Consciousness Hacking the Nervous System: Mind your Inflammation
Training in meditation and other mindfulness-based techniques brings lasting improvements in mental health and quality of life for patients with inflammatory bowel diseases (IBD), according to a study in the journal Inflammatory Bowel Diseases. Anxiety, depression, and decreased quality of life are common in patients with IBD. The Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) intervention consisted of eight weekly group sessions plus a daylong intensive session, led by an experienced instructor. The program included guided meditations, exercises designed to enhance mindfulness in daily life, and group discussions of challenges and experiences. Sixty (60) participants were also encouraged to perform daily "mindfulness meditation" at home. Thirty-three (33) patients agreed to participate in the MBSR intervention, 27 of whom completed the program. Ratings of mental health, quality of life, and mindfulness were compared to those of the remaining 27 patients who chose not to participate (mainly because of travel time). The MBSR participants had greater reductions in anxiety and depression scores, as well as improvement in physical and psychological quality of life. They also had higher scores on a questionnaire measuring various aspects of mindfulness--for example, awareness of inner and outer experiences.
What about the inflammation itself? A 2013 study pointed to a possible explanation for evidence that suggest chronic stress leads to excessive inflammation in the body, which in turn, is thought to be a key driver of heart disease, diabetes, and other chronic conditions. Researchers found that chronic stress changes gene activity of immune cells before they enter the bloodstream so that they're ready to fight infection or trauma -- even when there is no infection or trauma to fight. This then leads to increased inflammation. A study published in the February 2014 issue of the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology shows that mindfulness can limit the "expression" of genes associated with inflammation.
Reducing stress, as a result, becomes of major importance to prevent disease and ease its symptoms. We can look to consciousness-related practices as part of stress-management, along with sufficient sleep, diet, exercise, strong social relationships and other healthy practices. Studies show mindfulness appears to reduce blood pressure, pain response, stress hormone levels and even improve cellular and neurological health.
While you can’t control the automatic stress response, you can promote your own relaxation. Slow, diaphragmatic breathing, activates the vagus nerve, which the brain uses to communicate with the entire body. Even one conscious breath begins to activate your vagus nerve: your heart rate slows, your blood pressure drops and your body enters a state of mental and physical calm. A similar state is experienced when one practices chi exercises like the ones researched by I-ACT co-founders Trivellato and Alegretti: Your heart rate slows, your blood pressure drops and your body improves its state of mental and physical tranquility.
It is thought that the inflammation response triggers an increase in inflammatory molecules (cytokines) that can block key hormones and neurotransmitters - such as serotonin and dopamine - that affect moods, appetite, sleep and memory. On the other hand, positive emotions, like the experience of awe, could potentially help counter inflammation. Such positive emotions are associated with positive relationships, exposure to beauty (in nature or in the arts), the joy of discovery which begins with curiosity, and expansions of consciousness studied and promoted by I-ACT, could potentially help counter inflammation.
What happens in Vagus
The vagus nerve starts in the brainstem, just behind the ears. It travels down each side of the neck, across the chest and down through the abdomen. ‘Vagus’ is Latin for ‘wandering’ likely because its nerve fibres wander throughout the body, networking the brain with the stomach and digestive tract, the lungs, heart, spleen, intestines, liver and kidneys, not to mention a range of other nerves. It is made of thousands and thousands of fibres and 80 per cent of them are sensory, meaning that the vagus nerve reports back to your brain what is going on in your organs. It is an essential part of the parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for calming organs after the stressed ‘fight-or-flight’ adrenaline response to danger.
Some people have stronger vagus tone, which means their bodies can relax faster after stress, making them less prone to inflammation-related disease. Research shows that a high vagal tone makes your body better at regulating blood glucose levels, reducing the likelihood of diabetes, stroke and cardiovascular disease. Low vagal tone, however, has been associated with chronic inflammation and painful related conditions like rheumatoid arthritis. There are attempts to improve vagal tone electrically, but it is already known that non-invasive, consciousness-based methods are effective.
You can work with I-ACT coaches and consultants, an ecosystem community of various areas of expertise, including energy mindfulness, to integral wellness for yourself, your family, team or community.