How do you make a case for something? Science, a method that looks at evidence systematically, is one way to do this. Science starts by suspending assumptions about what it studies, putting opinions and hypotheses to the test, and backing up your beliefs with empirical evidence. Following up on last month’s article on meditation, this article continues to argue for why meditation is good for you. Since our society puts greater emphasis on the material and physical over the mental and spiritual, I’ll discuss the practical, physiological and social benefits of meditation.
Let’s start by looking at the effects meditation has on the brain and nervous system, which control the whole body. Thanks to MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) we’re able to have a detailed view into the brain. Brain scans demonstrate a significant difference in those who do meditation vs. those who do not. (Biological Psychiatry, 1/16) Studies find that the brain can literally change itself, a process called neuroplasticity that was once considered impossible in adults. Meditation is a very effective way to enable this. Researchers have found that long-term meditation changes the inner circuitry of the brain (Univ. of Wisconsin), and increases thickness in areas of the brain linked to attention and sensory input (Harvard Gazette, 2/06). Meditation is like calisthenics for the brain!
The type of meditation often used in studies is known as “mindfulness”, a common practice in Buddhism. In this practice the mind or attention is continually brought to the present time. The present moment is where thinking and drifting into reverie happen. Scans show that areas of the brain that are related to stress and focusing show increased activation. The left prefrontal cortex, which is associated with positive emotions and “happiness”, is particularly active during meditation. Different parts of the brain communicate more, which increases integration and efficiency. The more integrated the brain is the better it works. When the mind becomes “one-pointed” and focused, the nervous system balances, parts synchronize and positive changes in the body happen spontaneously.
We all experience stress. Society doesn’t make it easier to handle. Stress and poor diet are the root of most health problems. Stress is a result of the body’s flight-or-fight mechanism, part of our biological evolution. Studies of meditators show an increase in the activity and density in the part of the brain known as the amygdala, which is associated with stress. Here gray matter was reduced in size. The hippocampus, associated with empathy and memory, showed an increase in gray matter. The control group who did not meditate and only engaged in relaxation, manifested no comparable changes. (Psychiatry Research: Neuroimmaging 1/11, Vol. 191) Even though relaxation is healthy and enjoyable, meditation is even more effective for the body-mind!
Hypertension (high blood pressure) is known as the “silent killer”. Many people have it and don’t know because they don’t show any symptoms. Studies show high risk patients who meditate can cut the risk of heart attacks in half compared to those who only used lifestyle changes. Cortisol, known as the “stress hormone”, plays a key role in everything from immune response, bone formation and sleep to insulin levels and inflammatory response. Cortisol levels increase under stress; meditation was found to reduce cortisol levels. Blood level markers also show a lower indication of inflammation, a common underlying cause of diseases like arthritis and Cardiovascular disease (CVD, atherosclerosis). Since inflammation increases in CVD, meditation along with the right diet can play a key role in prevention and treatment.
A recent meta-analysis looked at the effects of mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) on the health of various populations with cancer, heart disease, depression, and anxiety and for those looking for better ways to cope with stress (J. of Psychosomatic Research, 57/1). Findings show that meditation can improve how people cope emotionally and physically with distress, serious disorders and disabilities. It is clear that meditation can aid those with depression, anxiety, and physical pain.
The effects of meditation are similar for both the physically and mentally ill. Those with bipolar disorder and depression had as many benefits as those with hypertension (Eur. Psychiatry, 9/2010). Participants recovering from depression were less likely to relapse by half when conventional treatment was supplemented by meditation (Am J. Hypertension, 12/2009).
There is a popular notion that meditation is only for spiritual purposes or escaping life, but it is also a great way of affirming life and increasing your participation. Meditation clearly heightens awareness, improves mood and helps develop equanimity and emotional balance so you’re not so controlled by your mind and emotions. Instead of resorting to anger or even violence, meditation can help people control themselves so they can work out their personal and relational problems more effectively. It also fosters greater emotional intelligence.
Developing any new routine can be challenging, but starting with a short 10 to 15 minute meditation the same time each day is the best approach. Even if you never increase the time it can yield great benefits; can you find something else that has so much return with so little effort? It can positively impact all aspects of your life.