The health benefits of gratitude are an amazing example of just how sturdy the bridge is between the mind, body and emotions. Research shows that heart-centered feelings associated with gratitude, appreciation and caring—essentially, love—enhance health. When you find one thing, however small, to be thankful for, and you hold that feeling for as little as 15 to 20 seconds, many subtle and beneficial physiologic changes take place in your body. For instance:
Levels of the stress hormones cortisol and norepinephrine decrease, creating a cascade of beneficial metabolic changes, such as an enhanced immune system.
Coronary arteries relax, increasing the blood supply to your heart.
Heart rhythm becomes more harmonious, which positively affects other bodily organs, and lifts your mood.
Breathing becomes deeper, increasing the oxygen level of your tissues.
Other scientific evidence that gratitude improves health comes from research accumulated by Robert A. Emmons, professor of psychology at the University of California, Davis. Emmons found that gratitude makes people healthier, smarter and more energetic. He also showed that people who practiced gratitude daily, such as by writing in a gratitude journal, reported higher levels of alertness, enthusiasm, determination, attentiveness and energy than those who didn’t.
If all of this happens when you focus for just 15 to 20 seconds on something that brings you pleasure, joy or a feeling of gratitude, imagine what would happen to your health if you were able to cultivate thoughts of appreciation on a consistent and regular basis.
Practice Makes Perfect
Cultivating gratitude, like maintaining strong muscles and bones, takes discipline and will. That’s right: It takes practice to feel gratitude and reap its physical and emotional benefits. There are valid physiologic reasons why focusing on gratitude isn’t easy. Physically, we humans evolved along with a nervous system wired to ensure our survival by alerting us to possible danger from the occasional wild animal or violent storm—events that were relatively infrequent within a life span. Now fast-forward that same nervous system to our current era of mass media, when all of the possible dangerous events from the entire planet are beamed into our living rooms, day and night. You can see why holding thoughts of appreciation is hard.
Here’s a good way to start. Get a piece of paper and list your blessings. Pay special attention to those people who enhance your life on every level: the checkout person at your favorite grocery store; the FedEx driver; a sunny, optimistic coworker. Thanking the people who bestow these blessings on you will uplift them, and enrich your life in ways you never thought possible. The more you notice the people and things you’re grateful for, the more of them you’ll attract.
In my book Women’s Bodies, Women’s Wisdom, I wrote, “Thinking with your heart takes practice, but if you faithfully learn to start thinking with your heart and pay attention to areas of your life that bring you joy and fulfillment, over time you will evoke biochemical changes in your body that will recharge your batteries.” Not only does it enhance your energy levels and reduce stress, but recognizing and appreciating life’s many blessings is one of the most powerful ways I know of to enhance the immune system, balance your hormones and promote heart health. This exercise can literally change your life.
About the Author:
A board-certified ob/gyn, Christiane Northrup, M.D., is a visionary pioneer, and the author of the groundbreaking New York Times bestsellers Women’s Bodies, Women’s Wisdom and The Wisdom of Menopause. Her latest books, The Secret Pleasures of Menopause and The Secret Pleasures of Menopause Playbook, teach how to experience joy, pleasure, prosperity, fulfillment and vibrant health. Following a 25-year career in both academic medicine and private practice, Dr. Northrup now devotes her time to helping women truly flourish on all levels through tapping into their inner wisdom. Through her exclusive Women’s Wisdom Circle, Dr. Northrup shares cutting-edge medical and lifestyle advice at drnorthrup.com.
This article appeared in Pathways to Family Wellness magazine, Issue #26.
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