The first written records of meditation come from Hindu traditions dating to about 1500 BCE. Meditation practices also appear in records of Taoist China dating back to the 5th or 6th century BCE. While it had a rich history in religious traditions of the East, meditation began to gain traction in the West in the 1700s, especially among philosophers and intellectuals. However, meditation does not need to be complicated or difficult. It can be practiced with a simple focus on the breath or a mantra while observing thoughts without judgment or engagement. Anyone can meditate at just about any time, whether on a bus, in a business meeting, or during a walk in the park. [This article, “7 Real, Proven Benefits Of Meditation” was originally published in News7Health]
There are many types of meditation, including guided, mantra, and mindfulness meditation. Also called guided imagery, guided meditation involves a focus on relaxing mental images. Mantra meditation is the silent repetition of a word or phrase to draw the mind away from distracting thoughts. Practitioners of mindfulness meditation focus on the breath, allowing distracting thoughts to pass without judgment. Perhaps the most commonly studied type of meditation, mindfulness meditation is a state of open awareness and presence in the moment.The benefits of meditation extend far beyond the actual time spent in practice. Regular meditation can change your physiology and even the structure of your brain. Common benefits of meditation include reductions in stress, inflammation, blood pressure, anxiety, and even pain. Furthermore, meditation can induce an ‘alpha state,’ or a state of relaxed attention similar to the flow state enjoyed by elite athletes and performers. With an investment of just a few minutes each day, you can make positive changes to your body and mind. Keep reading to discover seven real, proven benefits of meditation.
Benefit of meditation #1: it reduces stress
When you encounter a stressor, your sympathetic nervous system stimulates the release of hormones like cortisol that induce a ‘fight or flight’ response. While this stress response was beneficial to our ancient ancestors when they responded to real threats such as predators, contemporary humans experiencing chronic stress may suffer negative effects such as diseases of the cardiovascular system, immune system, and digestive system. Furthermore, high cortisol levels are associated with weight gain, acne, high blood pressure, and high blood sugar. Meditation deactivates the sympathetic nervous system, protecting your mind and body from the harmful effects of stress. This calming effect may also help meditators to experience less emotional reactivity.
Benefit of meditation #2: it reduces inflammation
The damaging effects of chronic stress extend beyond the impact of elevated cortisol to the damaging effects of inflammation. Many chronic inflammatory conditions like rheumatoid arthritis, inflammatory bowel disease, and asthma are exacerbated by psychological stress. Chronic stress is known to trigger an inflammatory response that damages tissues and organs. A healthy meditation practice can help to reduce or prevent chronic inflammation via multiple mechanisms. While chronic stress is known to damage the gut microbiome, a regular meditation practice that reduces stress can preserve gut health. A healthy gut microbiome produces anti-inflammatory short-chain fatty acids, helping to prevent chronic inflammatory conditions. Studies have even shown that a regular meditation practice can deactivate certain genes associated with inflammation, effectively reversing the effects of chronic stress.
Benefit of meditation #3: it lowers blood pressure
It is estimated that approximately 116 million American adults have high blood pressure, and this condition is a known risk factor for stroke, heart disease, and renal dysfunction. While some people with hypertension receive recommendations for lifestyle changes, many others are prescribed antihypertensive medications. Side effects of these medications may include insomnia, dry mouth, drowsiness, impotence, and headaches.
According to the American Heart Association, a meditation practice can modestly lower blood pressure, and it carries significantly less stigma than mental health treatments designed to lower stress levels. A treatment designed by Dr. Herbert Benson to induce a ‘relaxation response,’ drawing on aspects of mindfulness meditation and transcendental meditation, has helped some patients with high blood pressure reduce or even eliminate their antihypertensive medications. Reduced blood pressure is another proven benefit of meditation that may inspire you to try a simple practice.
Benefit of meditation #4: it reduces anxiety
Anxiety is associated with excessive worry and sometimes feelings of overwhelming fear. People suffering from anxiety may also find themselves overthinking past or future scenarios. In addition, anxiety is often associated with physical symptoms like rapid heart rate, dizziness, and sweating. When meditators regulate their breathing and slow racing thoughts, this calms the nervous system, providing relief from anxiety. Meditation can also reduce anxiety by changing the way your brain functions. When the brain is not engaged with higher order thinking, it falls into a pattern of self-related thinking and mind wandering known as the default mode network (DMN). Excessive time spent in this state is associated with poor mental health and even higher risk of dementia. Meditation practice deactivates the DMN and stimulates healthy brain function.
