Beyond Pleasure: The Health Benefits of Reading

If you’re already a lover of books, you don’t really need much else to motivate you to read. But if you’re starting to read less because you are getting more distracted online, or your life is getting too hectic, or for any other reason, there are benefits of reading that go beyond pleasure and knowledge that might inspire you to grab that book that’s been sitting on your shelf for a while.

But first, some interesting statistics to see where you fit in exactly, because what you read, how much you read, and what you use to read (print books vs. electronic devices) has a lot to do with demographics.

In the US, 92% of those who graduated college report reading for pleasure, while only 56% of those who did not finish high school report reading for pleasure. Men tend to read more for work or for school, while more women tend to read for pleasure – though both sexes tend to read more in order to research information for a topic that interests them. And generally, more women read books than men.

Age is another important factor in what you read, and the younger you are, the more you read for pleasure, and this may surprise you, millennials are not to blame for the drop in book reading over the years. They seem to be reading more than older adults. One in four adults did not read a book last year, though the other three that reported reading may have either read an entire book or only a part.

So, where do you fit in? Take a moment to reflect on your reading habits. How many books did you read last year? What types of books do you read? Do you read print books or e-books? Do you prefer audiobooks?

You might already know many benefits of reading, as you have experienced them first hand. You may have noticed that reading relaxes you, helps you go to sleep, and helps lift your mood. Most of us experience these benefits of reading, and science has backed them up and studied a few more that you might not be aware of.

A 2009 Sussex University study revealed that reading can help reduce stress by up to 68%. And in today’s fast-paced world, anything that can help you reduce stress is welcome. This is especially useful for your adrenal glands and your NeuroEndoMetabolic (NEM) Stress Response, which need all the support you can give them, as they tend to be overworked in order to deal with the constant stress of modern living.

Being able to wind down and be transported to another world to escape your daily stresses for a short while can give your body and mind the break they need to repair and rejuvenate. And reading self-help books can give you some wonderful tools to help you deal with the problems weighing on you.

Stress-Reducing Benefits of Reading

Adrenal Fatigue Syndrome (AFS) is a condition that arises when your adrenals are pressured to secrete more and more cortisol, your body’s main anti-stress hormone, in order to deal with chronic stress, whether physical or mental in nature. The adrenal glands are part of your NEM’s hormonal response, but they are connected to the other five NEM circuits: the bioenergetics, cardionomic, neuroaffect, inflammation, and detoxification responses.

In the beginning stages of AFS, your cortisol levels are higher than normal. Though cortisol is necessary for many functions, if it is present in the body in higher levels on a consistent basis, it has negative effects, including faster aging, brain fog, memory loss, fatigue, weight gain, sleep disturbances, anxiety, mild depression, food and drug sensitivities, hair loss, and lowered immunity. Though in the early stages of AFS you probably won’t experience all of these symptoms, you may feel more tired than usual and a little “off.”

In the later stages of AFS, when your adrenals are so exhausted they can’t produce enough cortisol to deal with the stress anymore, these symptoms come out more strongly, along with other symptoms like reactive hypoglycemia, panic attacks, heart palpitations, severe fatigue, an inability to handle any stress, constantly feeling “wired and tired“, and even infertility. You may end up having such low energy levels that you can’t function anymore.

And as your adrenals weaken, the rest of your NEM dysregulates as well, causing issues with inflammation, slowed detoxification, disruptions in the cardiovascular and nervous systems, and many others.

Stress reduction is the first and most crucial step in recovering from this debilitating, yet common, state. Reading for pleasure or listening to self-help audiobooks has been shown to not only reduce stress, but also help with depression, anxiety, brain fog, and memory loss.

Getting enough rest and sleep is another important step in AFS recovery, as you need to give your adrenals and NEM as much time to repair as possible. Reading before bed can help create a ritual that trains your mind to wind down at a specific time each night, and signals to your body that it is bedtime.

But this has to be a print book, not one you read on an electronic device, as the blue light from electronic devices can suppress the secretion of melatonin, the chemical that helps you sleep. It might also be better to choose a book that’s not too exciting, or a book that you need to pay a lot of attention to (such as for work or school).

Amazingly, just as books can help you sleep, they can also help bring your brain cells to life.

Once upon a time, scientists thought that after a certain age, your brain stops developing. But thankfully, science is now discovering that your brain is still capable of neuroplasticity, which is the formation of new neural pathways, and neurogenesis, which is the creation of new neurons, well into adulthood and even old age.

This also is great news for those with neurodegenerative diseases, brain damage, and even those suffering from mental health issues and trauma.

A few different exercises can help increase neuroplasticity and neurogenesis, and those include daily physical activity, eating antioxidant-rich foods and foods that contain flavonoids, meditation, fasting, learning something new (such as a musical instrument or some other skill), creative play, making art, getting enough sleep, using your non-dominant hand, mnemonics, reading, learning a new language, and expanding your vocabulary.

You can actually cover many of the above, all in one. Reading helps expand your vocabulary, and the more you are exposed to new words, the more you will begin to utilize them. Reading in a new language puts this process on steroids. Reading in order to learn a new skill is another version of this neuroplasticity and neurogenesis enhancing process. And since reading can help you get good sleep, that gives your brain even more of a chance to develop.

As you read, you need to utilize your memory. Think of your brain, memory, and focus like muscles: exercising them strengthens them. Studies have shown that reading regularly can inhibit mental decline by up to 32%. And one of the most powerful benefits of reading daily is that it can decrease the likelihood of developing Alzheimer’s disease by two and a half times.

Some studies have shown that most people will work, chat to someone, and check their email and social media all within five minutes. This actually trains your brain to become a distraction machine. But you can use books to counteract this very real modern-world problem. As you read a book, sit in a quiet corner and leave your phone on silent and your computer switched off. This will help improve your focus and also help decrease stress. Try this with 10 minutes at first, then work your way up to half an hour to an hour a day.

As you grow your ability to focus, your general productivity levels will rise, making you one of the rare few that can do what the author and computer scientist Cal Newport calls “deep work.” This not only increases your value at work, it will also increase your self-confidence, your financial prospects, and your overall work and life satisfaction.

One of the not yet fully understood benefits of reading is that it also seems to increase longevity. Research by Becca R. Levy, the epidemiology professor at Yale University of Public Health, and a few of her colleagues, that looked into data from the Health and Retirement Study of 3,635 adults seems to reach this conclusion.

These research subjects were followed up for around 12 years to document their reading habits and their survival rates, the results showed a correlation between reading and increased survival. Those in the group that read books for around 3.5 hours a week had a 17% decrease in mortality rates as compared to those that didn’t read at all, while those that read more than 3.5 hours a week had a 23% decrease in mortality rate.

This means that one of the benefits of reading in this study was a two-year increase in lifespan. And since reading reduces stress and increases mental health and well-being, those two extra years were probably also more satisfying than average.

So why not try and see for yourself? Reap the many benefits of reading and pick up a book. Your brain, nervous system, adrenal glands, and NEM stress response will flourish for it.

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