Meditation is for everyone. It’s not about becoming someone different. It’s about training your awareness and getting a healthier perspective. It’s now practiced by CEOs and companies to increase focus and decision-making, and decrease stress and feelings of fear. Meditation is the practice of sitting and either focusing on your breath, a mantra, or perhaps on a particular feeling you would like to cultivate, such as loving kindness. While the practice has been around for millennia, meditation has recently emerged as a popular approach to improving physical and mental wellbeing. Whether it’s used at a yoga studio, in a boardroom, or done at home, meditation is proving to have wide appeal due to its calming nature. And now the science is weighing in. What ancient practitioners knew all along, modern science is now beginning to demonstrate. It helps train your attention and awareness and achieve mental clarity, while also calming and stabilizing the mind. Let’s look at a few of the benefits in greater detail below:
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.
Doctors are prescribing meditation for patients with high blood pressure to assist in the reduction in the need for common blood pressure medications. In one study, 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, as well as a shrinking of the amygdala. 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. Additionally, the amygdala shrank, which may explain why meditation decreases anxiety and creates more calm.
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 in PLOS ONE by a team of researchers 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.
In short, meditation allows the mind and the body to integrate into a more grounded and rested state of being quite effortlessly. What’s most important is that we take time to meditate. Set this time aside for yourself...every day, maybe even twice a day. Attend a meditation class at Firefly Yoga Center or schedule a session at home... we have no problem making so many other appointments with so many other people. Schedule this time for you. Literally add it to your date book, set an alarm as a reminder, whatever it takes. You are worthy of the time to rest and heal and develop that greater sense of self and you will be better for all of those around you for committing to that time. All of those stresses and things from our past and expectations of the future... they are no longer relevant to us in the here and now. Our body wants to get rid of all of that junk... we must provide it with the ability to.
Give meditation a try and start reaping the benefits today.