Make Your Brain Bigger in Eight Weeks

by Carole Jackson, Bottom Line Health

So you still don’t meditate? Join the club — it’s a big one. But there’s also a compelling new reason for all of us to finally do it: There is now scientific proof that meditating changes the brain in ways that allow people to feel better about their lives.

How great is that?

The new research found that meditation is not only pleasant and stress-reducing, but that it actually brings lasting physiological changes that are health-enhancing — for example, giving people an improved sense of self and lower levels of anxiety.

Mind-Expanding Benefits

If you’re thinking “yes, well, we already knew that about meditation,” let me explain that actually, we didn’t. It’s true that there have been many reports on why meditating is thought to be healthful, but this particular study is new and very newsworthy because it shows how the brain literally expands with meditation. The research team, led by scientists from Harvard’s Massachusetts General Hospital, designed its research to be very clear on cause and effect, using brain imaging technology to measure how the brains of people who meditated changed over the eight-week study period. They found that a particular form of meditation known as mindfulness meditation altered gray matter in several parts of the brain. The study was reported in the January 30, 2011, issue of Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging.

I spoke with study senior author Sara Lazar, PhD, an associate research scientist at the Massachusetts General Hospital Psychiatric Neuroimaging Research Program, who talked more about how meditation changes your brain.

Sixteen volunteers open to trying meditation for stress reduction participated in an eight-week program of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR). Participants met weekly for two and a half hours to practice meditation exercises aimed at improving well-being, reducing stress and increasing mindfulness. (Mindfulness is defined as being completely aware of the present moment and taking a nonjudgmental approach to your feelings and thoughts.) The participants were also given audio recordings with 45-minute guided mindfulness exercises that they were asked to do at home — they reported spending an average of 27 minutes a day on the exercises. Results: Compared with self-reports recorded prior to the study, the participants indicated significant improvements in mindfulness on a questionnaire that they completed at the end of the study. That’s consistent with earlier research, but the most significant aspect of this study was that researchers also did MRI scans of participants’ brains before and after the program… and these scans were the first to show structural changes in the brain. In particular, meditation produced beneficial changes in those areas associated with memory, sense of self, empathy and stress. None of these changes were seen in the MRI images of a control group of nonmeditators taken at similar intervals.

Specifically, the researchers found that compared with people in the control group, the meditators had increased brain volume and/or density in several areas that are beneficial to health and mental function, including the hippocampus, an area important for learning and memory… the temporal-parietal junction (TPJ), which is associated with compassion and empathy… and the posterior cingulate cortex (PCC), an area responsible for sense of self and introspection. “Other researchers have found changes in learning and memory, attention and compassion as a result of meditation, so these changes in the brain areas may explain their findings,” says Dr. Lazar.

The researchers also found that, consistent with prior studies, the practice of meditation led to decreased gray matter density in the amygdala, a brain area that plays an important role in fear, anxiety and stress — changes that correlate with participant-reported reductions in stress at the completion of the study. “Many studies have documented that mindfulness meditation is effective for reducing stress,” Dr. Lazar noted. “But this study shows what underlies the improvement.”

How They Did It

The study participants engaged in three different types of mindfulness training exercises…

  • Sitting meditation. They were taught to become highly aware of the sensation of breathing and then to expand that to include awareness of sights, sounds, tastes and other body sensations as well as thoughts and emotions. Unlike other forms of meditation, mindfulness meditation does not involve repeatedly saying something out loud, such as a mantra or affirmation.
  • Mindful yoga. This type of yoga consists of gentle stretching exercises and slow movements, always coordinated with the breath. Dr. Lazar told me that this type of yoga emphasizes the moment-to-moment experience and a “nonharming” attitude toward the body that pays attention to any bodily limitations.
  • Guided body scans. In this exercise, your attention is guided sequentially through your entire body while you observe with nonjudgmental awareness the sensations in each region. Ultimately, you’ll have an awareness of your body as a complete whole.

How You Can Do It

 This particular study involved people who reported themselves as being under stress but, said Dr. Lazar, other research has shown that anyone can benefit from meditation.

Eight-week mindfulness meditation training, developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn, PhD, at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, is taught in numerous clinics around the country. Participants receive stress-reduction education and recordings of guided meditation to practice at home. The cost varies, typically ranging from $200 to $525 for the course. You can find the classes closest to where you live by going to (click on “The Stress Reduction Program,” then “Find MBSR Programs Worldwide” at the bottom of the page).

Meditation is a low-cost, easy and effective way to improve your health and better your life, and there appears to be absolutely no downside to it — what are you waiting for?


Sara Lazar, PhD, instructor in psychiatry, Harvard Medical School, associate research scientist, Psychiatric Neuroimaging Research Program, Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston.

A Cup of Hot Tea Is Good for You — Or Is It?

by Carole Jackson, Bottom Line Health

Sitting down with a nice cup of hot tea feels positively virtuous these days. Every time we glance up at the evening news, there’s been another scientist telling us how good tea is for our health — it’s those antioxidants! But now here comes another study with a decidedly different take — tea can be dangerous… and the danger is cancer.

