Meditation, mental training that promotes skills such as mindfulness, relaxation and serenity, it lowers the level of the stress hormone cortisol and is detectable in the hair. This is what researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Brain and Cognitive Sciences in Leipzig and the Social Neurosciences research group at the Max Planck Society in Berlin found out.
The amount of cortisol found in hair tells you this how much stress that lasts for a long time affects a person. So far, the effect of meditation has only been studied in the case of acute stress and using questionnaires. Hair tests are much more objective and reveal physiological effects.
Stress affects not only the well-being of those affected, but also is associated with a variety of physiological diseases, such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease and mental disorders such as depression.
Meditation is effective in reducing stress levels
Many people are looking for effective methods that will sustainably reduce everyday stress. A promising option is meditation or mindfulness practice, in which cognitive skills such as attention and, in some modalities, emotions such as equanimity, gratitude and compassion are trained.
Several studies have shown that even healthy people feel less stressed after a typical eight-week exercise program. Nevertheless, Until now, it has not been clear how much exercise actually contributes to reducing the physiological burden of everyday stress.
The problem with many previous studies of chronic stress is that participants generally they had to self-assess their stress levels after training. Self-reporting through questionnaires can lead to interpretative bias and the study can deliver more positive results than they really were.
The hair cortisol test is objective
Unlike pharmacological studies, for example, in which the study participants do not know whether they have actually received the active substance or not, so-called blind studies are not possible in meditation. It is impossible for a person not to know whether they are meditating or not.
As Lara Puhlmann, PhD student at the Max Planck Institute for Brain and Cognitive Sciences and first author of the underlying publication, explains: “The participants know that they are taking the drug. we use more and more objective methods, that is, physiological, in order to be able to measure the stress-reducing effect more precisely.
The concentration of cortisol in the hair is considered a suitable indicator of exposure to prolonged stress. Cortisol is a hormone released when you face an overwhelming challenge. for example. In any situation, it helps to put the body on alert and mobilize energy to face the challenge.
The longer the stress lasts, the longer a higher concentration of cortisol circulates in the body and the more it accumulates in the hair. In order to measure the stress level of the study participants during a nine-month meditation practice, the researchers, in collaboration with the working group of Clemens Kirschbaum from the University of Dresden They analyzed the amount of cortisol in the first three centimeters of hair every three months, starting with the scalp.
9 months meditation practice
The study was part of a large-scale investigation – the ReSource Project, led by Tania Singer, Scientific Director of the Social Neuroscience Research Group – into the effects of meditation.
The participants completed three programs of three months each. in every program Western and Eastern mental practices were used to work on a specific skill. The skills were mindfulness; compassion and gratitude; and the ability to look at one’s own thoughts and those of others.
Three groups, each with around 80 participants, completed the training modules in different order 30 minutes a day, six days a week until the end of nine months.
Meditation reduces the amount of cortisol in hair by 25%
After six months of training the amount of cortisol in the subjects’ hair had decreased significantly by an average of 25%. The decline increased as exercise progressed.
The researchers conclude just practicing long enough will reduce stress. The effect did not appear to depend on the training content. Therefore, it is possible that several of the mental approaches studied are equally effective in improving coping with chronic everyday stress.
In an earlier study of the project resource The researchers investigated with the same sample the effect of meditation in coping with acute stressful situations. In it, participants were subjected to a stressful job interview and were asked to solve difficult math problems under observation. People who had undergone sociocognitive or affective training secreted up to 51% less cortisol under stress, measured in saliva samples.
“Many illnesses, including depression, are directly or indirectly related to long-term stress.” explains Puhlmann. “We must work to preventively counteract the effects of chronic stress. Using physiological measures, our study has shown that meditation-based training interventions can also reduce general stress in healthy people.”
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