10/26/2011 12:28 am ET Updated Dec 26, 2011

Out of Your Mind: How Mindfulness Soothes Hot Flashes and Quells IBS

Think about this: If you can get out of your head more often, you can dramatically improve your health.

That's what the research has been showing lately. Three separate studies published this past year by esteemed institutions are proving that minding your mind influences your body. The practice of mindfulness, these studies show, have tangible benefits on our cells.

I've always been a huge fan of mindfulness (even if I don't always remember to do it). I know from my own experience that this Buddhist practice of noticing, and therefore, separating yourself from, your roaming thoughts brings a blanket of calm, allowing you to more easily connect with your spiritual self. And now that scientists are putting mindfulness under a microscope, they are also documenting the distinct health advantages this practice brings. The best part: mindfulness costs nothing -- and is side-effect free.

Of course, any practice that has survived thousands of years has to have a lot going for it. And one of those things is that it makes actual changes in the brain. Just this year, scientists at Massachusetts General Hospital looked at MRI scans of people before and after they did an 8-week mindfulness training, and they found obvious, physical effects. For example, the brains of the mindfulness participants had more gray matter concentration in the left hippocampus, the part of the brain involved with emotional control, memory and learning.

The thing I love best about mindfulness is that it can be done as part of a formal, sitting meditation, but it doesn't have to be: Anytime in the day that you bring your focus to your breath or your senses (feeling the keyboard under your typing fingers, hearing the birds outside your window, noticing the movement in your muscles as your legs climb the stairs... ), you are practicing mindfulness.

Here are some of the ways your body will thank you:

Mindfulness lessens pain. The 15 participants in this study, by Wake Forest University, learned in four 20-minute sessions to pay attention to their breath and to give less attention to other (more painful!) things they were thinking and feeling. After that they rated the physical pain inflicted on them as part of the study some 40 percent less intense than it had been before, according to the research, published in April in the Journal of Neuroscience.

Mindfulness quells IBS. Women with irritable bowel syndrome who learned mindfulness had fewer uncomfortable symptoms after three months of practice than those simply going to a support group, according to a study by the University of North Carolina published in the American Journal of Gastroenterology last month. Mindfulness practitioners also had much less of the anxiety and depression that can accompany this chronic condition.

Mindfulness soothes hot flashes. Flashes and night sweats that are the dreaded hallmark of menopause were less bothersome to women after they learned mindfulness techniques, scientists at the University of Massachusetts reported in June. The women, all "flashers" averaging five or more episodes a day, didn't actually have fewer or less intense occurrences. But those who learned mindfulness during eight weekly classes were half as likely to rate those flashes as bothersome than a control group. Three months after the training, the women said they were sleeping better, too.

Mind over matter? It certainly seems so.

Meryl Davids Landau is the author of the new spiritual women's novel, "Downward Dog, Upward Fog," which was recommended by Yoga Journal Buzz Blog and the Science of Mind national newsletter. ForeWord Reviews calls the novel "an inspirational gem that will appeal to introspective, evolving women." Read excerpts at Meryl also writes for "O: the Oprah Magazine," "Whole Living," "Reader's Digest" and other national magazines.

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