Mindfulness is in the air, seemingly ever-present these days. Far from being merely a current buzzword, mindfulness is a form of meditation that emerged from ancient Buddhist traditions. The primary purpose of practicing mindfulness is to enhance present-moment awareness in a non-judgmental manner. Additionally, however, there is a growing body of research suggesting mindfulness can be an important component of a healthy lifestyle, and can improve both mental and physical health. One way in which mindfulness accomplishes this is its ability to help regulate hormones in the body, particularly stress hormones such as cortisol, adrenaline, and norepinephrine.
How can living mindfully impact hormones?
Using mindfulness to affect hormones is directly related to how the body handles stress. To begin with, it helps to understand a little bit about the stress response. When the human body experiences stress-which can take many forms, from trauma to physical illness to anxious thoughts and feelings-we go into what is called fight-or-flight mode, and among other physiological changes, our endocrine system releases the aforementioned stress hormones, which do things like elevate our heart rate and blood pressure, increase sugars flowing into our bloodstream, send blood into our large muscle groups, and essentially prepares us to run or fight.
Unfortunately, when we go into survival mode like this too often, our endocrine system can become dysregulated and the flood of stress hormones can have an adverse impact on our health. Dr. Dan Siegel, a pioneer in connecting mindfulness to neurobiology, describes how experiencing trauma, or even chronic stress, can lead to increased levels of cortisol which can be “toxic” to the brain and argues “finding a way to soothe” this process is critical to balancing our mind and body. Chronically high cortisol levels can also affect the production of sex hormones, slow down thyroid function and negatively impact blood sugar levels.
When your hormones are not well-regulated due to stress, they also make it hard for the body to create “feel good” hormones like serotonin. The first step to combating this process is to find ways to minimize your stress level. Current research suggests that mindfulness is a good option for lowering stress due to its emphasis on being in the present, letting go of past ruminations and worries about the future. The same study also suggests the stress response and stress hormone release is closely tied to the fearful or anxious thoughts and feelings that typically precede it. In other words, the more we are able to retrain our minds to focus on our present moment experience-awareness of the sights, sounds, and sensations around us-the less we tend to engage in a fear-based mindset, and the less we send danger signals to our nervous system that trigger adrenaline and cortisol releases leading to hormone imbalances.
Dr. Herbert Benson, founder of the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind-Body Medicine, has spent decades researching the positive impact that engaging in techniques that elicit relaxation in the body, including mindfulness, can have in terms of counteracting the effects of chronic stress in our society. Though he began his work by studying relaxation techniques taught to patients with hypertension or heart disease, his work has now been broadly applied and found useful in treating a range of mental and physical health problems.
In addition to combating stress-based illness, another recent study also found that using mindfulness-based stress reduction, or MBSR, in a clinical trial of breast cancer patients correlated with a lessening of cancer therapy-endocrine symptoms directly related to hormone fluctuations, including menopausal symptoms such as hot flashes and loss of libido.
Overall, there is increasing evidence that practicing mindfulness, especially on an everyday basis, supports balanced hormones and can be a useful tool for a healthy lifestyle. However, for many of us living busy and over scheduled lives, finding time to engage in focused, present-moment awareness can be challenging.
Below are some practical and simple habits for “everyday” mindful living:
- Create a short, daily mindful meditation practice. As many of us have family, work and other obligations throughout the day, committing to daily meditation can be difficult. A simple strategy to begin your practice is setting the intention to wake up 20-30 minutes earlier than usual. Simply choose a sunny or comfortable spot in your home and breathe deeply, in and out, while bringing as much attention as you can to the “5 senses” around you-anything you can feel, smell, hear, touch and taste. You will likely experience various thoughts and feelings, particularly judgments, fears and distracting thoughts, which can be a common part of mindful meditation. If that happens, it helps to imagine your thoughts and feelings are clouds passing in the sky. You do not need to add extra emotion or judgment to them, simply acknowledge them and allow your mind to return to focusing on your breathing and sensory awareness. Find it difficult to interrupt sleep in the morning? Try setting aside 20-30 minutes before bed, then, and engaging in the same practice.
- Stretch lightly during your commute. There’s nothing like being stuck in a car, crowded bus or subway to make many of us feel both stiff and cranky. However, there are actually some simple stretches we can engage in while in confined spaces that can lessen muscle tension and improve mood. All of the following stretches can be done while commuting; however, if you are in a car, please engage in the stretches only when your car is stopped, for your own safety. One stretch to try helps the neck relax. To begin, breathe in, and as you exhale, slowly turn your your head over your right shoulder. Hold this position for a few seconds, then bring your head facing straight again. Repeat this process on the left side, then do a couple more repetitions. Another good stretch you can do is raise your arms above your head while sitting straight up, breathing deeply throughout. Then, on an inhale, gently pull your right wrist with your left hand, or right elbow if you have less room, and while exhaling, lean your body to the left for a nice stretch. You can then repeat this same stretch on your left side, maintaining awareness of your posture as you do so. A third, easy pose involves sitting up straight with your hands resting on your knees. Breathing in, lean forward slightly and stick your chest out while angling your head toward the ceiling. Be careful not to strain your neck while doing so. Focus on keeping your shoulders from pulling up to your ears, and you should notice a solid stretch through your chest area.
- Practice present-moment awareness while doing your “normal” routines. You can engage in mindfulness while doing most day to day tasks-in fact, you may find it makes the tasks more pleasant! For instance, if you find yourself frequently washing dishes, set the intention to wash your dishes mindfully. Notice the temperature of the water, the texture of the dishes, the movement of your hands. Pay attention to any smells or sounds you experience as you move the dishes in the sink. Bring awareness to any thoughts and feelings that emerge, but concentrate on allowing them to pass through, rather than getting pulled into them too much. Choose 1 or 2 tasks to try doing mindfully each day and notice if these routines begin to feel different.
- Practice body scanning. Another practical way to focus mindfully in the present moment is through body scanning. Beginning with the top of your head, bring as much focus and awareness as you can to that area. Breathe slowly and deeply. Then, very slowly, allow your focus to trickle down towards your ears, then your neck, shoulders, chest and arms, and all the way down until you reach your toes. As you scan down your body in this way, become aware of any tightness or tension, any areas in which you feel pain, and imagine sending warmth and relaxation to those places. It helps to breathe deeply and intentionally while engaging in this activity, and some prefer to imagine a warm light, or particular color flowing down their body as they do so. Again, this is an easy way to retrain our brain to focus on present-moment sensations, as opposed to our tendency to get stuck in old thought and feeling patterns.
However you choose to try it, engaging in mindful awareness on a daily basis can be an effective way to help keep our hormones in a healthy balance, as well as improve mood, attention, and overall physical health.
Kate Shreckengast is a psychotherapist and wellness enthusiast. She earned her M.A. in Counseling Psychology from Lesley University, and has been trained in several mind-body coping techniques, including mindfulness and guided meditation. She has enjoyed working directly with both teen and adult clients, especially teaching them different kinds of relaxation skills, as she is passionate about helping others develop their ability to release stress and improve their quality of life.