Can practicing daily meditation actually help get rid of pesky belly fat? New research shows that it can! The Shamatha Project, a long-term study of the effects of meditation on the body and mind conducted at the University of California and endorsed by the Dalai Lama, has completed the first-ever experiment showing a direct relationship between cortisol levels and mindfulness. The results are in, and it is apparent that the lowered stress and cortisol levels experienced by those undergoing mindfulness training may indeed contribute to less unwanted pounds around the middle.
Cortisol is a hormone associated with physical and emotional stress. It is secreted by the adrenal glands, and its exacerbated release has been found to contribute to a wide array of negative effects on the body. Clifford Saron, an associate research scientist at UC Davis and leader of the Shamatha Project, hypothesized that training the mind to focus on the present moment, an aspect of mindfulness, may lessen one’s tendency to worry about the past and future. These patterns of worry have been directly correlated to cortisol release.
To test cortisol levels in those that meditate, Saron and his colleagues gave questionnaires regarding aspects of mindfulness to the study’s volunteer participants before and after a rigorous three-month meditation retreat. They also tested the participants’ pre and post-retreat cortisol levels via saliva samples. The retreat, held at the Santa Barbara Institute for Consciousness Studies, taught the participants mindfulness skills including observing the roots of consciousness, breathing and attentively entering mental states of compassion, empathy and loving kindness. When the questionnaires were analyzed, the research team found that those volunteers whose mindfulness scores increased after the retreat also displayed a decrease in cortisol levels. According to Tonya Jacobs, first author of the study, “the more a person reported directing their cognitive resources to immediate sensory experience and the task at hand, the lower their resting cortisol.”
So, how do lower levels of cortisol specifically target belly fat? The process is written by evolution itself. Chronic stress triggers cortisol release. Some of the most extreme and recurring life stresses that our ancestors faced were famine and danger from predators. To deal with these factors, humans evolved the stress-induced reaction of centrally storing fat in our stomachs and sides. This biological response helped our ancestors survive starvation and store the energy needed to hunt and defend one’s family from predators. Thanks to this deep-rooted process, to this day, whenever humans are stressed, our bodies think we need to eat and store fat in case of famine or danger. We become instantly hungry, and whatever we eat goes straight to our stomachs. Cortisol is the hormone controlling this response.
Researchers at Yale University recently investigated the connection between stress and cortisol levels of non-overweight women with excess abdominal fat. Lead investigator Elissa S. Epel, Ph.D. summarize the studies findings: “we… found that women with greater abdominal fat had more negative moods and higher levels of life stress. Greater exposure to life stress or psychological vulnerability to stress may explain their enhanced cortisol reactivity. In turn, their cortisol exposure may have led them to accumulate greater abdominal fat.” Researchers have also linked abdominal fat to worse health in general – including a higher risk of diabetes and heart disease.
According to Tonya Jacobs, “the idea that we can train our minds in a way that fosters healthy mental habits and that these habits may be reflected in mind-body relations is not new; it’s been around for thousands of years across various cultures and ideologies. However, this idea is just beginning to be integrated into Western medicine as objective evidence accumulates.” If we took just a few minutes each day to focus our minds and clear out the worry and negative clutter, it would be a huge leap towards looking a feeling great without dangerous crash diets and obsessive calorie-counting – which lead to more stress, and, in turn, more belly fat. Say OM!
– The Alternative Daily