The Health Benefits of Meditation
Meditation has a pretty mysterious reputation, doesn’t it? Many people swear by it, many others simply see it as a ‘fad’, as the latest next big thing in health and wellbeing. But how can something that’s been around for thousands of years be a fad? There must be more to it than that – it wouldn’t have been practiced for centuries otherwise.
Here at Maitri we’re firm believers in meditation, especially as part of a wider, more holistic approach to health and wellbeing. In this post, we’re going to explore the health benefits of meditation. Some you’ve probably heard about before, others might surprise you.
First of all, there are broadly four areas that we’re going to be focusing on. There are thought to be benefits of meditation outside of these four, but this is where our focus will lie for now.
The first is Brain and Mood. We’ll be taking a closer look at how meditation can literally change your brain, as well as how it’s been proven to improve mood and even combat mood disorders such as anxiety and depression.
Our second focus will be Cognitive Performance. In many ways, this leads on from how meditation can physically change the makeup of our brains. But it’s also about more than that, about how meditation can improve memory, mental abilities, decision-making and even resistance to pain. Interesting.
Third will be Physiological Health. In this section we will look at the indirect effects of meditation: How regular sessions can impact the immune system, reduce high blood pressure and lessen the risks of heart disease, among other things.
Finally, we will delve into the link between meditation and the really important things in life. What benefits have been proven between meditation, spirituality and relationships? Read on to find out more.
Brain & Mood
We’ll start with mood. To understand exactly how meditation has the power to influence your mood for the long term, it’s important to get a few things first. To begin with, the whole point of meditation is to instil a sense of calm, a sense of quiet stillness in both mind and body.
It’s easy to see how once that state has been achieved – especially if it’s achieved on a regular basis – the mental and physiological results of stress could be reduced on a momentary and a long term basis.
But the impact of meditation goes deeper than that. Many studies have concluded that meditation is a powerful weapon in the fight against depression and anxiety.
For example, a study conducted across schools in Belgium, found that “students who follow an in-class mindfulness program report reduced indications of depression, anxiety and stress up to six months later. Moreover, these students were less likely to develop pronounced depression-like symptoms.”
Plenty of research also suggests that mindfulness meditation may be effective to treat depression to “a similar degree as antidepressant drug therapy”.
People in all walks of life suffer from depression. One common occurrence is women during pregnancy. Studies suggest that meditation, when combined with yoga, helps to treat depression in mothers to be.
But the power of meditation goes beyond changing the way we think and feel about things. It’s also been proven to physically change the makeup of our brains. Take a second to consider the evidence from the following study:
Researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison found that the practice of “Open Monitoring Meditation” reduces the grey-matter density in areas of the brain related with anxiety and stress. Meditators were more able to “attend moment-to-moment to the stream of stimuli to which they are exposed and less likely to ‘get stuck’ on any one stimulus.”
Whichever way you look at it, this is pretty remarkable. Certain kinds of meditation have been proven to physically alter the grey matter in our brains.
A separate study from Harvard backs up this idea. In it, a team of Harvard neuroscientists conducted an experiment in which 16 people took part in an eight-week mindfulness course. Having taken regular guided meditations and incorporated mindfulness techniques into everyday activities, participants’ MRI scans after the course showed an increased grey matter concentration in areas of the brain concerned with learning, memory, regulating emotions, sense of self and perspective.
Meditation as a sleep replacement?
Some research has also been done into whether or not those who meditate often need to sleep less. A study by scientists at the University of Kentucky found that long-term meditators often have a significant decrease in total sleep time, without any apparent loss of brain function.
This could be connected to the results of another study looking at Tibetan Buddhist monks, famed for spending hours every day in meditation. Richard Davidson of the University of Wisconsin found a parallel between meditation and gamma activity in the brain. Most monks showed extremely large increases of a sort that has never been reported before in the neuroscience literature.
“What we see are these high-amplitude gamma oscillations in the brain, which are indicative of plasticity”—meaning that those brains were more capable of change, for example, in theory, of becoming more resilient. – Richard Davidson of the University of Wisconsin.
When we think about meditation, it’s easy to focus on benefits to mood and psychological wellbeing. As if they weren’t enough, researchers have also been able to show that regular meditation actually makes us better people.
What exactly does this mean? Well, by ‘better people’ we mean smarter, mentally stronger and more intelligent, emotionally and intellectually.
For example, one study run by the University of California found that during and after meditation training, participants were better at keeping their concentration, especially when it came to repetitive and mindless tasks.
Another study demonstrated that even with only 20 minutes of meditation per day, students improved their performance on tests of cognitive skill. Interestingly, they performed better on tasks that were designed to induce stress.
But the benefits of meditation again go deeper than just processing. There’s also a direct impact on our decision-making abilities. Research from the UCLA Laboratory of Neuro-imaging found that people who practice meditation regularly have higher amounts of gyrification (“folding” of the cortex, which may allow the brain to process information faster). In turn, this could be a factor in making the brain better at making decisions, forming memories and improving attention.
