Thanksgiving Day has arrived.  In the midst of the busyness surrounding the Thanksgiving holiday, it is important to remember to carve out time for expressing gratitude.  Practicing gratitude doesn’t cost any money, and it certainly doesn’t take much time, but the benefits are enormous.

More and more researchers are finding that gratitude doesn’t just make you feel like a better person, it’s actually good for your health.  “Clinical trials indicate that the practice of gratitude can have dramatic and lasting effects in a person’s life,” says Dr. Robert A. Emmons, professor of psychology at UC Davis.  “It can lower blood pressure, improve immune function, and facilitate more efficient sleep.”

One recent study from UC San Diego’s School of Medicine found that people who expressed gratitude had better heart health in terms of less inflammation and healthier heart rhythms. “They showed a better wellbeing, a less depressed mood, less fatigue, and they slept better,” said Dr. Paul J. Mills, the study’s author and professor of family medicine and public health at UC San Diego.

The UC San Diego study also revealed that individuals who kept a gratitude journal over an eight-week period showed reductions in circulating levels of several important inflammatory biomarkers, as well as an increase in heart rate variability when they wrote thankful thoughts.  “Improved heart rate variability is considered a measure of reduced cardiac risk,” said Dr. Mills.

Dr. Emmons agrees with the benefits of a gratitude journal.  “People who keep a gratitude journal have a reduced dietary fat intake—as much as 25 percent lower.  Stress hormones like cortisol are 23 percent lower in grateful people.  And having a daily gratitude practice could actually reduce the effects of aging to the brain.”

Another joint study from the University of Kentucky and University of Utah underscored that gratitude can boost the immune system.  Researchers observed that stressed-out law students, who characterized themselves as optimistic, actually had more disease-fighting cells in their bodies.

“Being thankful has such a profound effect because of the feelings that go along with it,” added Dr. Emmons. “Gratitude works because, as a way of perceiving and interpreting life, it recruits other positive emotions that have direct physical benefits, most likely through the immune system or endocrine system.”

Dr. Emmons’ research reveals that when we think about what we appreciate, the parasympathetic or calming part of the nervous system is triggered, giving protective benefits to our bodies, including decreasing cortisol levels and perhaps even increasing oxytocin—the bonding hormone that brings along positive feelings in relationships.

Being grateful is proven to improve heart health and boost the immune system, but it also has important benefits to your overall health and wellbeing.  An analysis of 1,000 Swiss adults published in the journal Personality and Individual Differencesfound that higher levels of dispositional gratitude were correlated with better self-reported physical health.

The people who felt more gratitude had a notable willingness to participate in healthy behaviors, stay away from unhealthy behaviors, and seek help for their health-related concerns. Other research has suggested that people who are grateful are more likely to engage in physical activity.

As the Thanksgiving holiday comes and goes, remember the daily expression of gratitude doesn’t have to stop. Surround yourself with visual reminders of life’s blessings, keep a gratitude journal, remember people who do good things and thank them by a written note or phone call, and stay positive even when trying times come along.

Kandy Childress is the executive director of Healthy Kingsport.  She can be reached at kchildress@healthykingsport.org.

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