Meditation is the practice of sitting still and breathing in a controlled manner for extended periods of time. While the practice has been around for a millennia, meditation has recently emerged as a popular approach to regulating both physical and mental wellbeing. Whether it’s used as a cool down in trendy yoga studios or to brainstorm in Silicon Valley boardrooms, meditation is proving to have wide appeal due to its calming nature. And now the science is weighing in. What ancient practitioners probably intuitively knew all along, modern science is now beginning to demonstrate. Meditation has a real impact on your health…
1. Stress Reduction
Perhaps the biggest impact that meditation has on our health has to do with counteracting the debilitating and wide-ranging effects of stress. A medical consensus has emerged over the past decade that chronic stress causes all sorts of problems including higher blood pressure, decreased immunity, and impaired cognitive functions. When you feel stressed, your body releases the “stress hormone,” cortisol. Elevated levels of cortisol in your system is a problem on various levels and finding a way to reduce that level could help prevent a number of health issues from developing down the road. This is where meditation comes into play.
According to a 2013 study by the journal Health Psychology, the practice of meditation was shown to have an impact on the reduction of cortisol. The study followed its subjects for 3-months during a meditation retreat where they were trained in mindfulness, controlled breathing, and other meditative practices. Their cortisol levels were measured before and after the 3-month retreat and the researchers found that the cortisol level tended to trend downward for the participants.
2. Lower Blood Pressure
Once stress is reduced, then you can begin to analyze more specific effects of meditation on your health. The first area to take a look at is blood pressure. Meditation can help normalize blood pressure because of what’s called the “relaxation response,” which helps produce more of the compound nitric oxide. Nitric oxide helps blood vessels open up which then helps reduce blood pressure.
Dr. Randy Zusman of Massachusetts General Hospital explained to NPR how prescribing meditation for patents with high blood pressure could lead to a reduction in need for common blood pressure medication. Once patients were trained to meditate in order to achieve the relaxation response, the results were very encouraging. According to Zusman, over 60 percent of patients found that the relaxation response worked to lower their blood pressure to the point that they could stop taking some of their medication.
3. Increased Immunity
A vigorous immune system is obviously crucial to living a healthy life, which is why we do all kinds of things to boost it, like taking vitamin C and drinking Echinacea tea. A number of recent studies have shown that meditation can also play an integral role in maintaining and even strengthening your immune system. According to researchers at the Infanta Cristina Hospital in Spain, meditation, specifically Transcendental Meditation (one of the various schools of meditation), was shown to increase the level of cells in our blood that fight off viruses and bacteria. These cells, specifically subsets of leukocytes and lymphocytes, were found in higher levels of those who practiced medication versus those who did not.
Another study done at the University of California, Los Angeles, found that meditation in older adults could prevent the expression of a certain group of genes that activate inflammation. New studies are coming out on a regular basis probing the positive impact that meditation has on the complex immune system.
4. Brain Development
Perhaps one of the most exciting areas of meditation research is the brain. A slew of studies have come out linking meditation with an increase in cortical thickness, an increase in grey matter in both the hippocampus and frontal areas, and an overall increase in brain volume. With medical imaging technology, researchers can actually watch what meditation does to the brain in real time and over an extended period of time.
Take for instance a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science by a team at the University of Oregon. These researchers used diffusion tensor imaging to map how meditation changes the structure of the brain. They found that with as little as two weeks of regular meditation, the brain begins to build axonal density, which means a greater number of signaling connections. After a month of meditation, the number of signaling connections continued to increase, while an increase in myelin (a protective tissue around the axons) also began to increase.
5. Irritable Bowel Syndrome
Meditation is also linked to what goes on in your gut. This is especially important for the 10 to 15 percent of the population that suffers from Irritable Bowel Syndrome, a disorder that effects women in disproportionate numbers compared to men. Specifically, utilizing mindfulness meditation can help women reduce the severity of IBS symptoms, which include chronic abdominal pain along with irregular bowel habits.
A 2011 study published in the American Journal of Gastroenterology shows that an 8-week program of meditation targets the mental problems linked to IBS, such as anxiety, stress, and depression, and helped to reduce the severity of the IBS symptoms compared to a control group who did not participate in the meditation program. A 3-month follow up was done, which showed that the positive impact of meditation continued beyond the initial 8-week training. Another study published this year in PLOS ONE by a team of researcher associated with Harvard University confirmed the positive impact that meditation can have on IBS and also linked meditation to the alleviation of Inflammatory Bowel Disorder, a chronic condition associated with Crohn’s Disease.