Benefit of meditation #5: it reduces pain
While approximately 11% of Americans suffer from chronic pain, traditional pharmacological treatments pose serious risks. Consequently, research has focused on alternative methods of managing pain. For example, recent studies have shown that meditation techniques can alleviate pain without engaging the opioid receptors of the brain. Furthermore, research has revealed that meditators show less activity in brain regions associated with the anticipation of pain, mitigating its psychological impact.
As meditation encourages the mind to spend less time ruminating on future negative events, it alleviates depression, which is often associated with higher pain levels. A 2017 study of people with lower back pain showed significant improvements in pain levels and overall functioning in those who practiced meditation. Unlike traditional pharmacological treatments for pain, meditation leads subjects to place their focus on the pain rather than away from it. This practice of observing and accepting pain can increase pain tolerance, while the act of meditation releases endorphins and other ‘feel-good’ hormones.
Benefit of meditation #6: it changes your brain
Neurons in your brain create neural pathways when they connect, and when you repeat an activity, these pathways grow stronger. The result is the development of stronger connections in certain areas of your brain. This phenomenon, often referred to as neuroplasticity, may explain some of the most profound benefits of meditation. Structural changes in the brain can be observed after 6-12 months of meditating for only 20-30 minutes per day. Some studies have shown that regular meditation increases gray matter in the hippocampus and anterior insula. When these brain regions are strengthened, you experience learning, cognition, memory, attention, and self-awareness benefits. Meditation decreases the volume of brain cells in the amygdala, the region associated with fear, anxiety, and stress. You can experience these profound and lasting benefits of meditation even with a light daily practice.
Benefit of meditation #7: it induces the alpha state
The electrical activity of neurons in your brain emanates an energy that can be recorded as waves. Electroencephalography (EEG) records these waves as different shapes according to varying mental states, and studies have shown that meditation increases alpha waves, which are associated with relaxation, creativity, and focus. Buddhist monks in regular meditation practice increase their alpha waves over time, strengthening their ability to remain in the alpha state. This positive mental state is characterized by a feeling of being clear-headed and present, and it is the state of athletes or performers when they are ‘in the zone.’
An easy hack to achieve the alpha state without meditation is to consume L-theanine, an amino acid found naturally in tea and certain mushrooms. The L-theanine content in two cups of green tea can shift you into an alpha state of relaxed alertness. You can also enjoy a can of Moment, a New York-based beverage brand founded by CEO Aisha Chottani in 2020. After some first-hand experience with the profound benefits of mindfulness, Chottani left the corporate world and returned to her roots. She developed this unique way to ‘drink your meditation’ with the adaptogens and other natural ingredients that were an integral part of her upbringing in Pakistan. Formulated with no caffeine, added sugars, or artificial flavors, Moment contains ashwagandha and L-theanine, offering a delicious way to add to your meditation practice or simply enjoy a break. Moment is available in blueberry ginger, tulsi lemon, and lemon turmeric.
How to make time to meditate
While the benefits of meditation are numerous and profound, you can improve the health of your mind and body in as little as 20 minutes each day. The greatest aspect of meditation is that it is accessible to anyone. Meditation’s many physiological benefits include reductions in stress, inflammation, blood pressure, anxiety, and pain. A simple daily practice can even make lasting changes in the structure of your brain and preserve your gray matter as you age. You can find time to meditate when you wake up in the morning, during your lunch break, or even while walking or riding a bus. If you haven’t already incorporated this tried and true ancient practice into your routine, it may be time to start.
Kaiser Permanente: Meditation for your total health
Important Note: The information contained in this article is for general informational purposes only, and should not be construed as health or medical advice, nor is it intended to diagnose, prevent, treat, or cure any disease or health condition. Before embarking on any diet or program of nutritional supplementation, it is advisable to consult your healthcare professional in order to determine its safety and probable efficacy in terms of your individual state of health.