How Sahaja Meditation Aids Weight Loss and Weight Management
- Sahaja meditation reduces the physiological stress response, which reduces levels of stress hormones, such as cortisol, that play a role in weight gain.
- Sahaja meditation relieves symptoms of stress, depression and anxiety, which can drive unhealthy stress-induced cravings, binge-eating, “comfort eating,” or nervous eating.
- Meditation increases moment-to-moment awareness and mindfulness of cues that trigger unhealthy eating behaviors.
- Meditation reduces emotional reactivity, decreases impulsivity and compulsive, conditioned eating behaviors by dampening or extinguishing the emotional influence of cues or triggers.
- Meditation increases our ability to tolerate and extinguish food cravings.
- Sahaja meditation improves self-discipline and purposefulness, which helps us stick to a diet and maintain healthier eating habits for the longer term.
- Meditation enables us to wire new, healthy neural connections to displace unhealthy brain reward-motivation circuits.
- Meditation influences physiology through neurotransmitters and neurohormones involved in weight gain, dietary choices and eating patterns.
- Controlling attention through Sahaja meditation helps control emotional responses, which helps control dietary habits and aid weight management.
There’s certainly no shortage of weight-loss solutions these days. Weight loss, after all, is big business, an industry unto itself. In fact, the U.S. weight loss “market” is worth an estimated $60.9 billion annually, divvied up among more than 75 million dieters (LaRosa et al., 2015). That’s a lot of diet drugs, bariatric surgeries, commercial weight loss programs, food home delivery diet programs, and, last but not least, for the frugal dieter: D.I.Y. diet plans (e.g., diet websites, OTC diet pills, meal replacements and diet books).
Results vary widely, of course. About 80 percent of American dieters attempt to lose weight by themselves (LaRosa et al., 2015), often migrating from program to program, fad to fad. And as well all know, getting that weight off and successfully keeping it off are two entirely different endeavors.
But a growing body of research suggests that, for many, meditation may be a safe, effective solution for facilitating weight loss and long-term dietary control. And it can do it without the hefty price tag typically attached to commercial weight-loss solutions. Sahaja meditation is always 100% free.
Change Your Mind, Change Your Body
Generally, we eat for two reasons: physical hunger and emotional hunger. Often, mental health issues lie at the root of excess weight gain; this is certainly true with respect to eating disorders such as bulimia and anorexia. For example, factors such as depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, a sense of meaninglessness and poor coping skills contribute to establishing and maintaining unhealthy dietary habits. As you can see from reading other pages on this website devoted to each of these topics, Sahaja meditation can improve virtually every aspect of mental health, thus reducing or eliminating many of the root causes that drive unhealthy eating habits and, in turn, strengthening weight management, and facilitating weight loss, when necessary.
Emotional eating is often the culprit behind weight gain and the saboteur of even the most diligent weight-loss efforts. In fact, a study of 1562 employees found that emotional eating is actually a better predictor of weight gain than lifestyle factors and other eating behaviors (Koenders & van Strien, 2011). And, in weight loss studies, it has been found to predict less weight loss and poorer weight loss maintenance (Niemeier et al., 2007). Emotional eating is typically associated with chronic exposure to high levels of stress (Tomiyama et al., 2011).
The ability to modify behavioral patterns is integral to weight loss, and it can require substantial self-regulatory capacity. Sahaja meditation functions as a global autoregulator, enhancing overall emotional self-regulation and restoring a sense of control that can help alleviate emotional eating, enable us to meet weight loss goals and establish long-term dietary control. Sahaja automatically influences many different psychological and physiological mechanisms involved in weight gain and impulse control. Not only can meditation help us exercise healthier dietary choices and help regulate appetite, it can help facilitate emotional healing and rewire reward-motivation brain circuits that drive us to use food as a coping mechanism.
Following are some highlights of how Sahaja meditation influences specific psychological attributes involved in improving dietary control and facilitating weight loss.
Self-Awareness and Mindfulness
Meditation expands your awareness of what’s going on in your mind and body. During Sahaja’s unique state of thoughtless awareness — the self is only present as the subject of the experience. The self in this form of pure awareness is an observed Self.
