itself?
That reducing stress and anxiety for such a long time very likely maintains low levels of adrenaline and cortisol.
Maybe this practice creates its own opposite state of living, counter to the way we operate in the modern West?
But what’s really hopeful is that the studies on meditation show even beginners can change the expression of almost 1600 genes.
So if we can learn to tamp-down on the overexpression of hormones that are only necessary in fight-or-flight conditions,
Maybe even the average person can give all the good things in the gut a lot more room to help by preparing the environment for them to flourish.
It’s possible that with some regular but beginner-level mindfulness meditation that could happen.
No orange robes required!
So maybe the ancient woo-hooery about the states of mind and the body being connected wasn’t as crazy as the “coffee achievers” once thought?
• Source: BMJ-G.Psy – Alteration of faecal microbiota balance related to long-term deep meditation
• Other Studies:
•NeuroPsyBio – Influence of mindfulness practice on cortisol and sleep in long-term and short-term meditators
•J.Med.Assoc.Thai – Effects of mindfulness meditation on serum cortisol of medical students
•BrainBehImmun. – Exposure to a social stressor alters the structure of the intestinal microbiota: Implications for stressor-induced immunomodulation
•NeuroBioStress – Stress & the gut-brain axis: Regulation by the microbiome