I am very excited to discuss meditation and its therapeutic benefits for this CAM series. In recent years, I’ve become more aware of the mind-body connection with health and wellness. To begin, my very own mother (hi mom!) has meditated for almost 40 years. She encouraged my sister and me to become involved with the practice of Transcendental Meditation back in the days when I still had my baby teeth. It ‘kind of’ stuck for a while so lets fast forward ten years… In college I took an eye-opening course called Introduction to Contemplative Studies. I became familiar with many different meditation techniques and literature. But I really grasped the value of these practices when in dental school. In my first year I took an elective on mind-body medicine as well as a meditation workshop that were associated with the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine at Mass General Hospital.
The take-home: deep relaxation may have a restorative quality on the mind and body. I believe that considering meditation goes hand-in-hand with discussing the body’s response to stress. In a world focused on diagnosis and treatment of disease, I think that the underlying manifestations of stress are overlooked, as well as organic approaches to manage stress. Disease prevention and holistic wellness practices are underemphasized in traditional medicine, for now…
What is stress and what does it do to your body? Stress is the body’s reaction to a challenge. There are many kinds of stresses. There are externally driven stresses such as an injury, wound, or a literal threat to your body/survival. Then there are internally driven stresses and anxiety. We may know or experience some of these stressors: moving, rush hour, death, depression, losing a job, divorce, a big deadline, and so forth. But let’s move onto what stress does; stress activates the sympathetic nervous system or as we commonly call the “flight or fight” response. There are spikes in your levels of cortisol, which we may refer to as a stress hormone. Usually in high stress situations, we may see a cortisol peak that is short-lived, but there are individuals who suffer with chronic stress who have prolonged cortisol elevation.
Onto the signs and symptoms. There are linkages of stress and susceptibility to illness, such as a common cold. Stress is well known to negatively affect immune system functioning, as well as emotional regulation, cognitive performance, mood, and affective processes. In the dental world, stress may be commonly manifested through signs of gum disease (gingivitis or periodontitis) or temporomandibular joint dysfunction (TMD). But let’s think even more in the long-term: a chronic stress state may manifest itself as premature aging, diabetes, depression, cardiovascular disease, decreased wound healing and metabolism, and even cancer. Why? Stress consumes a TON of energy. During stressful situations, we may see increases in blood pressure and pro-inflammatory markers in the body. But in those with chronic stress that is not properly managed or coped with, cortisol and these other figures are constantly elevated. When you compound this over many years, your body will be at consequence.
Fret not, I am sure you’re dying to know how do we combat against adverse outcomes of stress? While I would like to focus on discussing meditation, I will mention quickly other practices that may have a nullifying and protective effect on our bodies. Acupuncture has been used as an analgesic and anesthetic treatment for facial pain, postoperative pain, and TMD. A study led by Dr. Myers in 2002 in the Journal of the American Dental Association looked at acupuncture, biofeedback, and relaxation trials. They noted that these treatments might be comparable to conservative dental treatment for TMD/orofacial pain (such getting as an intraoral appliance). Biofeedback in dentistry has also been used to treat tension headaches, bruxism, and anxiety. Finally, hypnosis or mind-body imagery has increased in popularity.
Meditation is an increasingly popular complementary medicine practice. Transcendental meditation techniques in particular involve a mantra that is repeated silently while the person is sitting with eyes closed. A relaxed awake state generates alpha waves in the brain (that means a moderately high frequency of electrical activity). The aim is to avoid thoughts and promote a state of relaxation and mindful awareness.
How does meditation affect dental health? In as early as 1979, Dr. Seiler published a paper on transcendental meditation’s benefits on periodontal tissues (aka our gums). Ready for another fun meditation and dentistry factoid? Here’s an interesting finding from a study led by Dr. Morse in 1982. They showed that meditation leads to an increase in salivary pH and a decrease in salivary bacteria concentration, as well as increased salivary volume. Therefore, they concluded a protective anti-caries (aka dental cavities) effect. “I love dry mouth,” said no one ever. But ironically stress and many medications that manage conditions often indirectly or directly caused by stress will cause it!
Meanwhile more recently, Dr. Bottaccioli and colleagues in 2014 published a paper in the Journal of Science and Healing discussing the effects of meditation. They note similarly that meditation in practice decreases stress symptoms and promotes overall wellness. The authors mention that in JUST FIVE DAYS, one may start seeing signs of decreased depression, anxiety, fatigue, as well as a better-regulated autonomic nervous system. In Dr. Bottaccioli’s study, meditative practices decreased basal cortisol secretion. Decreased stress hormones, yay! In addition, the intervention group showed decreases in stress-induced cortisol responses compared to baseline. An improvement in adrenocortical activity means an improvement in responding to stressful activities.
Forbes published in article in 2015 discussing seven ways meditation changes the brain: it preserves brain density and increases brain thickness in areas that manage emotional processing. In addition, it decreases mind-wandering, which is associated with decreased happiness. Meditation has pretty much same effect on your body as an anti-depressant medication. Additionally, meditation improves concentration and memory, reduces social anxiety, and particularly helps kids in school cognitively and emotionally. Finally, it may aid in addiction recovery. Check out the David Lynch Foundation (https://www.davidlynchfoundation.org), they are working hard to bring meditation to everyone and everywhere.
Now that you’re hooked, the big question is how often should we meditate? Dr. Lazar, a neuroscientist from Mass General/Harvard Med, in an interview for the Washington Post mentions that we should meditate for 40 minutes a day. In transcendental medicine, those who practice traditionally meditate twice a day for 20 minutes. So time to add this to your exercise routine – since the mind and body are clearly connected and both need training!