Meditation is becoming increasingly popular, with over a quarter of UK adults practicing meditation as a therapy. Increased knowledge of the interrelationships between the endocrine system and meditation will lead to identification of specific meditation practices that are of most benefit to the health and wellbeing of various population. Given the multitude and severity of health issues related to persistent stress, it is paramount that more research is carried out in this area to help inform effective future healthcare policies among different groups as this could only lead to huge health benefits as well as financial benefits with more effective treatments in place. A recent study in the US cited a threefold increase in practice over the last five years. New collaborative research at Queen’s University Belfast and Victoria University, Melbourne, Australia aims to better understand the link between meditation and improved mental health outcomes. Despite the growing popularity of meditation practice around the world to address a number of health issues, there is limited evidence to support this. While stress is common among everyone at some point, persistent stress can eventually contribute to disease and mental illness.
The endocrine system is particularly important in the management of stress but the functioning of the endocrine system and wellbeing have been scarcely investigated. The research team reviewed a large number of previous studies and analyzed how meditation impacted a number of hormones related to stress. The study, now published in Cell Press, found a connection between meditation, the endocrine system and health and wellbeing. Dr. Michaela Pascoe, Lead and Corresponding Author on the research and Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Institute for Health and Sport at Victoria University, Melbourne explained the results: Through the comprehensive literature review, we found that there is a clear link between meditation and stress reduction. We focused on studies that analyzed how meditation affected the endocrine system and a number of interconnected systems that regulate stress such as the Hypothalamic–Pituitary–Adrenal (HPA), the Hypothalamic–Pituitary–Thyroid (HPT) axis and the Renin-Angiotensin-Aldosterone (RAA) system. This work shows that meditation influences the regulation of the HPA axis, which may reduce stress levels”.
Another key finding was linked with the HPT axis, which determines and regulates thyroid hormone production and is particularly associated with depression and anxiety. Thyroid (T3 and T4) hormones, are indeed lowered in the blood of depressed patients, whilst thyroid overactivation (hyperthyroidism) is associated with anxiety. The findings indicate that meditation and yoga influenced the HPA axis to a varying degree. The Renin-Angiotensin-Aldosterone (RAA) System regulates blood pressure, electrolytes and fluid balance. Although the scope of research is currently limited, it seems that meditation may also influence the RAA system, corresponding with improved well-being and changes in hormonal stress. No doubt that neurochemistry here is highly involved. Despite peptide hormones, other pivotal neurotransmitters like dopamine, serotonin and GABA are involved in the phenomenon. Past studies have focused on the role of gamma-aminobutyrric acid (GABA), since it suppresses excessive neuronal currents and thus behaviors like panic, anxiety and forgetfulness. A very recent article remarked how this brain chemical seems pivotal for practices as mindfulness and yoga.
Dr. Pascoe concluded: “Most studies to date have explored the effect of meditation practice on the HPA axis and much more research is needed to examine other aspects of the endocrine system. Whilst it is intriguing that various meditation practices appear to induce changes in endocrine function and consequently be associated with improvements in mental health, the underlying associations and mechanisms are unclear, though likely involve complex psychological and neurophysiological processes”.
- Edited by Dr. Gianfrancesco Cormaci, PhD, specialist in Clinical Biochemistry.
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