Updated 27th October 2023

How could mindfulness benefit your physical and mental health?

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Mindfulness has surged in popularity in recent years. But it’s more than just a buzzword — some research indicates that mindfulness can play a role in developing healthy behaviors, such as eating well, maintaining good sleep, and keeping active. 

What’s more, studies suggest that mindfulness could reduce depression, anxiety, and stress. It could also improve habits related to food cravings and emotional eating.

There are many types of mindfulness. Some involve meditation, and others don’t.

In this article, we examine what mindfulness actually is, and what role it might play in certain health conditions. 

We also take a look at how to start living in a more mindful way.

What is mindfulness?

Mindfulness comes in many forms, but all involve awareness of the present.

When you think of mindfulness, you might think of meditation. 

One type of mindfulness, called mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR), uses some meditation plus yoga. The aim is to look at the present moment and accept it without judgment.

But not all forms of mindfulness use meditation. Langerian mindfulness involves actively looking for new angles and perspectives of the present. Ellen Langer developed the idea in 1989.

Though most research into different types of mindfulness is still at an early stage, these approaches could offer new avenues for managing your health and well-being.

Below, we look at areas of your health where mindfulness could be useful, along with the research supporting these ideas.

It’s worth noting that in many cases, researchers look at the effects of mindfulness in addition to the usual treatments.

1. Stress

Some short-term stress can be useful — it can help you feel energized, motivated, and focused. But long-term stress can harm your health. 

Overall, a large body of research supports the idea that mindfulness meditation can help you manage stress.

Some studies have even suggested that just one 5-minute MBI session could improve stress.

A study from Italy didn’t measure stress specifically, but it reported that Langerian mindfulness was linked with improved psychological well-being and quality of life in students.

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2. Depression 

Depression is common, affecting around 5% of adults globally.

Many studies have looked at the effects of MBIs on depression and anxiety. For example, a review of 36 studies found that MBIs reduced symptoms of depression and anxiety in people with cancer.

In one study, Langerian mindfulness lowered depression and anxiety in people with long-term health conditions, such as multiple sclerosis. 

Elsewhere, researchers have reported that mindfulness was associated with less depression and anxiety, as well as improved quality of life, in caregivers of people with a severe, chronic condition.

Also, some research suggests that MBIs might help with depression if you’re having fertility treatment or pregnant.

3. Food cravings

Brief MBIs might also reduce food cravings.  

In one small study, a 7-day MBI led to a reduction in cravings among people who described themselves as emotional eaters.

Quick MBIs can help people get better at recognizing when they’re hungry. This can help you identify the reason that you’re eating.

Some clinicians also use MBIs to help people living with or recovering from disordered eating, such as binge-eating disorder and eating in response to certain cues.

4. Gut health

Mindfulness may also help with managing gut symptoms. 

To date, studies have shown that various forms of mindfulness have helped with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) symptoms and improved the quality of life for people with inflammatory bowel disease.

Practicing mindful eating may help improve your digestion, which could lead to a healthier gut.

Some mindful eating techniques include eating slowly, chewing your food well, and limiting distractions during meals. 

In the ZOE Science & Nutrition podcast episode on IBS, Dr. Will Bulsiewicz discusses ways to approach this condition beyond cutting out certain foods. He mentions that some people find mindfulness and breathing exercises useful. 

Another way to improve your gut health is through personalized nutrition, which the ZOE program offers.

Our program tells you which bacteria live in your gut and how your body responds to different foods. Using this information, we help you pick the best foods for your gut and overall health.

Learn more about how it works by taking our free quiz.

5. Sleep

A fair bit of research explores the effectiveness of MBIs on sleep, including MBSR and mindfulness-based therapy for insomnia. 

One review of 18 trials reported that MBIs may help improve sleep quality for people with sleep disturbances.

Similarly, a review of 10 trials concluded that MBSR is likely to improve sleep quality for people recovering from cancer more than the usual care options.

To learn more about sleep and ways to improve it, check out the ZOE Science & Nutrition podcast episode on the topic.

6. Blood pressure

In a preliminary trial, researchers created a mindfulness-based blood pressure reduction program based around MBSR.

This helped some people with hypertension improve some aspects that were contributing to the condition. These factors included how much people were exercising and what they were eating and drinking.

A review of research into MBSR also found that these programs led to decreases in blood pressure when seeing a healthcare professional for people whose levels had been high.

7. Pain

Research has shown that mindfulness could help people who experience chronic pain.

A study involving Langerian mindfulness found that people who engaged in mindful attention training had reduced feelings of pain after standard treatment, compared with a control group. 

And in one trial, people with lower back pain reported less pain after following an MBSR program.  

8. Heart disease

A recent analysis of five randomized controlled trials found that MBIs improved results for 6-minute walking tests, which show how people are responding to heart disease treatments.

MBIs also led to lower heart rates and stress scores for participants in these trials. 

In a separate, smaller study, a small group of people who had either had a stroke or were caregivers completed a 3-week online Langerian mindfulness course. The participants reported that the course had helped with their psychological well-being.

9. Diabetes 

Some research in people with diabetes has even suggested that the mind could influence blood sugar responses. 

For example, one Langerian study showed that people’s blood sugar levels changed according to how much time they believed had passed, rather than how much had actually passed.

So, when the researchers sped up or slowed down the clocks that the participants used (without their knowledge), the participants’ blood sugar levels changed accordingly.

Another Langerian study in people with diabetes found that blood sugar levels changed according to how sugary participants thought their drink was.

The participants all received the same drink, but some drinks had labels saying they were particularly sugary. 

Both studies highlight just how much your mind might be able to influence your body. 

How to be mindful

If you want to try being more mindful, there are many approaches. Here are some strategies for Langerian mindfulness:

  • Look for new sides to a situation: Trying to find different angles may help you feel that a situation isn't fixed and that you have more control over it.

  • Look at things from different perspectives: Similarly, you could try to think about a situation from someone else’s point of view. This could be someone real or imagined.

  • Consider alternative understandings of a problem: Some problems can be useful in different contexts. If you can find a silver lining, it might make a situation easier to deal with.

  • Think about other positive things: If you’re able to think of positive experiences outside of a particular situation, it might help you view that situation differently.

  • Start a mindfulness journal: Writing down key things that have happened that day can help you view these events differently. In turn, this could make it easier for you to experience things mindfully while they’re happening.

For other forms of mindfulness, these exercises could help:

  • Belly breathing, or diaphragmatic breathing: Breathe in deeply through your nose for 5 seconds, hold for 5 seconds, then slowly breath out through your mouth for 5 seconds. Repeat for 5–10 minutes.

  • Body scanning: Tune into your body by focusing on different body parts for a few minutes at a time, paying attention to sensations such as tension, aches, tingling, or soreness.

  • Mindful movement, such as tai chi, Pilates, and some forms of yoga: These activities combine controlled breathing and meditation, helping to align the body and mind.

As we’ve mentioned, meditation is often associated with mindfulness, and it plays a role in some forms. But it doesn’t have to be part of your mindfulness approach. 

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Summary

Mindfulness involves a greater awareness of the present. It can take many forms, and research has linked these different practices with various health benefits, such as reducing stress and depression.

Many people associate mindfulness with meditation and an acceptance of the present without judgment. Langerian mindfulness is a different approach that involves actively trying to find new ways of looking at a situation. 

Practicing mindfulness might be worth it, particularly if you’re experiencing depression symptoms or stress. In some cases, trying it for just 5 minutes could help.

It’s important to note that most research has looked at mindfulness in addition to conventional treatment. It shouldn’t replace any approach recommended by a doctor.

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