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Are Yoga and Meditation Good for my Brain?

A Scientific Take on Stress Management by Alvaro Fernandez

Yoga, meditation, and visualization are all excellent ways to learn to manage your stress levels. Reducing stress, and the stress hormones, in your system is critical to your brain and overall fitness.

Why is this so? It's clear that our society has changed faster than our genes. Instead of being faced with physical, immediately life-threatening crises that demand instant action, these days we deal with events and illnesses that gnaw away at us slowly, without any stress release.

Dr. Robert Sapolsky, in an interview about his book Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers, points out that humans uniquely "can get stressed simply with thought, turning on the same stress response as does the zebra." But, the zebra releases the stress hormones through life-preserving action, while we usually just keep muddling along, getting more anxious by the moment.

Prolonged exposure to the adrenal steroid hormones like cortisol, released during the stress response, can damage the brain and block the formation of new neurons in the hippocampus, which is the key player in encoding new memories in your brain. Recent studies have shown these neurons can be regenerated with learning and environmental stimulation, but while short-term stress may improve attention and memory, chronic stress leads indirectly to cell death and hampers our ability to make changes and be creative enough to even think of possible changes to reduce the stress.

What are the best defenses against chronic stress?

- Exercise strengthens the body and can reduce the experience of stress, depression, and anxiety.

- Relaxation through meditation, tai chi, yoga, or other techniques to lower blood pressure, slow respiration, slow metabolism, and release muscle tension.

- Biofeedback programs that provide real-time information, allowing you to learn effective techniques for reducing stress levels.

- Empowerment, because attitudes of personal confidence and control of your environment resolve the stress response.

- Social network of friends, family, and even pets help foster trust, support, and relaxation.

If you want to learn more about the science behind these recommendations, you can enjoy these scientific papers:

- Bedard M, Felteau M, Mazmanian D, Fedyk K, Klein R, Richardson J, Parkinson W, Minthorn-Biggs MB. Pilot evaluation of a mindfulness-based intervention to improve quality of life among individuals who sustained traumatic brain injuries. Disabil Rehabil. 2003;25:722-31.

- Bremner JD. Traumatic stress: effects on the brain. Dialogues Clin Neurosci. 2006;8:445-61.

- Czeh B, Muller-Keuker JI, Rygula R, Abumaria N, Hiemke C, Domenici E, Fuchs E. Chronic Social Stress Inhibits Cell Proliferation in the Adult Medial Prefrontal Cortex: Hemispheric Asymmetry and Reversal by Fluoxetine Treatment. Neuropsychopharmacology. 2006 Dec 13; [Epub ahead of print].

- Warner-Schmidt JL, Duman RS. Hippocampal neurogenesis: opposing effects of stress and antidepressant treatment. Hippocampus. 2006;16:239-49.

- Sapolsky, RM. Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers (Owl Books; 2004). ISBN: 0805073698

Copyright (c) 2007 SharpBrains

Alvaro Fernandez is the CEO and Co-Founder of, which provides the latest science-based information for Cognitive Fitness and Cognitive Health, and has been recognized by Scientific American Mind, MarketWatch, Forbes, and more. Alvaro holds MA in Education and MBA from Stanford University, and teaches The Science of Brain Health at UC-Berkeley Lifelong Learning Institute. You can learn more at


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