Humans have known about the benefits of meditation for millennia. It's believed that primitive hunter-gatherer societies discovered meditation while staring into the flames of campfires. Over thousands of years, meditation evolved into a structured practice, with Indian scriptures called “tantras” mentioning meditation techniques as early as 5000 years ago.
As old a practice as meditation is, science is now catching up, providing a better understanding as to why it imparts such a seemingly vast array of benefits.
Meditation > medication
There's no doubt that our bodies are complex, with a myriad of interconnected systems that communicate and work harmoniously together to ward off illness while maintaining homeostasis. Meditation seems to work on multiple pathways which leads to better health, both mental and physical. It has been shown to reduce specific markers of inflammation, boost cell-mediated immunity, and even slow biological aging (R).
Read on to learn more about how meditation can improve health, mental well-being the overall quality of your life!
DISCLAIMER: This post is meant to inform and educate—it is not a replacement for medical advice and should not be construed as such.
1. Meditation can improve anxiety, depression, and stress
It is now well-documented and widely-accepted the meditation helps relieve symptoms of anxiety and depression. In one meta analysis examining 209 studies and over 12,000 participants, meditation proved effective at treating anxiety and depression, and this improvement was sustained upon follow-ups (R). But how does it work?
Meditation induces a multitude of beneficial changes and reactions in the brain. In one study it was suggested that a single meditation session could increase GABA, an inhibitory neurotransmitter which promotes cortical inhibition. Essentially, this process dampens primal excitatory processes, improving cognitive abilities and emotional regulation (R).
Meditation has also been shown to significantly alter brain wave activity. Our normal waking consciousness is characterized by a predominance of beta wave activity, but alpha and theta waves are increased during meditation (R). Alpha waves are related to relaxation while theta waves can be observed during periods of REM sleep. It’s been shown that individuals suffering from depression actually have less alpha wave activity (R), and therefore may benefit from meditation.
Meditation practice has also shown the ability to re-shape the brain in a process known as neuroplasticity. In one study, meditation was correlated with decreased grey matter in right amygdala and left caudate, parts of our brains linked with negative emotions. This may aid in explaining why meditators experience reduced stress reactivity (R)!
2. It can grow your brain—and size matters
It was once believed that the adult brain was unable to grow new brain cells. Thankfully, we now know that this process, called neurogenesis, is not only possible in the adult brain (R), but can be encouraged with meditation practice.
Our brains are made up of grey matter and white matter. The grey matter contains cell bodies, dendrites and axon terminals of neurons. The white matter is composed of bundles of myelinated axons. The grey matter is made up of neurons that regulate muscle control and sensory perception; speech, hearing, emotions, decision making, self-control and memory. The white matter can be thought of as the power lines by which signals are transmitted across brain regions.
Grey matter atrophy is observed in patients with Alzheimer’s disease (R). In a recently released systematic review looking at the effects of meditation on grey matter volume in healthy individuals and those affected by neurodegeneration, all studies reviewed reported significant increases in grey matter volume. Although limited research exists on the mechanisms by which meditation affects neurodegeneration, meditation may be promising in offsetting grey matter atrophy (R).
As far as white matter is concerned (which is what is gradually destroyed in multiple sclerosis), in as little as 4 weeks, a mindfulness meditation practice significantly increased myelin (R). Next time you’re meditating, know that you’re literally growing your brain!
3. It can increase concentration and improve memory
Another type of brainwave we experience is the gamma brain wave. It was found that various types of meditation practices induced gamma wave activity (R). The gamma wave is at a much higher frequency (40-110 Hz) and while research surrounding gamma waves is still in it’s infancy, gamma waves have been associated with insightful thinking and heightened cognitive abilities.
In a neuroimaging study, meditators show activations in the rostral anterior cingulate cortex suggesting a stronger ability to process distracting events than non-meditators (R). In another brain imaging study looking at multiple variables between meditators and non-meditators, it was found that not only are brain patterns changed during meditation, but cognitive ability and focus; mind-wandering, meta-awareness, and directed attention are also affected (R).
Meditation also increases grey matter in the posterior cingulate cortex, the temporo-parietal junction, and the cerebellum. These regions of our brain are involved with learning and memory processes (R) so growing them may improve cognitive ability and enhance memory!
4. It might help fight cognitive decline
In a randomized control trial in patients with subjective cognitive impairment (which is essentially a memory complaint but not severe enough to be called dementia), 3 months of meditation or musical exposure improved attention, executive function, processing speed, subjective memory function, sleep, mood, stress, well-being and overall quality of life.
All of these benefits were sustained or further enhanced at 3 months post-intervention (R).
5. It can improve immune function and reduce inflammation
Inflammation is a complex defense system and while it is a necessary and useful acute defense system against pathogens and crucial in wound healing, chronic inflammation can lead to severe tissue damage.
In a recent study by Georgetown University Medical Center’s Department of Psychiatry, researchers measured inflammatory proteins in a group of people, and then gave some of them a meditation routine. Those who practiced meditation showed big drops in two markers of inflammation, the pro-inflammatory cytokines IL-6 and TNF-α, on a follow-up test, while those not practicing meditation showed modest rises in the same markers (R). This overall decrease in immune activation is good for your entire body and brain (R).
