When I was 10 years old, I couldn’t comprehend how my mother’s cousin could be younger than my mom. To my eyes, she clearly looked much older. It didn’t make sense. “How could that possibly be?” I asked, to which my mom replied, “She’s had a hard life.” My mother was more right than she knew. We now know that stress not only accelerates aging of our external appearance, but it also ages our internal organs, including our most important organ of all, our brain.
When under stress, our brain is bathed in cortisol, a potent stress hormone. In the short term, this allows us to respond quickly and effectively to the stress at hand. However, the stress response is meant to be short-lived. Problems arise when the stress response goes into overdrive, lasting days, months or years.
Chronically high levels of cortisol have been shown to be toxic to neurons, especially those in the hippocampus – the brain’s memory center. There is mounting evidence that chronic stress inhibits neuroplasticity, your brain’s ability to make new neurons and new connections. This results in hippocampal atrophy and increases our risk of Alzheimer’s disease.
Fortunately, there are effective ways to turn off the stress response and promote neuroplasticity, fortifying your brain with new neurons and new connections. Eliciting the “Relaxation Response” (RR) is the key to protecting your brain from chronic stress.
The RR was first described by Dr. Herbert Benson, the founder of the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital. To elicit the RR, you need only focus on a mantra, single word, sound, phrase, repetitive prayer or movement while disregarding everyday thoughts. This technique induces relaxation and reverses the stress response. Various mind-body approaches such as meditation, yoga, breathing exercises and tai chi elicit the RR.
Dr. Benson’s ground-breaking research has shown that practicing the RR for 20 minutes daily over eight weeks alters gene expression in our white blood cells. Researchers found that when they looked at those genes involved in the stress response and those that cause inflammation, they were all down regulated in the meditators, while there was no change in gene expression in the control group. In other words, by practicing the RR, you can literally reprogram the white blood cells circulating in your blood stream. How amazing is that? Additionally, research from Dr. Sara Lazar’s lab at Harvard University has shown that mindfulness meditation increases gray matter density in areas of the brain associated with self-awareness, compassion and memory, appearing to reverse the effects of chronic stress on the brain.
When you’re stressed, it’s hard to find the time to elicit the RR and it can be frustrating to calm your mind when it’s going 100 miles per hour. Yet, that is when you need it most. I encourage you to start by focusing for just two minutes on a word, phrase or repetitive prayer twice a day. Learning to relax your mind is like any other skill, practice makes perfect. Over time, you will find you can meditate for longer periods, which in turn will keep you youthful, inside and out.