Mindfulness - 5 extraordinary health benefits
Let me tell you 5 extraordinary benefits of mindfulness and how you can practice it whenever and wherever you are, without sitting down or closing your eyes.
Mindfulness is the art of focusing your attention on whatever you are doing in the present moment.
Mindfulness involves appreciating 'now', and mentally and physically engaging with what you are doing. Mindfulness requires curiosity about your surroundings and openness to what you're experiencing.
Mindfulness is a practice that's growing in popularity and being recommended by health practitioners and here's why:
1. Mindfulness improves digestion
When we are rushing around and eating on the run we can have difficulty with digesting our food. To support healthy digestive function, stop and sit down to eat. Look at your food, smell it and imagine what it's going to taste like. Ask yourself if the food you are about to eat is likely to nourish you.
Taking time to be mindful when you're eating can calm your nervous system and send a message to your stomach, via the brain, that food is on the way. A calm and receptive digestive system will create the right environment to break down your food and get the most out of the nutrients that you're eating.
People with difficultly swallowing their food, or those that feel the food sits in their stomach for too long after eating, will gain extra benefit from mindfulness while eating. As an extra benefit, when our digestion improves, our immune system also benefits.
2. Mindfulness relieves stress and tension headaches
Sitting at a desk, working at a screen and concentrating for long periods on the work at hand can create a state of tension in our bodies. Putting our body under this constant demand can lead to posture problems, tightness in the body and headaches. Tension and poor posture can cause us to breathe in a shallow way and experience tension headaches.
Try using mindfulness when you are working for an extended period.
Do a mental scan of your body from toe to head. Become aware of any tension or stiffness. Are you twisted or uncomfortable or shallow breathing? Is your task well lit? Do you need to get up and stretch for a few minutes?
Be curious about what is happening in your body while you're at work or even when you're at home and sitting for hours. Take in the sounds and sights that are around you. How are they affecting you? Can you make changes to your environment to improve your health?
3. Mindfulness can help to regulate hormones
The stress hormone cortisol is elevated when we are stressed. Over time, elevated cortisol can have a flow on effect to our other hormones such as thyroid hormones, reproductive hormones and sleep hormones.
A study published in 2017 showed that mindfulness based stress reduction can significantly reduce fasting glucose levels and improve insulin resistance in 8 weeks. The study revealed that symptoms of under-active thyroid can be improved with mindfulness. This is great news for people who are struggling with weight gain due to blood sugar problems.
Menopause symptoms can also benefit from mindfulness. A 2012 study found that menopausal women can reduce the number of hot flushes they get, improve their sleep and improve their quality of life with a regular mindfulness practice.
4. Mindfulness can help to regulate emotions
When we are stressed and worried, we can often have thoughts repeating in our heads on a loop. We know it's not helpful to have these recurring thoughts but how do we stop them? This is where mindfulness steps in to relieve anxiety and low mood.
When you are on a break are you relaxed? Or are you rushing to fit in some tasks or appointments? When you're walking down the street, what are you thinking about? Are thoughts of work, problems with relationships or what's in the fridge for dinner filling your head? Mindfulness can help to clear these thoughts and improve our emotions.
Try some mindfulness when you catch yourself worrying about other things, so that you can appreciate and enjoy what you are doing right now. If you are walking, look around you, focus on what you see on your walk: the trees, the clouds, the flowers. Try to be curious about what you see around you, or how it smells. Breathe deeply. Reach out and touch something, how does it feel?
5. Mindfulness can improve sleep
Studies have shown that people who have a mindfulness practice before they go to bed often sleep better and wake up less often. This is because mindfulness calms the nervous system and helps us to prepare for sleep.
Mindfulness is beneficial for bringing about a state of deep relaxation. Before bed, try breathing in slowing and thinking about the word 'calm' and then breathing out and focussing on letting go of any tension that you're holding onto in your body. Repeat for a few minutes.
Mindfulness can be practised anywhere
For me, mindfulness comes easiest when I'm in the garden.
When I'm looking at a plant to decide if it needs watering, pruning or dividing, I have my focussed attention on the needs of that plant. There are no other thoughts in my head except what's happening in the garden at that very moment. That's why so many people find gardening deeply relaxing.
The same is true of many other everyday activities. Some people find that cooking brings about a state of mindfulness as they concentrate on the ingredients, the flavours and the smells in the kitchen.
Other ideas for mindfulness:
It's important to understand that mindfulness is a technique that is available to everyone and you don't have to practice it in a particular way to get the benefits. Yoga, tai chi, breathwork, painting, drawing, mosaics, playing an instrument, singing or a walking meditation are all examples of practices that encourage mindfulness.
The main point is to make sure you are focussing your undivided attention on whatever you are doing.
I am a naturopath, gardener, herbalist and nature lover. I practice naturopathy in Sydney. I love to work holistically with my clients and mindfulness is a technique that I find benefits many people, along with dietary advice and herbal medicine.