Series 7 episode 1 of Michael Mosley’s BBC program ‘Trust Me, I’m a Doctor’ featured a study comparing gardening against yoga against mindful meditation in beating stress. The outcome was an objective measure – salivary cortisol, for which the latter activity outscored all others. 😮 Wow! But sadly, this trial hasn’t ever been written up for publication, and furthermore the premise of showing increased cortisol awakening response (CAR) as indicative of de-stressing is counter to the evidence. Trust me, I’m a skeptic.
From the beginning. Cortisol is a restorative hormone – the benefits of the synthetic corticoid, prednisolone, in suppressing auto-immune response are well understood. In evolutionary terms it’s a clever output from an activated fight/flight HPA axis, halting anti-inflammatory effects so as to concentrate energy and strength. Focus on survival, consequences be damned. It shows a strong peak half an hour into the morning, the CAR, as we prepare to take on the world. It’s so consistent, that it’s been analysed for decades. The CAR peak is flattened when in pain, or fatigued – that makes sense. “Think I’ll sit this battle out, Genghis – tell the truth, I’m pretty knackered“. But there’s half a dozen studies showing that CAR is boosted in stressful circumstances, such as angrier teachers preparing for work or ‘Perceived work overload and chronic worrying predict weekend-weekday differences in the cortisol awakening response‘.
The Mosley program had results consistent with another, scientifically rigorous trial of yoga. The CAR peak indeed up-regulates after gentle ‘Yoga as Awareness’ classes, just as it does when making ready for battle. Though counter-intuitive, this is the lesson. Meditation isn’t just avoidance, a cozy retreating into a safe place. It’s a pep talk for the body, giving gratitude for past valour, ready for a call of “Once more unto the breech, good friends” (Henry V). A similar increase in morning cortisol resulted from an 8-week Mindfulness program delivered to military helicopter pilots – complementing and enhancing their readiness for a stressful workday.
Humans are not deterministic – the feedback mechanisms are a workaround to any change. To take a pill, or supplement, on the simplistic basis that it has a directly measurable effect shown in clinical studies overlooks the complexity of the body systems that maintain our balance (homeostasis). Mindful meditation and stress both alter CAR in identical ways, yet have opposite effects on your wellbeing. To navigate the contradictory claims there’s only one answer – treat mind&body holistically. Integrative Medicine practitioners are being supplanted by accredited wellness coaches, providing lifestyle counsel but without reliance on a script pad. America’s healthcare travails have fostered two dozen accredited university courses, and the same from private suppliers, for Health & Wellness Coaching. theMindfulGap.com.au is also servicing this need.