At a purely physiological level, this awareness can be described as a form of visceral awareness or interoception, which is our sense of the physiological state of our bodies or material self. We have a distinct sense of our own homeostatic activity and the physiological condition of all the tissues in our bodies, including, for example, hunger and thirst, pain, temperature, sensual touch, itching, and muscular and visceral sensations. This interoceptive system relies on homeostatic metarepresentations produced in the brain (right anterior insula), which may be the basis for the subjective image of the material self as a knowing, feeling (sentient) entity. This phenomenon is what we think of as emotional awareness (Craig, A.D, 2003, 2009).
A 2016 study of Sahaja meditation study using MRI and Voxel-Based Morphometry found that long-term Sahaja practitioners (compared with non-meditators) had significantly larger grey matter volume across their entire brains, as well as in regions associated with, in part, sustained attention and cognitive control, emotional control, self-awareness, interoceptive perception, and monitoring of autonomic functions (Hernández et al, 2016).
Self-awareness and mindfulness during meditation does not directly address the content of thought; rather, it changes our relationship to our thoughts. Greater self-awareness and mindfulness can help us catch early behavioral, emotional, or cognitive precursors of problem behavior, such as emotional triggers that cause emotional eating.
As Sahaja meditation increases our self-awareness and mindfulness, it deepens our understanding of how our thoughts and emotions arise in response to stressors and how we tend to react to them. Coping skills improve, and we’re able to frame problems in the proper perspective, perceive them realistically, and solve them effectively, rather than falling back on old coping mechanisms, such as binge eating, nervous eating, or comfort eating.
Through meditation, we become better able to delink action from impulse, which helps rewire those old reward-motivation neural circuits that have been driving our surrender to unhealthy impulses (such as binge-eating) and cravings for unhealthy foods (e.g., sugar or unhealthy fat). Delinking allows us to recognize and understand our automatic, reflexive, and unconscious thought and behavior patterns. We are more mindful of the consequences of our behavior. We’re better able to recognize our eating triggers and extinguish the associated desire to engage in old unhealthy eating patterns.
Meditation’s ability to cultivate “moment-to-moment attention” helps guard against diet cheating, or surrendering to unhealthy, impulsive cravings. An increased ability to attend to and monitor your thoughts and internal states allows us to more effectively navigate unhealthy food cravings and cues. By increasing awareness, emotional and physiological self-regulation, and tolerance of potential “relapse” triggers, mindfulness enhances our ability to manage triggers, interrupting those old automatic, unhealthy eating patterns. Mindfulness decreases our emotional reactivity, which allows us to shift from reacting to skillful responding. It becomes easier to remain motivated to make healthier choices.
By becoming more self-aware, we become less reactive and better able to make healthy choices that align with our goals and values. We become more aware of thoughts, emotions, and habits that we’ve developed in relation to food, and how they trigger unhealthy behaviors. And we’re less susceptible to relapse.
UNHEALTHY STRESS EATING IN THE U.S.
- 30% Skip a Meal
- 27% Eat to Manage Stress
- 38% Overeat or Eat Unhealthy Foods
Source: APA, Stress in America 2013 apa.org
Every dieter knows that acute stress can increase trigger binge-eating and cravings for sugary, fatty, or carb-laden foods, even triggering relapse after a long period of successful dieting. In fact, stress can play a critical role in establishing unhealthy cravings and keeping them chronic. About one-fourth of Americans rate their stress level as 8 out of 10, according to a 2012 Harvard Mental Health Newsletter.
Of course, overeating isn’t the only stress-related behavior that can tack on extra pounds. Stressed people also tend to sleep poorly, exercise less, and drink more alcohol — all of which can contribute to gaining weight. Sleep disturbances, alone, can create hormonal shifts that can lead to problems with blood sugar regulation and ultimately, weight gain and obesity. (For more about how Sahaja meditation improves sleep quality, see How Sahaja Meditation Promotes Quality Sleep.)
But as Dr. Herbert Benson (professor, author, cardiologist, founder of Harvard’s Mind/Body Medical Institute and expert on the relaxation response) once said, “Any condition that’s caused or worsened by stress can be alleviated through meditation.” Meditation promotes continuous self-improvement, in part, by conditioning a habit of self-care.
Meditation helps diminish cravings and emotional eating, in part, by increasing resilience and reducing the stress response, which reduces the body’s levels of stress hormones (more on this later), as well as helping to prevent stress-induced cravings and increase the ability to tolerate cravings.