On the other hand, meditation has been shown to actually strengthen our immune system. In HIV positive individuals, the population of immune cells called CD4+ T lymphocytes generally decline rapidly which ultimately causes AIDS. In a randomized control study, participants with HIV who practiced mindfulness meditation for 8 weeks saw their CD4+ T lymphocyte count remained unchanged. While I am not saying mediation should be used as an alternative treatment for immunodeficiency, data does suggest it is a valuable tool to buffer immune decline (R).
6. It might slow the rate at which you age
In a previous post, I discussed the importance of long telomeres, which are a proposed biomarker of aging. The longer your telomeres are, generally, the more youthful you are.
Inflammation can shorten telomeres, and shorter telomeres impair our ability to defend against the ravages of aging. This includes keeping you safe from chronic diseases like cancer and neurodegenerative conditions, as well as accelerated skin aging (R). Longer telomeres have also been associated with greater volume of the hippocampus, the vulnerable memory center of the brain (R).
I've already described two proteins that are associated with the inflammatory response, IL-6 and TNF-α, and I've covered how meditation can reduce circulating levels of these proteins. This is good news, as both are inversely associated with telomere length—by reducing their presence in your system, we may be increasing our telomere length (R, R). Meditation has also been shown to increase activity of the enzyme telomerase, which protects and lengthens telomeres (R).
7. It can help break bad habits
With all of the benefits that meditation imparts onto your executive function, which is involved in self-control, planning, and decision making, it should be no surprise that meditation can help you break bad, lingering habits.
In one randomized control trial, prison inmates that engaged in transcendental meditation for 4 months had a 47% reduction in total trauma symptoms including anxiety, depression, dissociation, sleep disturbance, and perceived stress compared to controls that didn't meditate. Trauma is significantly correlated to rates of recidivism (returning to prison), and a prior study found that transcendental meditation reduced rates of recidivism anywhere between 33% and 47%.
What about a more common bad habit, like smoking? In a small but nonetheless interesting study, smokers who underwent meditation training experienced a decline in their tendency to smoke and showed increased activation in brain areas related to self control on fMRI scans. What's cool about this study is that smokers weren't told that their smoking was going to be monitored—they thought they were signing up for a study to look at the impact of meditation on stress reduction, and ended up naturally reducing their cigarette consumption by 60% (R).
Types of meditation
Though the styles of meditation used in research can vary, many of the studies mentioned above have used a technique coined "integrative body–mind training," or IBMT (R).
IBMT was developed in the 1990s as a technique adopted from traditional Chinese medicine and incorporates aspects of meditation and mindfulness training. It involves whole body relaxation and mental imagery and is accompanied by a music background for 20 to 30 minutes per day. Trainees are instructed to concentrate on achieving a balanced state of body and mind and are guided by a teacher. The method stresses no effort to control thoughts (more on this below), but instead a state of restful alertness that allows a high degree of awareness of body, mind, and external instructions.
Research generally finds IBMT to be more effective than "relaxation training." Relaxation training involves the sequential relaxing of different muscle groups over the face, head, shoulders, arms, legs, chest, back, and abdomen, guided by a teacher with background music.
Tips to get started
1. Try an online meditation course
Truth be told, meditating is not something that comes naturally to most people. I am one of those people—I needed to be taught. While in-person training is the most traditional way of learning the technique of effective meditation, online courses have sprung up which can offer similar educations. One that I have vetted personally is zivaMIND taught by Emily Fletcher, who is my meditation teacher.
zivaMIND is an 8 day online meditation training program that will give you a sustainable meditation practice that you’ll want to commit to—complete with a private, online community for support.
2. Go easy
When you start meditating you will likely not think you are doing it correctly. Start with a few minutes a day and work your way up. Try to focus on your breath. If thoughts do come through—which they will—simply acknowledge them and let them pass like clouds. "The thoughts you like are the invited guests. The thoughts you don't like are uninvited. Either way, your job is to be the host not the bouncer. Best to gently move toward the technique, not away from the thoughts," says meditation teacher Emily Fletcher. When you catch yourself straying from your breath, gently bring yourself back to it. Meditating is called “a practice” for a reason—it takes practice!
3. Experiment with different techniques
There are plenty of ways to meditate and many resources to help guide you to the mediation practice right for you. I was trained in ziva, but some other popular practices include transcendental meditation, mindfulness meditation, mantra meditation and even movement meditation. So practice various practices to decide what practice you wish to practice!
4. Commit to your practice
It’s easy enough to know the benefits of meditation but adopting and committing to the practice can be a lot more challenging. When starting out, approach meditation the way you would a workout. Commit a certain amount of time each day, or several times a week when you can get into that meditative zone. Remember: Meditation isn't urgent, but it is important. So schedule your sits just like an appointment with your doctor or a workout.
Do you have a practice? Let me know in the comments below what your personal experience with meditation has been or which practices you think may be most useful!
Written with contributor Katie Bigras