Effect of MBSR on Biological Stress Markers

Stress is normal for humans acts as a life motivation factor, and is necessary for survival. Nonetheless, excessive stress can lead to illness. 77% of the population in the USA regularly experiences stress symptoms (Jørgensen et al., 2021). Excessive stress is caused by anxiety and depression and often is the leading to other factors such as chronic conditions and suicides. The interpretation by the brain of stressors affects psychological and physiological responses. Excessive stress significantly increases stress hormones and cortisol levels that deregulate biological pathways in the body, mainly affecting neurological, metabolic, cardiac, and immune systems (Reive, 2019). The high cortisol levels in the brain negatively affect cognition, sleep, and memory. Hence, the increased stress has led to an increased investigation of treatment measures for stress-related dysfunctions. Mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) is one of the significant treatment measures in the contemporary world with considerable support due to its efficiency in diverse areas of mental healthcare. The paper identifies MBSR’s influence on biological markers such as inflammatory, immune, neurological, and endocrine.

The MBSR program was developed in the late 1970s to scientifically document the effects and symptoms of anxiety, depression, stress, and life quality (Ștefan, 2018). The program has increased in popularity in basic emotion research, clinical science, and cognitive-affecting neuroscience in treating anxiety by allowing acceptance, non-judgmental experience, and a present moment self-insight. Recent studies support the program’s efficacy for psychiatric disorders compared to other treatments such as counseling and behavior therapy (Ștefan, 2018). In most cases, the program involves eight weeks of sessions, each being 2 hours of mindfulness mediation, yoga, body scanning, daily home practice, and a 6-hour retreat (Reive, 2019). The formal side of the program involves breath-focused attention, shifting attention, walking, and eating meditation. Here, the patients’ awareness of senses, thoughts, and reactions opens. The program illustrates decreased physical symptoms of fatigue, pain, and sleep improvement (Reive, 2019). Historically, mindfulness has been measured through a self-reported scale. Nonetheless, biological measurement has been used separately with self-reports to further MBSR outcomes.


Immune Markers

An increase in stress is positively correlated with immune suppression. Mindful mediation represents a pathway in which MBSR can prevent negative neuroendocrine-immune and behavior effects associated with chronic stress by relaxation and shift in the cognitive domain. The significant aspects of MBSR that influences immune markers are focused attention and equanimity. For equanimity, individuals’ decreased reactivity to stressful stimuli and focused attention minimize the tendency toward ruminative thinking (Pascoe et al., 2019). The relaxations have multiple influences, including enhancing vagal tone and suppressing pro-inflammatory cytokine activities. Recent research on the association between MSBR and the immune system indicates scale support for the protection and recovery model (Reive, 2019).           Individuals with positive emotions have increased prefrontal activation compared to those with negative emotions. Those who undertake the MSBR program for more than eight weeks demonstrate increased immune cell telomerase activity, preventing immune cell deaths (Reive, 2019). Suppressed telomerase increases stress perception, while increased telomerase leads to decreased LDL cholesterol and epinephrine. In a study, natural killer cell activity (NKCA) in newly-stage breast cancer was higher for patients undergoing MSBR than in the free-control group. Optimal immune functioning is likely to enhance disease prevention and fight against existing ones. Individuals with chronic conditions such as cancer, arthritis, and diabetes are at a higher risk of increased stress and immune deregulation. A recent study indicates MSBR buffers the CD4+ T cell counts in HIV patients on antiretroviral medication compared to those in a control group (Cohen et al., 2021). Hence, MBSR is imperative, especially in today’s highly stressful environment amplified by chronic illness.

Inflammatory markers

In a study evaluating the effect of MBSR intervention for cancerous patients on the stress hormone and pro-inflammatory cytokine IL-6, the results indicated physiological changes during the sessions (Lengacher, 2019). The program significantly reduces cytokine levels of IL-6 (cytokine measure of immune function) and cortisol (salivary levels). While both cortisol and Il-6 have minimal correlation with perceived stress,  they can affect the patients’ quality of life. The research indicates that cortisol levels for breast cancer survivors reduced immediately following MBSR than before undertaking the sessions. Hence, research supports the MBSR program in reducing salivary cortisol and Il-6 (Lengacher, 2019). In addition, other studies support C-reactive proteins reduction after the program session for lonely senior citizens compared to the waitlist control method (Reive, 2019). These patients were at risk of chronic conditions such as cardiovascular diseases and breast cancer. The nuclear factor Kappa (NF-Kb) factor was also reduced for the older adult. Hence, the MSBR effect for inflammatory markers is significantly supported by lowering cortisol, CRP, and NF-Kb.