Meditation produces a deep physiological shift in the mind-body that’s effectively the opposite of your body’s fight-or-flight stress response. It does this, in part, through parasympathetic nervous system dominance, a state that can serve an adaptive function (similar to hibernation) by eliminating or decreasing impulsive or compulsive “seeking” behaviors and restoring our capacity for resilience and plasticity.
(For a comprehensive look at the scientific evidence demonstrating how Sahaja meditation relieves stress, see Stress Therapy: How Sahaja Meditation Relieves Stress)
Meditation: The Automatic Attentional-Emotional Regulator
Meditation helps regulate emotion through two mechanisms: attentional control and cognitive control. Cognition includes mental processes such as, awareness, knowledge, thought, reasoning, judgment, intuition and perception — all of which are seamlessly integrated in the healthy mind. Our emotional state, in any given moment, is very much driven by what we choose to pay attention to. Thus, controlling attention through meditation helps control emotional responses, which helps control dietary habits and aid weight management.
Sahaja meditation techniques, in particular, enhance our ability to control what we pay attention to. Spending time in Sahaja’s unique state of consciousness — thoughtless awareness — allows us to transcend the mental plane of thoughts and feelings. From this higher plane of consciousness, we can detach and observe our thoughts and feelings non-emotionally, with total clarity.
Periods of thoughtless awareness free the mind of the negative, self-defeating thought patterns that can contribute to unhealthy eating habits.
Many of our problems can be traced to our attention becoming derailed by unhealthy emotions (e.g., fear, guilt, sadness or anger). Several studies, including studies of Sahaja meditation, have found that attentional control helps regulate emotional state, and that regularly training the mechanisms of internalized attention, coupled with experiencing positive emotions during meditation, increases our psychological stability (e.g., Aftanas L., Golocheikine S., 2001, 2002, 2005; Cahn and Polich, 2006). A more recent fMRI study found that during meditation, long-term Sahaja practitioners experienced activation in fronto-parieto-temporal regions involved in sustained attention, and in limbic regions involved in emotional control (Hernández et al, 2015).
Researchers have also found that long-term Sahaja meditators have greater activity during meditation in a left-hemisphere area of the brain associated with the capacity to cope with negative events (Aftanas & Golocheikine, 2001). In fact, Sahaja meditators can even switch off irrelevant neural circuitry, such as the mechanisms of external attention, in order to maintain focused, internalized attention and to inhibit negative, intrusive or distracting information (Aftanas & Golocheikine, 2001, 2002, 2005). This ability can help us tolerate unhealthy cravings and extinguish the emotional influence of cues or triggers that motivate us to eat impulsively.
Through meditation, we can develop the ability to monitor experiences non-reactively and non-judgmentally, which can actually allow us to cognitively regulate emotion through attention. Enhanced attentional control through meditation reduces our emotional reactivity by regulating the amount of attention we allocate to processing negative emotional events and by preventing negative emotions from intruding on our thoughts.
Sahaja meditation’s state of thoughtless awareness has been found to evoke unique patterns of neurophysiological activity in brain regions associated with emotional regulation, heightened attentional skills, and enhanced brain plasticity (Aftanas & Golosheikin, 2003). Other neuroimaging studies have shown that the regular practice of Sahaja meditation increases traits such as self-awareness, mindfulness and emotional intelligence by increasing gray matter volume in the brain (Hernández et al, 2016) and by exerting top-down emotional regulation, improving our ability to appraise the emotional-motivational significance of events without overreacting or surrendering to impulse (Reva et al, 2014). The results of this study suggest that regular Sahaja practice may enhance attentional control, interoception and emotional awareness neuroplastically; that is, provide lasting changes across the practitioner’s lifetime. With the regular practice of meditation, this ability may gradually become automatic.
The process of focusing inward and focusing on the present with a nonreactive, nonjudgmental attitude through meditation triggers a shift in perspective, both intellectually and emotionally, allowing us to shed the effects of negative stress (distress) and understand the true nature of our stressors. We can view problems clearly and without attaching negative thoughts or feelings, which lowers our defenses and improves self-esteem and self-respect, which, in turn, leads to making better choices and improved overall cognitive functioning, including our ability to make decisions and manage adverse events.
Relapse is often triggered by stress and feelings of hopelessness, but the attentional-emotional regulation effects of meditation help keep us from being ensnared in a spiral of distress and despair. Meditation elevates mood, promotes optimism and positive emotions, and restores a sense of control. In fact, Sahaja meditation is characterized by the meditator’s ability to internalize attention while experiencing the emotional state of happiness or bliss (Rai, 1993).
