Spiritual retreats really do change brain chemistry, especially dopamine and serotonin production

Spiritual retreats really do change brain chemistry, especially dopamine and serotonin production
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(Natural News) Social isolation, in the form of spiritual retreats, can boost mental health according to a study published in Religion, Brain & Behavior. Researchers determined that serotonin and dopamine production is greatly affected by religious and meditative retreats. Hailing from The Marcus Institute of Integrative Health at Thomas Jefferson University, the researchers assert that these practices evoke powerful, positive emotional feelings. These are caused by a surge of production in the feel-good hormones of dopamine and serotonin.

Dr. Andrew Newberg, Director of Research at the Marcus Institute said, “Serotonin and dopamine are part of the reward and emotional systems of the brain. Our study showed significant changes in dopamine and serotonin transporters after the seven-day retreat, which could prime participants for the spiritual experiences that they reported. Hopefully, future studies can answer these questions.”

A meditative approach to holistic wellbeing

The study looked at 14 Christian participants aged 24 to 76. These participants attended a seven-day Ignatian retreat. This specific Jesuit practice focuses on exercises that promote reflection and spiritual growth. Post-retreat brain scans showed a dramatic decrease in dopamine (five to eight percent) and serotonin (six and a half percent) transporter bindings. A decrease in these bindings causes the brain to be flooded with these neurotransmitters. Think of the brain being soaked in feel-good hormones. Dopamine mediates cognition, movement, and emotion. Serotonin, on the other hand, regulates mood.

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Participants reported feeling happier and healthier after morning mass and an afternoon of silent contemplation. Researchers saw a marked improvement in perceived physical health, fatigue, and tension. Feelings of self-transcendence were also noted. Scientists have linked this emotion to changes in dopamine binding.

“In some ways, our study raises more questions than it answers,” concludes Dr. Newberg. He suggests further research is necessary in order to determine how retreats impact neurotransmitter systems. “Our team is curious about which aspects of the retreat caused the changes in the neurotransmitter systems and if different retreats would produce different results.”

Depression: The silent disease

This study has many implications, particularly when it comes to treatment of mental diseases, such as depression. This illness, which affects around 15 million Americans, is the leading cause of disability in the United States. Mental health experts say that this number may be even higher due to the fact that social stigma and ignorance of the disease lead a large number of cases going unreported. Depression, combined with all other known anxiety disorders, costs the U.S. around $42 billion a year.

Depression is also the leading factor in suicide. According to the latest World Health Organization (WHO) statistics, a life is lost to suicide every 40 seconds worldwide. Over one million people commit suicide each year. Sadly, mental health groups say that the global rates of suicide have increased by 60 percent in the last 45 years. Close to two percent of worldwide deaths are suicides. These incidents can be prevented, they say, if the depression that provokes it is treated.

Treatment for this mental condition usually follows a biopsychosocial approach. Patients are typically recommended a combination of prescription medicine and psychological therapy. The goal is to regulate the brain chemistry in order to make talk therapy more effective. Nevertheless, antidepressants have been studied to have various side-effects. Some of these include language disorders in children and an increased risk of dementia in the elderly. (Related: Antidepressants burden users with extreme side-effects.)

Antidepressants work by inhibiting the reuptake of dopamine and serotonin. As a result, these hormones stay longer in the brain, improving mood and concentration. It has been studied that depression is effectively treated once brain chemistry is balanced.

Perhaps, instead of overprescribing harmful medication, doctors should look into more natural methods of treating mental health issues. If the results of this study show us anything, it’s that sometimes, a relaxing, refreshing break from the stresses of life could be all the brain needs to reset itself.

Read Mind.news for more reporting on the healing power of the mind.

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