Endocrine Markers

The endocrine system comprises several glands, including the hypothalamus, pituitary, and pineal (Cohen et al., 2021). These hormones regulate various body functions and are essential in managing stress. While stress is a standard feature for everyone at a certain point, persistent stress can eventually lead to disease and mental illnesses. The central nervous system majorly regulates the stress response by dividing the autonomous nervous system and neuro-humoral factors, including the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis (Hoge, 2018). MBSR influences HPA  axis stress hormone levels related to improving mental health and wellbeing. In research involving two months of MBSR mindfulness, the patients under study anxiety and depression significantly reduced, indicating adequate hormonal parameter regulations (Cohen et al., 2021). In a different study involving 59 patients with early-stage prostate or breast cancer, MBSR decreased systolic blood, cortisol levels,  stress, and mood disruptors (Proeve & Kenny, 2018).

In randomized controlled trials, an adult women population illustrated reduced fasting glucose after 16 weeks of MBSR. The lower fasting glucose resulted from mindfulness which encourages exercise and diet adherence as suggested by the program (Hoge, 2018). The evidence suggests a link between endocrine systems and interconnected stress-regulating systems such as the HPA axis, hypothalamic-pituitary-thyroid (HPT), and renin-angiotensin-aldosterone (RAA) systems. Comprehending the interrelation between the endocrine system and MBSR will lead to the identification of personalized meditation practices beneficial to the health and wellbeing of various populations (Reive, 2019). With advancements in medical knowledge, the prime consideration of chronic stress will be given to conducting and reporting vigorously controlled trials for optimal mental health status.

Neurological Markers

Cognitive dysfunction is a typical trait arising from chronic stress. Stressors increase cognitive impairment in memory and slow information processing speed, executive functions, and verbal fluency, among others (Pascoe et al., 2019, Cohen et al., 2021). These symptoms differ for individuals depending on diseases, age, and profession. Convectional treatment measures for cognitive dysfunction have proved insufficient, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) and waitlist. An experimental approach such as MBSR can offer a promising choice in treating neurological functioning. Neural systems are modifiable networks that change their structures through training. While MBSR has been shown to reduce stress, anxiety, and depression, research indicates it can also positively influence the brain (Jørgensen et al., 2021). While still in infancy, MBSR causes neurobiological changes related to mindfulness meditation. Notably, MBSR causes an increase inactivation of the prefrontal cortex (PFC) and anterior cingulate cortex (ACC). Increased PFC allows individuals to engage in more equilibrium mind-body interactions that minimize emotional reactivity to negative emotion or physical pain.

Furthermore, the PFC increased functional connectedness with other salient networks, a necessary function for integrating cognition and action. A study by Psychiatry Research found that an 8-week MBSR program increases the cortical thickness of the hippocampus (brain part responsible for memory and emotions regulations). Furthermore, the program decreases the volume of the amygdala (‘fight or flight’ brain part) (Proeve & Kenny, 2018). In a different study by Reive (2019), studying the MSBR effect on cognition, emotion, and immunity in senior citizens, the results indicate increased leftward EEG that maintains positive emotion and behaviorism activation; compared to waitlist control that leads to a rightward shift related to negative emotion and behavioral avoidance. MSBR positively affects neurological markers through improved sensory interpretation, minimized reactivity, and a positive attitude towards stressors (Reive, 2019). The program influences both the brain structure and how individuals feel.

In sum, MBSR positively influences biological stress markers. Excessive and chronic stress increases physical and mental illness and increases anxiety, depression, and high mortality rates. While significant treatment measures for cognitive dysfunction such as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) and waitlist are helpful, they have proved insufficient, leading to more advocacies for mindfulness-based efforts such as MBSR. MBSR positively affects biological stress markers, including inflammatory, immune, neurological, and endocrine markers, improving the health and wellbeing of the patients. As indicated, MBSR reduces salivary cortisol and Il-6 in inflammatory markers, decreases systolic blood, cortisol levels, and stress for endocrine markers, enhance disease prevention and fight against existing condition for immune markers, and causes neurobiological changes related to mindfulness meditation such as prefrontal cortex (PFC) and anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) activation. Through MBSR techniques, the brain functions for perception, memory, and response will improve, leading to stress reactivity. The modified reaction will improve immune, inflammatory, neural, and endocrine responses.

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Hoge, E. A., Bui, E., Palitz, S. A., Schwarz, N. R., Owens, M. E., Johnston, J. M., … & Simon, N. M. (2018). The effect of mindfulness meditation training on biological acute stress responses in generalized anxiety disorder. Psychiatry Research262, 328-332.