Meditation Reduces the Binge-Eating Impulse
Several studies have shown that mindfulness and meditation be an effective intervention for eating disorders and other problems with emotional eating. One meta-review of 14 studies found that meditation effectively decreased binge eating, emotional eating and weight gain in populations engaging in this behavior (Kattermana, 2014).
Another study evaluated a 6-week meditation-based group intervention for Binge Eating Disorder (BED) in 18 obese women, using standard and eating-specific meditation exercises. (Binge eating is characterized by frequent episodes — at least 2.5 times per week — of eating unusally large amounts of food.) Meditation was found to decrease binges both in severity and frequency — from an average of 4.02/week to 1.57/week. Depression and anxiety also significantly decreased as the participants’ sense of control increased (Kristeller & Hallett, 1999).
The success of meditation was thought to be due to its emphasis on the ability to bring focused yet detached awareness to all objects of attention while maintaining a non-judgmental, self-accepting, non-critical, attitude. While mindfulness and increased awareness of hunger cues also improved, bingeing is inherently more a dysfunction of failure to terminate eating than one of initiating eating too frequently (though both may occur). Therefore, becoming more sensitive to satiety signals was found to be particularly useful for increasing control over binge eating.
Interestingly, giving up a degree of conscious control over their eating habits actually led to increased control. Many also found that the ability to experience forgiveness through meditation helped them substantially resolve feelings of anger toward parents or husbands, feelings that they had identified as common binge triggers.
But meditation’s ability to change the mind is not the whole story of its contribution to weight loss. Meditation can also directly trigger physiological mechanisms that enhance our ability to easily maintain a healthy body weight, as well as our ability to shed those extra pounds if we need to. Many of these physiological changes, in turn, ultimately improve our mental fitness.
Change Your Body, Change Your Mind
Sahaja meditation can alter an individual’s entire biochemical profile, especially when practiced regularly. For example, meditation influences several key neurotransmitters and hormones involved in weight gain, and conversely, when balanced: weight loss.
Eating your favorite sugary or fatty craves can stimulate the release of serotonin, dopamine, and other opioid peptides that produce pleasurable feelings (e.g., euphoria), a sensation of being rewarded, and a sense of well-being. But over time, heavy indulgence of unhealthy cravings can deplete our stores of dopamine, which regulate the brain’s pleasure-reward-motivation circuitry (including dependence-addiction-related circuits), as well as serotonin, the feel-good neurotransmitter that regulates mood, happiness and sense of well-being and is involved in behaviors such as eating, sleep, information processing, appetite and satiety.
If you keep firing the same reward-motivation brain circuits often enough, the value of the reward starts to decline. Once the reward pathway has been established, the brain doesn’t necessarily need that dopamine signal from the nucleus accumbens anymore — the pathway is already established. So the reward signals fade, dopamine is down-regulated. The reward pathway is still there, but the reward itself — the dopamine flood — is gone.
Thus, persistent emotional eating can eventually fail to boost mood and distort your sense of satiety (appetite satisfaction). It begins to take more and more comfort food to feel “rewarded.” The brain may respond with depression or anxiety, the emotional equivalents of physical pain. This might be especially true if you catch sight of yourself in the mirror, several pounds heavier. This, in turn, can spark a negative feedback loop that leads to more emotional eating, and more self-condemnation, which leads to more binge-eating — you see the vicious cycle.
But meditation can help. Meditation has a positive influence on the neurotransmitters and neurohormones responsible for regulating health and well-being, both during meditation and after. Meditation restores a sense of general well-being and positive emotions that are likely mediated, at least in part, by its ability to regulate mood-stabilizing neurohormones and neurotransmitters (e.g., dopamine, serotonin, and melatonin) in limbic (emotional) regions of the brain (Newberg, A., Iverson, J., 2003).
Cortisol: The Secret Fat Enabler
Cortisol secretion runs in a daily cycle, normally ramping up when we awaken. But secretion is also triggered by both real and perceived threats. When we anticipate an event and experience these thoughts as stressful, cortisol secretion may spike even higher. Most weight loss interventions don’t do much to reduce psychological stress, yet stress has been found to be one factor contributing to the modest success of long-term weight loss maintenance (Wing & Phelan, 2005; Franz et al., 2007).