So it’s clear that meditation plays some role in exercising our brain, allowing us to reach our full cognitive potential while clearing it of the clutter that can sometimes cloud our judgement.
Meditation has been practiced in certain cultures for thousands of years. You have to ask yourself, ‘why?’ – How has this ancient art become so fundamental to many religions and cultures. The answer might lie in simple evolutionary terms. Meditation is an incredible skill/technique that humans have developed to help them live more harmoniously with nature. By ‘nature’ we mean not merely something outside of us but also the living the psycho-somatic material that constitutes each and every one of us. Meditation helps humans to cope with pain when our external environment appears hostile (e.g. the loss of a loved one). But is also helps us to embrace joy through recognition of our inalienable nature and of our inter-connection with all other beings.
This evolutionary aspect also comes to light in studies that look at pain and its relationship with meditation. There’s a popular phrase: ‘Mind over Matter’ – and it’s grounded in truth according to recent studies.
Take this conclusion, stating how meditation can help us cope with pain, from Winston-Salem University, North Carolina:
The subjective experience of one’s environment is constructed by interactions among sensory, cognitive, and affective processes. For centuries, meditation has been thought to influence such processes by enabling a non-evaluative representation of sensory events. To better understand how meditation influences the sensory experience, we employed arterial spin labelling (ASL) functional magnetic resonance imaging to assess the neural mechanisms by which mindfulness meditation influences pain in healthy human participants. After four-days of mindfulness meditation training, meditating in the presence of noxious stimulation significantly reduced pain unpleasantness by 57% and pain intensity ratings by 40% when compared to rest.
Research at the University of Montreal found similar results when looking at how 13 Zen Masters felt pain compared with people who didn’t meditate regularly.
As well as the Zen Masters reporting less pain than a control group, they reported feelings of pain at levels below what their neurological output from the MRI indicated. In other words, their brains were receiving pain signals, but they weren’t translating them to actual feelings of pain.
Meditation and Creativity
As well as improving memory, decision making, emotional intelligence AND resilience to pain, meditation has been linked with improved creativity.
A study conducted by Leiden University discovered a link between open monitoring meditation and divergent thinking:
“FA meditation and OM meditation exert specific effect on creativity. First, OM meditation induces a control state that promotes divergent thinking, a style of thinking that allows many new ideas of being generated. Second, FA meditation does not sustain convergent thinking, the process of generating one possible solution to a particular problem.”
We’ve seen how practising regular meditation can impact upon the brain, mood and cognitive performance, but does any of this translate to body health and physical wellbeing?
Meditation, heart disease and strokes
Did you know that more people die of heart disease around the world than any other illness?
Funnily enough, there’s some evidence that meditation could help fight against that dreadful statistic.
A study published in 2012 by the American Heart Association found that Transcendental Meditation over a 5-year period helped African Americans with heart disease:
- See a 48% reduction in their overall risk of heart attack, stroke and death.
- lower their blood pressure, stress and anger compared with patients who attended a health education class
- improve long-term heart health
High blood pressure is both a cause and symptom of many health disorders. It’s no surprise that a technique designed to reign in stress and instill calmness has a positive impact on this.
In helping us relieve and cope with stress, meditation can be a useful tool against high blood pressure.
One study found two thirds of high blood pressure patients showing significant drops in blood pressure after 3 months of meditation. As a result they needed less prescription medication. What’s the relationship between meditation and blood pressure? Well, relaxation results in the formation of nitric oxide, which in turn opens up the blood vessels.
Mindfulness meditation and Alzheimer’s
Did you know that mindfulness meditation has also been linked to reducing the risk of Alzheimer’s? Just 30 minutes per day is enough to make a significant impact to loneliness, heart disease, Alzheimer’s and premature death.
In fact, it’s also been shown that some forms of meditation can literally help you live longer.
To understand why you have to appreciate that telomeres are a vital part of human cells that affect how they age. Research suggests that “some forms of meditation may have salutary effects on telomere length by reducing cognitive stress and stress arousal and increasing positive states of mind and hormonal factors that may promote telomere maintenance.” Yes, really.
Mindfulness and Transcendental meditation
These two different approaches to meditation rise from different traditions, transcendental meditation originates from Vedic traditions and mindfulness based meditation originates from Buddhism.
Transcendental Meditation is described as a simple, natural, effortless meditation technique that doesn’t involve contemplation or concentration. One uses a mantra as a vehicle to let the mind settle down naturally and, ultimately, to transcend thought.
Mindfulness meditation involves training one’s mind to be in the present moment. It typically involves passive attention to one’s breathing, sensations, and thoughts during meditation, sometimes referred to generically as open monitoring.
In this regard, the main difference between the two is that the goal of mindfulness meditation is to have one’s thoughts be on the present moment, whereas with Transcendental Meditation, the process involves transcending thought itself in which one is aware but without an object of thought.
We offer transcendental meditation sessions every Tuesday, Friday and Saturday at 4pm with Mahesh, the founder of Maitrihealth.
To book a session or to find out more click here!