Meditation practice has existed for over 5000 years, possibly dating back to 3000 B.C. or even earlier. (Written record only goes back to 4000 B.C., so meditation might even pre-date writing!) Many cultures and religions have a version of meditation that brings humans from the material world closer to the spiritual world.
But more recently, meditation has also become widely recognized as a tool to emotional well being, reduce stress, improve physical health and heighten mental acuity. Meditation activates a relaxation response: this is the opposite of fight-or-flight, the body’s natural response to any kind of stress. Reducing that stress not only has a major effect on your brain; it also can have myriad benefits throughout the body, even improving inflammatory conditions like Irritable Bowel Syndrome and chronic pain issues.
With just a few minutes of quiet each day, you may notice a marked impact in these ways meditation changes your brain and body:
Meditation changes your brain structure
A 2014 study showed that in the brains of nearly 300 regular meditation practitioners, eight regions of the brain were consistently more developed than those in non-meditators. The areas affected are responsible for body awareness, memory, emotional regulation and intercommunication between regions of the brain. While the study did not further examine the effect of these morphological changes on the subjects’ daily lives, it suggests that performance of tasks controlled by these regions should improve.
Meditation strengthens your heart
The relaxation response triggered by meditation can impact indicators of health like heart rate, blood pressure and oxygen consumption. Meditation helps to calm an otherwise frantic system, building connections in the brain that encourage blood pressure regulation; plus, a mindfulness practice alters how we respond to stressful situations. Rather than exploding with rage, regular meditators are often better at assessing and reacting calmly to a situation (also great for your blood pressure!). Evidence also suggests that the more you meditate, the better at this you become, and the more noticeable the impact on your heart and circulatory health.
Meditation can improve your digestion
That fight-or-flight state isn’t only turned on when you’re being pursued by a bear. Stress in real life – in your work, relationships, while you’re driving – activates the same high-intensity response. When you’re in a pressure-filled work situation, your body takes resources away from immediately non-essential functioning like digestion to deal with the more pressing situation. Mindfulness and meditation teach the body to respond more calmly, and to exist more often in that calm state, so essential functions can happen more easily. Meditation has been shown to improve symptoms of Irritable Bowel Syndrome and Inflammatory Bowel Disease, calming inflammatory responses and allowing more regular digestion and elimination.
Meditation improves genes that bolster your resistance to disease
Regular relaxation, including practices like yoga, meditation, prayer and deep breathing, has been shown to switch on genes that protect against a range of disorders including infertility, rheumatoid arthritis, cancer and inflammation. In regular meditators, genes that inhibit these conditions are more active and occurrences of these diseases were lower. Long-time meditators weren’t the only ones to see benefits, either; new meditators, whose score on the disease resistance test prior to the study had not been as favorable, saw a change in their own genetic expression within just two months of beginning a regular daily practice. In this short period of time, subjects’ protective genes were activated. Their immune systems became more effective at detecting, destroying and disposing of diseased cells than they been prior to meditating regularly.
Meditation can help mediate your response to pain
Pain can be a good thing: that signal helps us pull our hand away from a hot iron or stop running if we are injured. Being able to tolerate a moderate amount of discomfort, though, can be beneficial and it can be improved with meditation.
One study showed that subjects who used mindfulness techniques and were exposed to pain (being touched with something hot) reported 27% less pain than those who did not practice mindfulness; the pain matrix in the brain, where pain is registered and reported to the body to incite movement, was 45% less active. Not only did meditation change people’s perception of the pain, it also altered the neural activity associated with it. This is great news for people suffering with chronic pain.
Meditation can improve your memory
The hippocampi are two seahorse-shaped structures within the brain that are involved in memory consolidation. When we’re stressed, the body is pumped full of cortisol, the primary stress hormone responsible for helping the body cope with life-or-death situations. This chemical makes glucose more easily available to the brain and muscles and tells the body to shut down non-emergency functioning, including memory storage. Cortisol has been shown to shrink the hippocampi and interfere with memory storage and processing. Chronic stress means chronic memory impairment. However, one study showed that with an 8-week mindfulness practice, gray matter in the hippocampi regenerated, in a correlative relationship: the more you meditate, the stronger the connections in the memory center will be.
Meditation is good for your mental health
An estimated 18% of adults in the US deal with anxiety or depression. Meditation has been shown to reduce symptoms of these in as little as five weeks. While not everyone will respond to meditation in the same way, and some conditions do require additional therapies or medication, a self-focus meditation practice can help to calm the neural pathways and habitual thought patterns that contribute to anxiety and depression.
– Amy Height