The high stress level of the modern world can keep us in fight-or-flight mode if we let it. When we’re stressed, our bodies release steroids and stress hormones such as cortisol that increase belly fat because the body interprets chronic stress as famine. Meditation reverses this fight-or-flight response by relieving stress — both emotionally and physiologically — and promoting the relaxation response, which helps us avoid that extra belly fat.
Psychological distress and elevated cortisol secretion promote abdominal fat (known a “abdominal adiposity”), a feature of the Metabolic Syndrome (Daubenmier et al., 2011). Metabolic Syndrome is a cluster of risk factors, such as abdominal/waist obesity, high triglyceride level, low HDL cholesterol, high blood pressure and high fasting blood sugar — all factors that increase the risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, strokes and a number of other serious health conditions.
Stress repeatedly activates the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, resulting in hypersecretion of cortisol, which binds to glucocorticoid receptors (GR) on fat cells that activate an enzyme (lipoprotein lipase) that converts circulating triglycerides into free fatty acids in adipocytes — the cells that store fat (Rosmond, 2003). When cortisol is elevated, fat stores are redistributed to intra-abdominal regions (Dallman et al., 2003; Rebuffe-Scrive et al., 1990, 1992), where they deposit as those extra belly fat pounds we may struggle to shed.
In other words, excess cortisol can cause us to crave fatty and sugary foods, then store those extra calories as belly fat. In the short term, stress can shut down appetite. It’s part of the body’s fight-or-flight response, a revved-up physiological state that temporarily puts eating on hold. A brain structure called the hypothalamus produces corticotropin-releasing hormone, which suppresses appetite. The brain also sends messages to the adrenal glands to pump more epinephrine (adrenaline).
But if the stress persists and/or is chronic, the problem becomes a longer-term problem. The adrenal glands release cortisol, which increases appetite and may also ramp up motivation, including the motivation to eat. Once a stressful episode is over, cortisol levels should fall, but if the stress doesn’t subside — if your stress response gets stuck in the “on” position — your cortisol level may remain elevated.
Many studies have shown that physical or emotional distress increases the intake of high-fat and/or high-sugar foods. Some researchers believe that high cortisol levels, in combination with high insulin levels, may be the culprit. Other research indicates that the “hunger hormone” ghrelin — the hormone that literally makes your stomach growl — is involved. Once ingested, fatty and sugary foods seem to have a feedback effect that inhibits activity in parts of the brain that produce and process stress. Thus, comfort foods seem to counteract stress.
One small study of 47 chronically stressed, overweight and obese women found that mindfulness and meditation could lead to significant changes in both behavior and physiology, even without dieting. None of the women were on calorie-counting diets. Instead, 24 participants were randomly assigned to meditation practice, and the other 23 served as a control group. All participants attended one session about the basics of healthy eating and exercise. The meditation group attended nine 2.5-hour weekly sessions, during which the women learned stress reduction techniques and how to be aware of the moment-by-moment sensory experience of eating by recognizing bodily sensations — including hunger, fullness and taste satisfaction. They also meditated for 30 minutes daily, and at week six, attended an intensive seven-hour, silent day of guided meditation.
Researchers found that mindfulness enhanced awareness of and responsiveness to bodily sensations and reduced psychological distress, emotional eating, and cortisol secretion, all of which, in turn, was found to reduce the amount of abdominal adiposity. Researchers found that meditation could help control cravings and overeating, and that meditation was effective as a stress relief intervention to prevent comfort eating. “You’re training the mind to notice, but to not automatically react based on habitual patterns — to not reach for a candy bar in response to feeling anger, for example,” said lead study author Jennifer Daubenmier. “If you can first recognize what you’re feeling before you act, you have a greater chance of making a wiser decision.”
Among the obese women in the meditation group, those who had greater improvements in listening to their bodies’ cues, or greater reductions in stress or cortisol (an indicator/side effect of stress), experienced the greatest reductions in abdominal fat. They also experienced improved maintenance of total body weight, compared to women in the control group, who continued to gain weight.
Comfort food: a cheap drug for stress
One study found that, when faced with chronic stress, many people may be “self-medicating” by eating more comfort foods containing sugar and fat, and that in the long term, this habit may dampen down the body’s stress response, governed by the hormone cortisol (Tomiyama et al, 2011). “It’s very likely that comfort food intake is a double-edged sword — leading not only to a dampened-down stress response system, but also to greater levels of risky abdominal fat,” said psychologist and researcher Elissa Epel, PhD.
