Could practicing gratitude have health benefits?

Her family, her children and her future are just a few things Jackson Township resident Christina Lebron is grateful for. She’s jotting it all down in a gratitude journal.

“I feel that gratitude is emerging as one of the most exciting new fields to come up in medicine,” said Dr. David Leopold, medical director of integrative health and medicine at Hackensack Meridian Health. “I really think that the more we learn about it, the more it will become analogous to things like exercise, nutrition; essentially the health benefits may be endless because it’s changing our physiology, and it’s doing it in a positive way.”

Leopold, who specializes in integrative medicine, encourages all his patients to be mindful and grateful because of the health benefits associated with it.

“The interesting thing about gratitude is that we’re finding it activates what’s called the parasympathetic nervous system, big word, but basically we have different ways we react to situations. Everybody knows fight or flight, so parasympathetic is the other side. That’s what keeps our body relaxed and functioning. Well what we’re learning is that it seems like the practice of gratitude actually puts us into a parasympathetic state, so when we are in a parasympathetic state, our cortisol levels go down, and oxytocin levels go up — so oxytocin is that feel-good hormone,” said Leopold.

That can result in things like lower blood pressure, decreased anxiety and inflammation, better sleep, a stronger immune system and more, which is why Leopold calls journaling real medicine.

“One of the things that happens with positive emotions is that they don’t stick in our brain very well. Our brain is very good at holding onto negative type of emotions but it’s not as good at holding onto the positive, so journaling is a way of putting pen to paper. And it seems like the actual act of writing is very important because it forces the body to recall and focus in a way that makes it become more permanent in our memory,” said Leopold.

LeBron says she’s grateful the doctor suggested a gratitude journal. Jotting down her thoughts inspired her to write a book, something she’s now also thankful for.

“I think that it really put a lot of things into perspective for me, that it made me really have a better outlook and a better feeling on different things I was facing in my life to keep it in the forefront, to acknowledge it and not to forget because it really did make me feel better overall,” said Lebron.

So what if you’re having trouble writing a gratitude journal? The doctor says it actually doesn’t matter what it is that you’re grateful for, it could be the fact that you’re breathing, the sunshine or birds outside your window. That mindset gets your brain moving in a different direction, and over time, you are essentially training your brain to become thankful. He also recommends that families use mealtimes as an opportunity to share positive experiences and moments together.

And what better meal to start the tradition than Thanksgiving?