New research by scientists from Germany and the United Kingdom shows that daily mental training for 3 to 6 months can buffer the long-term systemic stress load of healthy adults; this was reflected in a reduction of cortisol (stress hormone) and cortisone (metabolite of cortisol) accumulation in hair, while levels of self-reported chronic stress were less consistently decreased.
Puhlmann et al. investigated the effect of regular contemplative mental training on endocrine and psychological indices of long-term stress.
“Rising prevalence of stress-related mental and physical disorders has led to the recognition of chronic stress as one of the 21st century’s major health risks,” said senior author Professor Tania Singer from the Social Neuroscience Lab at the Max Planck Society and colleagues.
“The health outcomes of exposure to psychosocial stress are mediated by prolonged activation of our main neuroendocrine stress systems, the sympathetic-adrenal-medullary and the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axes.”
“Both systems exert complex effects on immune and metabolic processes and are causally involved in the development of cardiovascular, metabolic, and autoimmune disorders, among others.”
“In striving to reduce stress and promote health and well-being, secular meditation-based mental training interventions, such as the mindfulness-based stress reduction program, have gained popularity.”
“We aimed to investigate whether contemplative mental training affects patterns of long-term cortisol secretion as a potential mediator of downstream health benefits in 227 healthy adults,” they added.
The authors examined whether up to 9-month-long training of different types of contemplative mental practice affects physiological indices of chronic stress.
Instead of acute or diurnal cortisol secretion, they assessed hair cortisol and cortisone levels as indices of long-term physiological stress load.
“The training program consisted of three 3-month sessions, each designed to train a specific skill area using Western and Far Eastern mental exercises,” the researchers said.
“The focus was either on the factors of attention and mindfulness, on socio-affective skills such as compassion and gratitude, or on so-called socio-cognitive skills, in particular the ability to take perspective on one’s own and others’ thoughts.”
“Three groups of about 80 participants each completed the training modules in different order. The training lasted up to nine months, 30 minutes a day, six days a week.”
“After six months of training, the amount of cortisol in the subjects’ hair had decreased significantly, on average by 25%,” they said.
“In the first three months, slight effects were seen at first, which increased over the following three months. In the last third, the concentration remained at a low level.”
The scientists concluded that it is worth to practice more and to carry on mental practice beyond the typical 8-week training period of mindfulness-based stress reduction programs currently offered in Western societies.
“We assume that different training aspects are particularly helpful for different forms of stress,” said co-author Dr. Veronika Engert, a researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences.
“There are many diseases worldwide, including depression, that are directly or indirectly related to long-term stress,” added first author Lara Puhlmann, a doctoral student at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences.
“We need to work on counteracting the effects of chronic stress in a preventive way. Our study uses physiological measurements to prove that meditation-based training interventions can alleviate general stress levels even in healthy individuals.”
The team’s paper appears in the October 2021 issue of the journal Psychosomatic Medicine.
Lara M.C. Puhlmann et al. 2021. Contemplative Mental Training Reduces Hair Glucocorticoid Levels in a Randomized Clinical Trial. Psychosomatic Medicine 83 (8): 894-905; doi: 10.1097/PSY.0000000000000970