In other words, comfort food may be used as a cheap drug. “It makes us feel better,” Epel said, “at least for a very short while.” But, of course, what we need is a long-term weight management solution that simply becomes part of an overall healthy lifestyle.
This study set out to determine whether stress eating dampened the hormone system that controls cortisol secretion — the HPA (hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis) chronic stress network — in humans as it had been shown to do in rats. Results showed that it did.
In a study of 59 healthy, pre-menopausal women, researchers found that among women who ranked in the top one-fourth for chronic life stress, having more abdominal fat was associated with lower daily cortisol secretion, and with less hormone secretion in response to acute stress. (These women were the ones most likely to report that they eat more in response to emotional upsets.) The comfort eating was actually turning down the HPA, dampening secretion of the stress hormone cortisol. But the comfort eating was also causing weight gain.
Meditation may also help reduce our vulnerability to unhealthy eating behaviors by helping reset the body’s regulatory set-points and returning the mind-body to homeostasis or balance after we experience a stress response. Healthy adaptation to stressors means we’re able to reset all systems and functions to “normal.”
Other studies have confirmed that mindfulness and meditation may improve cortisol patterns (e.g.. Carlson et al, 2007), reduce binge-eating and other eating disorder symptoms among both obese and non-obese adults (Dalen et al, 2010). These findings are consistent with numerous brain studies showing that the practice of attending mindfully to present moment experience brings about changes in brain areas (e.g., the insula) responsible for body sensations, especially body sensations related to hunger and craving, and that regular meditation practice can actually train your brain to be attuned to your body in a more healthy way.
Meditation Increases DHEA
One study of 45-year-old male and female meditators found that they had, on average, respectively, 47% percent and 23 percent more DHEA (dehydroepiandrosterone) than non-meditators. DHEA, a hormone believed to help prevent the physiological effects of aging, helps control weight, decrease stress, heighten memory and preserve sexual function (Khalsa, & Stauth, 2002).
Charting New Pathways: Rewire Your Neural Circuitry Through Meditation
Rewiring our brain circuitry through meditation can help us modify unhealthy eating patterns and lose weight if we need to. Every day, there are tempting food triggers or stimuli lurking in our external environments… and within our minds. The most powerful cravings are usually triggered by either internal or external cues or stimuli — or a combination of both.
Over time, our brain’s reward-motivation pathways can become conditioned to associating a food reward with a cue or trigger. For example, imagine that a rough day at work has left you feeling empty and depleted… then you catch one of those late night TV commercials of melted chocolate being poured, a sizzling cheeseburger on the grill, or a gooey cheese pizza… an abundance of fat and sugar beckon! You anticipate the reward (the chocolate, the pizza, etc.) — you know how it will taste. The long-established reward pathways in your brain fire. Your conditioned response may be to reach for your favorite crave (or the closest, most convenient alternative) because this previously reinforced stimulus has just presented itself again. Each time you’ve caved to your favorite crave in the past, you’ve reinforced that conditioned response, as with any other habit, making it much more likely that you’ll respond the same way in the future. These motivation-reward pathways are now powerful, habit-worn neural connections.
What’s mood got to do with it?
Meditation promotes feelings of pleasure, positive mood, and a sense of reward and motivation. This is important because responding to unhealthy food triggers is heavily linked to negative mood states. Comfort food, for example, has been shown to activate the brain’s reward-motivation centers in emotional eaters during negative emotional states. (Bohon et al., 2009). Emotional eaters showed greater neural activation in brain reward-motivation centers in response to both actual and anticipated food intake (in this case, a milkshake) than nonemotional eaters, and these differences were amplified during a negative (versus neutral) mood state. In contrast, nonemotional eaters showed decreased activation in reward regions during a negative versus a neutral mood. These findings suggest that emotional eating may be related to increased anticipatory and consummatory food reward, but only during negative mood states.
