As the Christian world immerses itself, or soon will, into the sacred season of Lent or Great Fast, I am fascinated by how science is suddenly catching up to this age-old tradition.
Even if religion is not your thing—but caring for yourself is— you may wish to grab a page or two from this 40-day period of preparation leading up to the celebration of Easter, and some of the spiritual disciplines that rest at its foundation: silence and solitude, prayer and meditation, and fasting.
SINKING INTO SILENCE AND SOLITUDE
It was customary, in the early Christian church, for the holy monks to retreat into the desert for the duration of Lent for some serious “alone time”.
Maybe going forty days without seeing or talking to even one other person is “not your thing” either, but carving out some time each day for solitude and silence is a practice worth pursuing for the purpose of one’s physical and mental health.
In addition to spiritual growth, solitude is associated with increased empathy, productivity, and creativity. It makes me wonder: have we missed an opportunity with the COVID social-distancing and isolation mandates to embrace silence and solitude? Zoom—and the consequential zoom fatigue (yes, it’s a real thing) — has probably not done us any favours in that regard.
Excessive noise has been linked to increases in type 2 diabetes, arterial hypertension, myocardial infarction, stroke, and certain types of cancer.
On the other hand, research by Duke University has shown that silence can actually grow our brains. Two hours of silence per day was responsible for renewing cells in the hippocampus, the region of the brain associated with memory, emotion, and learning. Who wouldn’t want a piece of that!
If silence for two solid hours is out of the question, consider that even two minutes has the ability to lower cortisol and adrenaline, hormones that, in excess, have been known to contribute to disease.
Most of us live in a noisy world with bings and pings going off continuously. Something as simple as starting the first hour of our day without looking at our phones, and turning off the notification sounds, can be our first step into the “desert”.
MEDITATION AND PRAYER
Neuroscientist Andrew B. Newberg, MD has devoted his life to the study of the links among spirituality, contemplative practices, and brain function—and their potential impacts on people’s health.
Using a brain-imaging technology called single photon emission computed tomography (SPECT), which measures blood flow, his research was able to determine how prayer and meditation makes for a thicker frontal lobe in our brain, which in turn helps to improve memory and our ability to focus. These practices have been shown to reduce symptoms associated with stress, depression and anxiety.
Meditation has been found to favourably affect blood pressure, to reduce heart rate, to alter levels of melatonin and serotonin, to boost the immune response, to decrease the levels of reactive oxygen species (free radicals), to reduce stress and promote positive mood states, and to reduce anxiety and pain.
Tuning into ourselves – our bodies and our breath, being fully present to the moment, and drawing our awareness to something greater than ourselves, is a rudimentary form of prayer and meditation.
Depending on the religious denomination, different fasting rules may apply. Some have adopted the practice of limiting food intake to one meal per day.
Turns out, it’s not a bad idea from a health standpoint, particularly when it comes to obesity (64% of Canadians) and type 2 diabetes or pre-diabetes (one in three Canadians).
Dr. Jason Fung, in his book The Diabetes Code, cites example after example of how type 2 diabetes is fully reversible and preventable by integrating 30 or 36-hour fasting periods with a whole foods, reduced-sugar diet.
When I read that I thought, “Yeah, right. Good luck getting clients to comply with that!” Fortunately, some of my colleagues and I have found much success even with shorter fasts of 18 hours. This can mean finishing your last meal of the day at 7:00 p.m. and abstaining from all food until 1:00 p.m. the next day. It's doable. No snacking.
For Christians observing Lent, it is a time for significant purification of spirit. Still, the body is where the spirit lives. Sometimes we need to begin there.
Dr. Jason Fung. The Diabetes Code: Prevent and Reverse Type 2 Diabetes Naturally. (Greystone Books Ltd., 2018)
Marian Pidwerbeski. 21st-Century Guide to Living Cancer-Free Naturally: Six Proven Practices to Activate the Doctor Within for SUPER Natural Health. (Well-derness Press, 2020)