Mindfulness Meditation Reduces Cortisol

September 02, 2013

Mindfulness Meditation Reduces Cortisol 

 Reference:  J Med Assoc Thai 

 Cortisol is a curious hormone.  We make a burst of it first thing in the morning.  Its job is to make your feel alert and awake, full of “vim and vigor”.  Your blood level zooms from 2-4 up to 16-20 between 4 am and 7 am when you are fully awake.  You can get things done in the morning, because cortisol helps your mobilize energy.  You are creative and energetic.  Your brain has more cortisol receptors than anywhere else, to help you feel that alert and awake.  That role of cortisol is its bright side, the good side, what you want if for. 

 Cortisol also has a dark side.  You experience too much stress and cortisol correlates with that stress.  We call cortisol our “stress” hormone and there is abundant evidence that it also seems to be part of wearing you down and burning you out.    As we age, we accumulate life stresses and many of us have the inability to mobilize cortisol in the same fashion we once did.  When you have destructive, persistent stress, from any of hundreds of reasons, we find our cortisol to be too low and the experience is that of being fatigued and being unable to function optimally.  In the functional medicine world, we measure that and call it adrenal fatigue.   

Of all the hormones, cortisol rises as we age.  All the other hormones fall.  The net effect is that our sum “catabolic hormones” (cortisol and all its breakdown products) rise with persistent stress and aging.  Stress is clearly one of the causes of many of our illnesses and is considered one of the “four horsemen” of cardiovascular disease.  With too much stress, your brain can’t learn, remember, adapt.  As we get older, our stress accumulates and our bodies burn out and wear down. 

 Hence, it’s useful to know how to manage your stress.  That’s what this study is about.   Thirty second-year medical students (age 20 or so) were given brief four day instruction on “mindfulness meditation”.  Their cortisol levels were measured before and after.  Their cortisol levels dropped from 381 to 306 nmol/L.  That’s a 20% drop.  That’s huge.  With just four days of practice and training.  That means this idea is available to all of us.  And that’s huge. 

 What is mindfulness meditation? How do you do Mindfulness Meditation.?  My pardon to those who have strong feelings about their technique, but there may be more in the habit, the pattern, the consistency of daily practice.  It’s not taking a nap.  It’s really training your brain to be aware, but be relaxed and at peace with itself.  A curious thought it is that our brain needs to be tamed, calmed, cared for, but that’s the point.  Effortless, repetitive, calming, non-shaming or emotionally blaming, the goal is to use breathing, gentle thinking, and training to generate inner peace. 

 WWW.  What will work for me?  I learned Transcendental Meditation in medical school and practiced it for about 10 years with some rigor.  I use the same technique still, though I use other tools.   I believe it’s foundational to my own creativity and source of ideas.  It’s my belief that each and every one of us yearns for that peace and calmness.  If you don’t feel confident in how to do it, find a coach who will teach you.  Practice prayer if you have a strong religious tradition.  I know some excellent mindfulness coaches if you want a referral.  But reducing stress may be just about your most important health and wellness-building behavior.  And it’s not so hard.  And in your days, you can lower your cortisol 20%.   Wow!

This column was written by Dr John Whitcomb, Brookfield Longevity, Brookfield, WI.