Tea? Cancer? Really? The study being reported found that drinking hot tea seems to be the reason people in a certain area of northern Iran have one of the world’s highest rates of esophageal squamous cell carcinoma, an often deadly form of the disease. For the study, published in the online edition of BMJ (formerly the British Medical Journal), researchers interviewed 300 people with esophageal cancer and 571 of their healthy neighbors. All had similar backgrounds and habits — including regular tea drinking. The difference? Compared with those who drank their tea warm or lukewarm, people who drank their tea “very hot” were eight times as likely to develop cancer, and those who drank it “hot” were twice as likely. In other words, it seemed that the culprit might not be the tea — but the temperature. Well, I thought, maybe there’s hope yet for us tea drinkers.

The Clearest Risk Factor

I called the study author, Farhad Islami, MD, PhD, at the International Agency for Research on Cancer in Lyon, France, to learn more. He let me know that this particular group of Iranians were at otherwise low risk for esophageal squamous cell cancer — very few smoked and most did not drink alcohol, two very significant risk factors for that disease. The study showed that tea drinking was a common habit among all subpopulations in the region (a total of 48,500 people) and that approximately 25% of the people there drink their tea at the hottest level — about 149°F or higher. This was verified later when researchers actually measured the temperature. (“Hot” was considered to be 149°F to 158°F… and “very hot,” above 158°F.) Although researchers aren’t sure why this is a problem, they believe that the heat may trigger inflammatory processes that stimulate potentially carcinogenic compounds in the esophageal mucous membranes. Perhaps even more likely, Dr. Islami says, is the fact that high heat can damage the esophageal lining, making it less able to protect itself against carcinogens coming in from the outside world.

Okay Then, What About Coffee?

America, of course, is a land of coffee drinkers, many of whom like their brew piping hot. Based on what the tea study tells us, is there reason to worry about coffee, too? Dr. Islami says it is important to note that the type of esophageal cancer most common in the West — adenocarcinoma of the esophagus — is not the same as squamous cell carcinoma, which is the most common type of esophageal cancer in Iran and worldwide. Furthermore, while a few reports suggest that other hot beverages, including coffee, might increase esophageal cancer risk, there is little research on hot coffee specifically. So we do need more studies. In the meantime, Dr. Islami speaks to common sense. “If the issue is damage to the esophageal lining, it would be safer if people do not drink very hot coffee or tea,” he says. It takes only a few minutes or so to allow your hot beverage of choice — coffee or tea — to cool to 140°F and into the safety zone.


Farhad Islami, MD, PhD, research fellow, International Agency for Research on Cancer, Lyon, France.

Can You Change Your DNA in 42 Minutes?

by Carole Jackson, Bottom Line Health

What if I told you that in less time than you think, you can do something incredibly simple that will extend your life?

We think our DNA is set for life, but it’s not. It shrinks over time and makes us age. Now researchers at the University of California at San Francisco believe that you actually can change and improve your DNA, which could, in turn, extend your life! Though they don’t fully understand the mechanism, they know that tiny pieces of DNA called telomeres protect us by helping to keep chromosomes intact. Stress causes those oh-so-important telomeres to shorten, and the shorter they become, the more quickly our cells age and the more susceptible we are to everything from cancer to heart disease, diabetes, Alzheimer’s, osteoporosis — and early mortality. How’s that for a list to avoid?

I got in touch with the lead author of the study, Eli Puterman, PhD, a health psychologist at the University of California at San Francisco, and he confirmed that yes, there is increasing evidence that stress is shrinking our DNA, which in turn shortens our lives. In fact, his recent study looked at 63 postmenopausal women, some of whom were carrying significant psychological burdens as the result of having to care for parents or spouses with dementia. But here’s the key: The women were divided into two groups — those who exercised daily and those who didn’t.

Even those in the study who exercised for as little as 42 minutes over three days were protected from the effects of stress on the length of telomeres in their cells. “Those 42 minutes of vigorous exercise appear to be a critical amount for protection,” researchers reported. The study was published in the May 26, 2010, issue of PLoS ONE, a peer-reviewed publication of the Public Library of Science.

When I asked Dr. Puterman for his definition of vigorous exercise, he said, “It’s usually defined as activity that causes you to breathe hard and fast and sweat while your heart rate rises. While you’re performing vigorous exercise, you won’t be able to speak more than a few words without pausing for breath.”


Stress abounds these days. As the economy limps along, grown kids, unemployed or underemployed, have moved back in with parents… adults find themselves taking care of their children and their ailing parents at the same time… wars are multiplying. Worry seems to be everywhere. But what Dr. Puterman is telling us is that by getting up on our feet for less than one hour and a half a week and getting our bodies moving at a fairly good pace, we’ll have gone a long way toward relieving the harm that all that worry does to our health.

Does vigorous exercise have the same effect on men and on younger people of either gender? It almost certainly does, Dr. Puterman told me, adding that this will be the subject of further studies. For one thing, he said, researchers want to find out whether exercising helps young adults build up extra amounts of the enzyme telomerase that rebuilds and lengthens telomeres so that it could be stored by the body and used in the future.

My advice: While researchers continue their studies, lace up your sneakers, grab a windbreaker, get yourself moving — and protect that DNA!


Eli Puterman, PhD, health psychologist and postdoctoral fellow at the Center for Health and Community of the Department of Psychiatry, University of California, San Francisco.