The practice of meditation is more than 3,000 years old and, incredibly, it’s only in recent years that we’re understanding the full power of this ancient exercise. Traditionally, meditation has been associated with certain eastern-world religions and spiritual customs. It has been employed as a form of prayer, a way to feel connected with the rest of humanity and a vehicle to recover and maintain one’s health by quieting the mind and listening to the body. Over the last few decades, as interest in western countries has grown, using meditation as a form of complementary medicine has become widespread.
What science tell us about the physical benefits of meditation
Meditation research began in the 1950s and, while early studies often weren’t robust enough to draw definitive results, many randomized controlled studies have since been conducted that offer solid reliable information. More recently, the physical benefits of meditation research is revealing are varied and the conclusions compelling. Here’s what we know so far.
Meditation Reduces Stress
Stress is thought to be at the root of many illnesses. At the very least, mental and physical stress can exacerbate disease symptoms and interfere with healing. Medical researchers are well aware that, when under stress, the body naturally releases higher levels of the hormone cortisol that, over time, can compromise the one’s immune system and have other harmful effects.
The physical benefits of meditation, when used to control stress, can be quite valuable. For example, one meditation research study looked at the impact transcendental meditation has on reducing anxiety. This project included approximately 1,300 individuals and, interestingly, the physical benefits of meditation were shown to be stronger in those with higher stress levels. The impact of an eight-week meditation program in reducing inflammation caused by stress was explored with another population ─ with very positive results. And, a different study with over 3,500 adults found meditation helps lower stress levels.
Meditation Slows mental decline
Meditation research has also focused on its physical benefits to address dementia ─ critical information with our growing population of older adults. Using MRI technology to study the brains of people who regularly meditate has pointed to structural brain changes and cortical thickening in the hippocampus, the brain center for learning and memory, that is thought to play a role in slowing down age-related atrophy. Moreover, the physical benefits of meditation research done at the University of California adds to the evidence that being faithful to this practice reduces normal mental decline. Specifically, the brains of people who had been meditating for 20 years contained more grey matter throughout the whole brain.
The great news here is that not only can meditation slow normal memory loss that’s age-related, it can also improve the lives of individuals dealing with dementia. This meditation research in California evaluated, over a two-year period, the cognitive capabilities of subjects with Alzheimer’s disease who had either meditated, received relaxation training, had cognitive stimulation therapy or had no treatment at all. It demonstrated that the meditating group had improved their cognitive scores much more than the others.
Meditation Improves Sleep
Sleep is critical ─ a time for the body to rest and repair. With the majority of the population not getting enough quality sleep, the physical benefits of meditation in this regard is heartening. A 2015 initiative scrutinized the value of meditation to treat insomnia. This project involved 54 adults who suffered from chronic insomnia and assigned them to one of two groups ─ one group was taught to meditate and the other wasn’t. This meditation research found that those who meditated were able to get to sleep faster and have a longer sleep.
Meditation Helps Manage Pain
Meditation research from 2011 used MRI technology to investigate brain activity when study participants were exposed to a painful stimulus. Individuals who had been exposed to a four-day meditation course were less sensitive to the stimulus and had increased activity in particular areas of the brain that we know control pain. A further study of terminally ill patients indicated additional physical benefits of meditation for pain control.
Strangely, research conducted by the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH) reveals that meditation helps control pain without needing to engage the naturally occurring opiates in the brain. The physical benefits of meditation in reducing back pain was also studied by the NCCIH by enlisting adults, aged 20 to 70, with chronic pain and the results were positive.
Meditation Promotes heart health
In other research, patients undergoing treatment for heart disease were separated into two groups and half were taught meditation while the others were waitlisted for the program. When later given a walking test to assess cardiovascular capacity, the meditators had slower heart rates. According to the American Heart Association, there’s now sufficient evidence that meditation can definitely be used to complement traditional medical treatment as well as promote heart health and reduce disease risk.
Another way meditation helps the heart is by reducing blood pressure. Research with a population of 298 university students illustrated that it can really assist individuals at risk of developing high blood pressure. Furthermore, a study of 56 adults with pre-hypertension discovered a significantly greater reduction in diastolic and systolic blood pressure for those taught to meditate compared to individuals who learned progressive muscle relaxation.
What’s on the horizon regarding meditation research
There is so much more scientific inquiry needed to uncover how truly invaluable this exercise can be for maintaining and improving one’s health. So far, the physical benefits of meditation research into other diseases is hopeful. Studies of illnesses where inflammation is a component, like Irritable Bowel Syndrome and Ulcerative Colitis, suggest symptoms can be alleviated with regular meditative practice. In addition, research has been conducted using meditation to combat alcohol and food addictions.
Maintaining a healthy lifestyle in our fast-paced western world can often be challenging, and when there’s illness to navigate it’s doubly difficult. The physical benefits of meditation that research is uncovering these days is particularly promising and the possibilities for this practice are truly inspiring.
article by Sandra Bell-Murray