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Meditation and the Microbiome

How wonderful is it that we live in an age where words like meditation and microbiome have finally become mainstream? Gone are the days of these concepts being solely relegated to monthly subscription newsletters – you know the kind I’m talking about – they seem to be printed on some sort of twice-recycled paper, authored by a man whose qualifications are unclear (Biologist? Physicist? Cult leader?) and about every third article touts the magical healing properties of apple cider vinegar (obviously, only the kind with the mother will do).

Despite being individually popular topics right now, it is important that we, as a culture, connect the dots between these two important subjects.

I am willing to bet that either you or someone you know has some form of autoimmune disease. Aside from being rampant it is also a real drag. The symptoms are often not debilitating enough to garner any real sympathy, much less for anyone to truly understand the impact of living with constant discomfort.  And on top of that the treatments available are downright archaic. Focused primarily on pain management and very little on actually recognizing or – god forbid, reversing! – the underlying condition.

With that in mind, and an innate aversion to what I lovingly call the “forever antibiotics” prescribed by my doctor, I chose to embark on a journey to heal my own autoimmune disease without conventional medicine nearly ten years ago.

Early on, the overwhelming amount of information combined with misinformation (who’s in charge of the internet anyway?) often left me in tears. But there comes a point in all of our lives when we have to make the decision to either give up or keep…on…giving, and, as most of my friends will tell you, I was bound and determined to prove a point.

Because chronic illness often muddies the emotional waters, I dedicated my research to exploring methods that focused on healing both the physical and mental self simultaneously. After months of diligent research/borderline obsessive behavior I landed on two key approaches:  the microbiome for the physical and meditation for the emotional.

As I do with any serious commitment, I let excitement lead the way and dove right in. I immediately began making homemade vegan kefir and teaching myself the basics of meditation, simple mindfulness practice initially, but as my confidence grew, I also began faithfully (and loudly!) chanting healing mantras.

And you know what happened? By restoring myself physically, I accidentally gained inner clarity.

But I wondered – why the combination of the microbiome and meditation?

It was then that the universe finally showed me her cards. And I can’t speak for you, but personally, I love cosmic validation. For all of you skeptics who, like me, stumbled onto your spiritual path, it really feels good to realize our beliefs are confirmed not just through ancient Vedic scripture but also modern day science.

Meditation can be defined in a variety of ways, essentially summed up as being a practice where we train our mind to be calm by slowing down the thought frequency, either through use of mindfulness techniques such as focusing on our breath or more spiritual practice such as becoming the observer or chanting mantra. The overall goal being a wide berth between simply creating space in the brain in order to enhance mental acuity and lower stress all the way to the pursuit of divine consciousness.

The microbiome on the other hand is the collection of microorganisms on and within the human body – these bacteria, fungi, protozoa and viruses can be beneficial, such as probiotics, neutral, or disease causing pathogens. The human gut microbiome in particular has been proven to play an important role in health and disease prevention. Imbalances of what would be considered normal microbiota can result in everything from gastrointestinal conditions to cancer. In order to achieve a more favorable gut balance we are being told to eat cleaner, consume probiotic rich foods, drastically cut down on antibiotic use, avoid exposure to toxins, and lessen stress.

Initially, the similarity between two such broad topics doesn’t just jump out at you – but if you were to simultaneously study both subjects, the correlation is not only obvious, but downright creepy.

It seems reasonable to realize that regular mediations are responsible for conducting and altering neurotransmitter activity in the brain.  In fact, it is widely recognized that mindfulness mediations stimulate the one of the bodies most complex cranial nerves, the vagus nerve, resulting in greater connectivity of the default mode network (more adorably known as The Monkey Mind) which lowers overall inflammation and encourages a healthier systemic response to stress and self-referential thinking.

But, and this is where it gets a little Twilight Zone, did you realize that the human gut microbiome is also directly linked to the brain via the vagus nerve?

That’s right; the microorganisms living in your gut are actually able to communicate with your brain directly via the nervous system. This gives them the power to influence a whole host of human conditions – our moods, memories and cognition are all a result of the balance within our guts. Even further, our sleep and reactions to stress can be decided by our individual microbiota. The manifestations of an imbalance of power between the good and bad bacteria are virtually endless:  alcoholism, depression, schizophrenia, fibromyalgia, endometriosis, diabetes, celiac disease, multiple sclerosis, and on and on.

So here we are.  Proof that the meditations which give us the ability to spiritually connect with our inner being also allows us to physically connect with about 39 trillion other inner beings.

Medically speaking, the stress reduction from regular mindful meditations encourage a healthy environment promoting the growth of good microorganisms, meanwhile, the proliferation of probiotics in the gut simultaneously are fostering our sense of physical, mental, and dare I say, spiritual well-being.

And, if all that doesn’t have enough woo-woo factor for you, the term vagus is Latin for “wandering” – named surely for the fact that the nerve connects to multiple organs throughout the body – but from another angle, perhaps suggestive of the idea that sometimes we have to lose our way before we find our path.

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