Well-known meditation researcher Richard Davidson (Center for Investigating Healthy Minds, University of Wisconsin-Madison) has investigated the impact of meditation on the brain’s reward-motivation centers and conditioned responses. He found that in people whose default mode is a positive frame of mind and a sense of well-being, there’s greater activity in the left pre-frontal cortex (PFC), as well as in the nucleus accumbens (NAc), a structure deep within the brain that, in part, generates “rewards” for food, and is associated with pleasure, reward and motivation. In contrast, in people with a consistently negative outlook, the emotion-related nucleus accumbens is quieter and has few connections to the PFC.
In fact, the PFC is the first brain region to turn off when we’re hungry, angry, lonely, or tired (hence the “H.A.L.T.” acronym used in 12-step programs). When we’re experiencing negative emotions and/or our energy reserves are depleted, the PFC shuts down, making us more vulnerable to engaging in unhealthy behaviors. So even if we consciously realize that we shouldn’t wolf down that chocolate cake, we may no longer possess the willpower to resist the urge. This is one big reason that New Year’s resolutions to “lose 15 pounds by March 1” are so prone to failure. This approach relies on self-control, which is controlled by the PFC, which shuts down when we’re experiencing negative mood states.
Now, the nucleus accumbens is not accessible through direct conscious thought; you can’t will it into increasing its activity in order to “build” a positive outlook, but Davidson’s research has shown that, through meditation, we can exploit its connections to the PFC, which is accessible to conscious targeting. Thus, strengthening the PFC through meditation can not only goose activity in the pleasure-loving NAc, it can also improve your ability to exercise self-discipline and self-control, which are the domain of the PFC. Other fMRI studies of Buddhist meditation (e.g., Hagerty et al., 2013) have suggested that meditation can directly stimulate the NAc in the dopamine/opioid reward system, which is experienced, during meditation, as pleasure and extreme joy.
If we do stray into the territory of emotional eating or lose focus on our diet plan, Sahaja meditation can help get us back on track.
Several studies have found that regular Sahaja meditators can switch off irrelevant neural circuitry in order to maintain focused, internalized attention and to inhibit negative, intrusive or distracting information (Aftanas & Golocheikine, 2001, 2002, 2005). The fact that experienced meditators may be able to regulate the brain’s default mode network (DMN) and other regions associated with self-monitoring and cognitive control both during meditation and while resting, suggests that they are ultimately able to develop a new default mode, which can reduce or eliminate cravings, alter motivations, and modify what their brains are wired to view as “reward.” (The DMN is the brain’s “standby” mode that kicks in when we’re at rest, idling, daydreaming, or our attention lapses; it’s associated with ruminative and obsessive thinking.)
Sahaja meditation reduces reactivity and negative thinking
One study revealed neurophysiological evidence that long-term practitioners of Sahaja meditation have reduced emotional reactivity to stressful events, increased resilience and better coping skills than non-practitioners, which would help prevent stress-induced substance use and/or relapse. Sahaja meditation was found to promote brain plasticity. Meditation allows us to wire new, healthy reward-motivation neural connections and displace unhealthy ones and build a more orderly, more coherent brain, which enhances executive function and promotes healthy decision-making (Aftanas & Golocheikine, 2005).
EEG studies of coherence (“orderliness”) and “long-distance” connectivity between disparate brain regions during Sahaja meditation show that Sahaja’s state of thoughtless awareness produces better balanced, better integrated functioning of the left and right cerebral hemispheres. Hemispheric balance ultimately enhances executive brain function by producing more holistic, whole-brain, synchronized thinking, which increases our ability to act consciously and rationally, rather than simply emotionally reacting. This balance may also help dampen the emotional salience (prominence or awareness) of food cues, which helps prevent emotional eating or diet relapse. And the good news is that in experienced Sahaja meditators, these changes in brain activity have been found to persist beyond the state of meditation, remaining in effect at followup several months later (Aftanas, Golocheikine, 2005). Meditation may actually alter the fundamental electrical balance between the brain’s cerebral hemispheres, altering our emotional processing on an ongoing basis (Cahn and Polich, 2006).
Ultimately, meditation may help train the mind to crave beneficial behaviors and reject the unhealthy ones. Regular meditation can disrupt those old preconditioned patterns of motivational toxicity associated with unhealthy eating in which the ability of normal rewards to govern behavior has deteriorated. Purer motivational drives are restored and the mind is freed to pursue higher motivational needs.
Sahaja meditation offers a positive lifestyle alternative that emphasizes self-care, emotional healing and resilience, thus increasing our capacity to make healthier choices on a daily basis.
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