Turkey DayThe wide variety of effects that gratitude can have may seem surprising, but a direct look at the brain activity during gratitude yields some insight. The study I’m going to share comes from the National Institutes of Health (NIH). NIH researchers examined blood flow in various brain regions while subjects summoned up feelings of gratitude (Zahn et al, 2009). They found that subjects who showed more gratitude overall had higher levels of activity in the hypothalamus. This is important because the hypothalamus controls a huge array of essential bodily functions, including eating, drinking and sleeping. It also has a huge influence on your metabolism and stress levels. From this evidence on brain activity it starts to become clear how improvements in gratitude could have such wide-ranging effects from increased exercise, and improved sleep to decreased depression and fewer aches and pains.

Try keeping a daily gratitude journal or take 15-20 minutes in the morning and meditate on the things you are grateful for… Or an even bigger challenge with an even bigger reward is during times of stress instead of responding to the negative stress, recite what you are grateful for. Sound cheesy? The next time you are late for work because you are stuck in traffic, instead of stressing out at the traffic try redirecting your thoughts towards being grateful that you have a job to go to. Or the next time you are standing in a long check out lane instead of fretting over how much time it is taking focus on how good it is to have the resources you need to buy your family groceries. This is serious medicine here… Study after study clearly show not only a direct chemical reaction to stress on our health but also the specific well being of your brain.

Here’s a little bit about what we already know about the stress-dementia connection. A couple of years ago, one study reported that women who had been through significant stressors in mid- life had a significantly (65%) greater risk of developing dementia later on. The theory is that stressful events can trigger a cascade of reactions involving the stress hormones (glucocorticoids) and eventually leading to atrophy in the brain’s hippocampus – the region that is the seat of memory, and known to be most affected by Alzheimer’s disease.

Earlier work had pointed to the fact that indeed in mice, the stress hormones are linked to higher levels of amyloid precursor protein (APP) and tau protein, which is seen in Alzheimer’s and in other forms of dementia. Since humans with Alzheimer’s are known to have higher levels of the stress hormones, the authors suggest that the hormones are not a consequence of the disease, but, perhaps, a cause..

Last of all it’s crucial to understand that it is not the existence of stressful circumstances in your life causing the problems but rather your response to these stressful circumstances! You can not always choose your circumstances but you can choose how you respond to them. Proof is in the pudding here folks… Many times over and over again researchers point to some of the happiest and healthiest people are actually individuals who have the least to be thankful for. I am sure if you take a moment you can identify several individuals in your own life that exemplify this. So as you wake up on Thanksgiving to celebrate with family friends for all you have.. Consider making that celebration a daily ritual… It’s pretty apparent the only thing you have to loose is your anxiety, unhappiness, weight, heart disease, and a reduced risk of cognitive decline!

Be Well,

Donna Stephens