Gratitude Can Change Your Brain

How Gratitude Impacts Your Physical & Emotional Health

There is no question that gratitude is good for you.

And with Thanksgiving around the corner, I thought it might be good to explore how it really works to improve your health!

Now, you might be wondering why I’m talking about a topic like gratitude . . . Especially when most of what I share focuses on nutrition and physical well-being. 

But the truth is that when we work with clients we look at the whole person – lifestyle, nutrition, and emotional condition to create the best path to personal health.

And when it comes down to it, gratitude can have a big impact on how you feel and what you eat!

For years, we’ve been told that having a practice of gratitude is good for us; that it can reduce stress and help people with depression find relief. 

Psychologist Robert Emmons, PhD has even said that “Gratitude is the ultimate performance-enhancing substance. It drives positive outcomes in every domain of life that has been examined.”

And while there has been no question that focusing on things to be grateful for in our external world drives some pretty impressive internal benefits, the true impact of gratitude on the brain and body had been somewhat unknown.

UCLA’s Mindfulness Awareness Research Center has led the way in studying gratitude and mindfulness and its impact on the brain – they conducted a study which showed that:

Having an attitude of gratitude changes the molecular structure of the brain, keeps gray matter functioning, and makes us healthier and happier. When you feel happiness, the central nervous system is affected. You are more peaceful, less reactive and less resistant. 

In other words, when you start to focus on the things that bring you joy in your life, you’re able to use the body’s own central nervous system to help you feel less stressed and more joyful!

And more than just having a fleeting benefit, studies have further shown that having a gratitude practice of some kind can have a long-term impact on how the brain processes.

In 2017, researchers at Berkeley published a study that showed that participants who had engaged in a practice of writing letters of gratitude for over three months saw notable changes in their brain MRIs.

Specifically, researchers concluded that participants who learned to feel and express gratitude showed more neural sensitivity in the medial prefrontal cortex (the part associated with learning and decision-making) and that the effect could be seen three months after the practice had initially begun.

What this indicates is that having a practice of gratitude could impact your overall long-term health!

And this is good news because when it comes down to managing your health, it’s the little things like gratitude that make all the difference.

That is equally true when it comes to gratitude and eating healthy.

One thing I’ve noticed in my practice is that clients who have a gratitude practice also have more success when it comes to eating healthy foods.

Having a regular and consistent gratitude practice will allow you to reduce stress and other negative emotions such as guilt, depression and worry. Which in turn means that you’re less likely to engage in negative activities such as emotional or binge eating high fat or high sugar foods.

Studies have also confirmed that the people who have a practice of daily gratitude are more likely to notice hunger or satiety cues so that you are less likely to overeat or nosh on unhealthy foods.

Additionally, those who have added gratitude to their mindful eating practice have found that they are able to eat slower and enjoy the various tastes of food in more positive ways – which ultimately leads to making smarter choices at every meal, at the grocery store and in menu planning overall!

So, now that you know that gratitude can truly impact your health overall, you might be wondering how to best begin a practice of gratitude.

Luckily, there is no one right way.

When it comes to starting a practice of gratitude, I often recommend making it simple, but intentional.

You can start off by beginning each day and ending each night looking for at least three new things to be grateful for in your life. The key isn’t to absent-mindedly list off things you’re grateful for, but to truly feel each one. 

For example, you may be grateful for your family, but in order to fully absorb the benefits of gratitude, you want to be specific. You might instead say something like this: Today I’m grateful that my children surprised me with breakfast and shared with me how they felt about me. 

By being specific, you ensure that gratitude doesn’t become another mindless activity in your life.

You also might want to mix things up a bit. 

By keeping gratitude fresh, you reinforce the fun nature of looking for things to be grateful for in your life.

Consider creating a gratitude jar and filling it with the “gratitude moments’ throughout your year. Or create a central place in your kitchen where all of your family members can write down one thing they feel grateful for each day.

The more you play, the greater your benefits will be!

And of course, when you have the opportunity to connect with family and friends, like you do on Thanksgiving, take the time to really soak in what you are grateful for when it comes to the people in your life. 

You’ll all be able to reap those benefits!

Share with me if you have a gratitude practice that has worked for you. We’ll feature your story on Instagram and share some of the top results there!

In good health, 

 

Meryl

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