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Health

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Neuroscience and mindfulness

The term "mindfulness" is about focusing on the moment. It is about embracing every moment of the day.

While being in the moment can be transformative, scientists still don't fully understand what happens in the brain when we practice mindfulness. What is known is just the tip of the iceberg.

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Health

  • Research done on mindfulness parenting can be helpful with persons with autism, where parents apply the skills of mindfulness to the child-parent interaction, including attentive listening, non-judgmental acceptance of the self and the child, and self-regulation.
  • Studies found mindfulness interventions can minimize the struggles related to behaviour and mood regulation.
  • Using mindfulness, people with autism can learn to find a balance between sensing and feeling that allows for a calmer response.

Research indicates that mindfulness can help with the following:

  • It impacts human functioning.
  • It improves the quality of attention.
  • It affects interpersonal behaviour.
  • It provides greater empathy and compassion.
  • Optimization of mental health.
  • Positive impact on the brain and immune system.
  • It assists with chronic pain.
  • It helps overcome insomnia.
  • It helps with caregiver burnout.

Many studies have been done on mindfulness. The most widely recognised are:

  • Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR). This program is designed to assist people with pain and a range of conditions that may be difficult to treat in a hospital setting.
  • Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT). The goal is to help people change unproductive thoughts. MBCT uses psychological techniques that help people understand the relationship between various emotions and mood disorders.
  • Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is used to treat various mental problems like anxiety, phobias, and even pain.

Neuroplasticity means the brain is malleable and able to restructure itself by forming new neural connections.

  • Meditation might slow down or prevent forgetfulness related to age. Research found people who meditated in their 40s and 50's had the same amount of grey matter as those in their 20's and 30's.
  • Following 8 weeks of mindfulness exercises, brain volume increased in 4 regions of the brain, including the hippocampus (responsible for the regulation of emotions, learning and memory) and the temporoparietal junction (responsible for empathy and compassion.)

Some studies compared mindfulness therapies to medication.

  • One study found no difference between participants of mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) and anti-depressant medication. This suggests that MBCT is a reasonable alternative to standard medicine.
  • Research also showed that combining medication and psychotherapy often results in better outcomes than focusing on one alone.
  1. Lutz, Dunne & Davidson (2008) found mindfulness impacts the amygdala.
  2. Goldin & Gross (2010) found that the hippocampus was more active after mindfulness training.
  3. Carson, J. et al. (2004) found a correlation between mindfulness and healthier relationships.
  4. Chiesa & Serretti (2010) found the prefrontal cortex became more active following mindfulness training.
  5. A 2005 study found thicker cortical regions related to attention and sensory processing in meditation practitioners.
  6. Lazar et al. (2005) found meditation prevents cortical thinning.
  7. Beddoe & Murphy (2004). Mindfulness encourages empathy.

One meta-analysis found 8 unique regions of the brain consistently changed in people experienced in meditation. These are:

  • Rostrolateral prefrontal cortex
  • Sensory cortices
  • Insular cortex
  • Hippocampus
  • Anterior cingulate cortex
  • Mid-cingulate cortex
  • Superior longitudinal fasciculus
  • Corpus callosum

Consistent changes were noticed as follows:

  • Changes in brain density
  • Changes in thickness of brain tissue
  • Increase in neurons, fibres, and glia
  • Changes in cortical surface area
  • Changes in white matter fibre density

While medication is often used to treat ADHD, its effects are usually short-term. The medicine also has side effects.

In a randomised controlled trial, researchers found that mindfulness instruction is a good choice for young people with ADHD. The study is focused on measures of attention, hyperactivity and impulsivity.

Milk should be added at the last possible moment before drinking, so the tea stays as hot as possible. Also, ensure to use freshly boiled water as it helps the flavours spread through the liquid.

Non-diary milk such as oat milk tends to add a good flavour to teas.

Tea tastes best in cups from inert materials like ceramic or glass. Styrofoam cups are porous and will absorb some of the flavour compounds and affect the taste. Plastics can also absorb flavours.

There is also psychology involved in the way we perceive taste. Hot drinks taste sweeter in a red or orange mug, and drinking from a fine bone china cup will taste better because it feels more special.

Making a perfect cup of tea
  • Water that is too soft and doesn't contain minerals can make the tea taste soapy. Too hard and contains too many minerals such as calcium and magnesium ions can cause scum to form on top of the tea and change the flavour.
  • Loose-leaf gives more flavour than tea bags because there is more space to move around and diffuse the flavour.
  • Tea should ideally be brewed for five minutes to allow more flavour and antioxidants. Brew for too long, and the tannin molecules can make the tea taste bitter.

We are struggling with anxiety as our habits don’t let us part with it, with the pleasure and pain coming in a package. The habit loop of any habit cycle is:

  1. Trigger: A feeling of anxiety.
  2. Behaviour: Doing something (like eating a chocolate or lighting a smoke).
  3. Result: Temporary distraction from anxiety.

Review your daily actions and map out the habits that create such loops.

Creating healthy habits requires mindfulness, so that new habit loops can be inserted when a trigger surfaces in your mind.

  • Be curious and mindful at all times if possible, tuning into your breath whenever anxiety arises.
  • Practice RAIN: Recognize and relax into the NOW, accepting it in your life. Investigate the sensations arising in your body, noting down what is happening to you.

The brain labels our actions and behaviour as ‘rewarding’, usually in our formative years. We need to review our behaviour and habits and update the brain’s reward system.

Example: We may be having a habit of eating a lot of cake, since our childhood. Now as an adult, the habit is resulting in a high intake of sugar, without our realizing it.

If we use this method to review and update our reward system, the brain will naturally lose the urge to take the habitual action, something much more powerful than using willpower, which only suppresses the urge.

  • Label each experience and witness it from a distance, creating space between you and the sensation.
  • Practice kindness and love towards yourself and others.
  • Review and update the brain’s reward system in a positive way, inserting good behaviour and positive habit loops.
Anxiety Is In What We Do

A new book by psychiatrist Judson Brewer, Unwinding Anxiety, proposes that anxiety exists in our daily habits, and is not something that simply goes away by breathing exercises.

Our brain is addicted to the habits due to the rewards attached to them, and we need to dismantle and decouple the rewards in order to break free from the habit and eventually the associated anxiety.

Anxiety triggers habit loops, but can also be the result of a habit loop (like reading the news online). Constant worrying is also a reinforcing pattern of habit loops.

The reward can be a eureka moment towards a potential solution (which is rare) or a feeling of productivity and passive action, providing us with a sense of control.

  • Energy drinks with too much caffeine are not recommended early in the morning.
  • Hot or cold tea is an excellent choice with abundant health benefits, especially with lemon added.
  • Coffee is everyone’s drink of choice, and plenty of hydration before a cup helps the system. Make it healthier by adding cinnamon and brown sugar.
  • Do not start your day with diet or regular soda, ever.
The First Thing To Drink In The Morning

Nutrition experts provide their insights on our morning hydration process:

  • Drink water, even if not thirsty, as the body needs to rehydrate.
  • Make the ritual of drinking something beautiful, an easy activity that does not feel hurried or like another task. Avoid adding stress to your drink.
What successful diets have in common
  • Low in added sugar. 
  • Eliminate refined carbs. 
  • Avoid vegetable oils high in Omega-6 Fat.
  • Eliminate artificial trans fats, linked to inflammation and conditions like heart disease.
  • Emphasize eating plenty of vegetables and in most cases, fruits.
  • Emphasize a lifestyle change that includes whole foods and let weight loss follow as a natural side effect.

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