A Bigger Brain in Just 10 Minutes
Last week, I gave you the straight dope on penis size. Today, I want to talk about the size of another important organ: your brain.
Because you know what? Yours is shrinking as you read this...
Think of it as the dark side of rapidly rocketing life spans. With every passing year, we find new ways to keep the body impossibly young. You name it: surgery, hormone injections, hopelessly complicated diets and exercise regimens, and just about everything in between.
And believe me — this stuff works. At my recent trip to the 22nd Annual World Congress on Anti-Aging Medicine this past winter, I saw more nipped, tucked, and preternaturally jacked people than the average American probably sees in his lifetime.
But listen... having a buff body at 70 isn’t going to do you much good if your brain is left to waste away. And with the average lifespan now being a whole decade longer than it was back in the ‘70s, that’s exactly what’s happening.
This is a reality of aging that everyone has to face down. And it’s a harsh one, too. Because what most people don’t realize is that your brain starts losing weight and volume as early as your mid-20s.
That’s right. You hadn’t even hit 30 before your brain started to shrink. So whatever shape you think you’re in, if you’re not giving due attention to your gray matter, you can pretty much guarantee your brain’s size tells a different story.
So with that warning out of the way, let me get to the real reason I’m talking to you about this today. New research is showing that there’s a way for you to minimize gray matter loss over the years. And its simplicity will probably shock you.
This article appeared in the journal Frontiers in Psychiatry about a month ago.1 And it showed that people who meditate — yes, I said meditate — have better preserved brains than people who don’t.
A few details: The study included 100 residents of the Los Angeles area, half of whom were longtime meditators. (That is, people who had meditated regularly for about 20 years on average.) The youngest participants were in their 20s, and the oldest were in their 70s.
Researchers measured gray matter using MRI. (Gray matter is the part of your brain that contains neurons responsible for generating and processing nerve signals.) Results showed age-linked declines in total gray matter in both control and experimental groups. (Proving the point, again, that brain shrinkage is a threat that affects everyone.)
But get this: In the meditating group, researchers observed significantly less gray matter loss with advancing age. In other words, their brains were younger even as the birthdays piled up.
And this isn’t the first study of its kind, either. In fact, this research builds upon recent studies showing that people who meditate experience less age-related atrophy in their brains' white matter, too. (White matter is primarily responsible for transmitting the signals that gray matter generates — so needless to say, it’s just as important.)
So ultimately, the message couldn’t be any clearer: Use it... or lose it.
It’s the same advice I give to my patients on a daily basis. Because as a general rule, I find that regular, moderate activity protects against most forms of degeneration. Why should your brain be an exception?
This is true of your muscles and bones, for instance. Disengage your body for a long enough time, and your muscles revert to fatty, cartilaginous tissue, your bones weaken, and your cardiovascular system adapts to a lifestyle of little exertion by pruning unused mitochondria and capillaries.
None of these changes are good news for your health or longevity. Simply put, they hit the accelerator on aging and send you to an earlier grave.
As this new study shows, your brain responds to inactivity in much the same way. Because you know what? Contrary to outward appearances, meditation is its own form of “exercise” — one that requires an extraordinary degree of focus and mental energy.
Best of all, it’s a practice that anyone can master with time. A lot of people misunderstand the purpose of meditation. They think that it’s some esoteric, new-agey practice championed by hippies and type-B personalities as a means of “finding your center.”
And for some people, that’s exactly what it is. But the meditation I’m talking about is much more down-to-earth and accessible than that.
There are many kinds of meditation out there, obviously. But the most popular versions (or at least the ones I know of) really revolve around sustained attention to your breathing.
Inhalation and exhalation are two of the body’s most underappreciated functions. After all, breathing is what provides your blood with oxygen — a key ingredient in the chemical reactions that break down and build up organic compounds.
Returning your thoughts to the sensations of this basic, animal function not only results in better insight into your inner life and easy, free stress-relief — i.e. all that crunchy “finding your center” stuff — but it also acts as a form of exercise for the attention centers in your brain.
And if you’re anything like me, you know that sustaining attention on any one thing is definitely a workout. So in the interest of getting you started on your own, here’s quick and dirty guide to “meditation” for beginners. Five easy steps, and you’re done for the day:
- Find a quiet space away from your work and a comfortable place where you can sit or lie down in a relaxed position.
- Set a timer for ten minutes, or as long as you would like to meditate. You might consider choosing a gentle alarm sound to avoid a startling end to your session. Your smartphone works just fine.
- Close your eyes and begin focusing on your breath. Breathe in through your nose (expand your belly, not your chest), and breathe out through your mouth — and continue to do this in whatever way feels most natural. (Typically a four-count breath in, followed by a four-count pause, then a four-count breath out works well.)
- As you breathe, notice how the air feels when it moves through your body. You will no doubt be distracted by countless other things as you breathe, such as unexpected thoughts or outside noises. Your attention is naturally going to be drawn to these things, so don’t be frustrated. Just calmly bring your attention back to your breathing and continue.
- When your alarm goes off, open your eyes as slowly as you like — and ease yourself back into your busy day with a renewed sense of calm and clarity.
Bottom line: If the term “meditation” seems too hokey for you, fine. Think of it as taking 10 minutes a day to sit still, quietly, and do nothing but breathe deeply or pray, if that’s what you’re into.
That’s it. Just 10 minutes a day.
That’s what I call successful aging, ladies and gentlemen. And despite what the anti-aging industry might try to tell you, there’s absolutely nothing high-tech about it.
Stay tuned and stay well,
Geo Espinosa, N.D., L.Ac, C.N.S., is a renowned naturopathic doctor recognized as an authority in integrative management of male and urological conditions. Dr. Geo is the founder and director of the Integrative Urology Center at New York University Langone Medical Center (NYULMC), a center of excellence in research and integrative treatments for urological conditions.
1. Luders, E., Cherbuin, N., & Kurth, F. (2015). Forever Young(er): Potential Age-defying Effects of Long-term Meditation on Gray Matter Atrophy. Frontiers in Psychology, 5. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2014.01551Bottom of Form