A growing body of research evidence is supporting the claim that meditation is good for our health. With benefits ranging from fewer colds to pain management, meditation seems to allow people to cultivate a sense of clarity and calm that can permeate all aspects of life and that improves with practice.
Here are some of the many beneficial effects that scientists have identified in studies:
- Stronger immune system. Meditators experienced fewer winter colds and flus (Barrett et al. 2012) and produced more antibodies in response to a flu vaccine (Davidson et al. 2003) than those who did not meditate.
- Enhanced attention. After 3 months of meditation training, subjects had better attention and used their resources more efficiently (Slagter et al. 2007).
- Lower blood pressure and reduced risk of heart disease. Transcendental meditation lowered blood pressure among African Americans with heart disease and was associated with a 43% reduction in risk of death, heart attack and stroke (Schneider et al. 2009).
- Less anxiety and depression. A research review found that both Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction and Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy had broad applications for people with depression and anxiety (Marchand 2012).
- Increased feelings of compassion and empathy. Mindfulness training helped to increase self-compassion and empathy in people with mood disorders (Farb, Anderson & Segal 2012).
- Fewer binge episodes. A group of women who practiced mindfulness meditation for 6 weeks cut their binge eating episodes by half after experiencing meditation (Kristiller & Hallett 1999).
- Lower blood sugar. Patients with metabolic syndrome lowered blood pressure and blood sugar and improved insulin regulation after practicing transcendental meditation for 16 weeks (Paul-Labrador et al. 2006).
- Improved sleep. A literature review found that consistent meditators using a variety of meditation styles experienced better sleep quality than people who did not meditate (Nagendra, Maruthai & Kutty 2012).
- Better pain management. The same literature review showed that both Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction and Zen meditation helped people with pain management (Nagendra, Maruthai & Kutty 2012). In another study, expert meditators experienced the same intensity of pain as novices, but felt less unpleasantness (Lutz et al. 2012).
Changes in the Brain
Researchers are using modern technology to explore how meditation is able to provide these (and other) benefits. Findings confirm that meditation practice creates structural changes in the brain, which is significant, because neuroscientists used to think the brain’s development reached a peak in adulthood and then declined with age. Research is now showing that how we use the brain impacts its development and function (just as how we use the body affects its health and function).
The structural changes in the brain that occur with meditation are associated with improved functionality: enhanced concentration, better ability to learn and remember, more ability to tolerate pain and less emotional reactivity toward external stimuli. In multiple studies, people who meditate have better attention, concentration, emotion regulation, pain tolerance and memory than those who do not.
Note: See www.ideafit.com/meditation-brain for specific research findings on how meditation changes the brain.
The Fountain of Youth?
New lines of research show that meditation may lead to biological changes that decrease the inflammation response of the immune system on a cellular level and can contribute to looking and feeling younger. Two separate studies of meditation, one involving the practice of a Kirtan Kriya meditation from kundalini yoga and the other involving qigong practice, a moving meditation, both identified improved telomerase activity, which is linked to cellular health (Black et al. 2012; Ho et al. 2012).
“Telomerase is an important enzyme that protects us from aging by guarding the shortening of telomeres during cell division,” said study author Rainbow T. Ho, director of the Centre on Behavioral Health at the University of Hong Kong. This reduction in inflammation may be related to optimizing health and slowing damage from the aging process.
For more information on meditation, plus a full list of references, please see “Meditation: Push-Ups for the Brain” in the online IDEA Library or in the January 2013 issue of IDEA Fitness Journal.