For decades, the medical research community has been uncovering amazing connections between meditation and the brain. By exploring how this ancient spiritual practice affects human health, researchers are finding that meditation may be a promising way for us to manage chronic stress as well as improve many other aspects of our health.
Meditation is becoming an increasingly popular wellness tool for improving mood and promoting a healthier lifestyle. If you’re interested in trying meditation but aren’t sure what to expect, read on to learn more about the benefits of meditation for improved health and well-being.
What Is Meditation?
Meditation is a discipline meant to increase your self-awareness of both your mind and body. Different types of meditation use different techniques, but one of the most common and accessible forms of meditation is called mindfulness.
During mindfulness meditation, you focus your thoughts on a single point of concentration, such as your breath, the sensations in your body or a sound. As your thoughts remain focused on one thing, your attention fades from your regular mental activity, which usually consists of a mix of thoughts about the past and future. Meditation allows you to destress your mind and relax your body, putting you into a more calm and stable state.
Meditation is called a practice for a reason. At first, most people find it hard, if not impossible, to keep their thoughts focused on one thing for more than a couple of seconds. This is normal, which is why mindfulness meditation also helps improve awareness. The more you practice, the more you become aware of when your thoughts have wandered off, giving you the chance to gently return your attention to the original point of focus.
Meditation isn’t complicated, but it does take deliberate practice. While there’s no set dosage, most studies show that practicing meditation daily for 15-20 minutes yields the most noticeable results over a several-week period.
5 Scientific Benefits of Meditation
When practiced correctly, meditation has definite benefits, as seen in countless studies, specifically those conducted in the past 20 years as neuroscience has advanced. When researchers study meditation, they typically have the participants follow a rigid mindfulness program, such as Mindfulness-Based-Stress-Reduction (MBSR) — an eight-week mindfulness program first designed by a University of Massachusetts researcher.
To study the effects of meditation, researchers divide the participants into groups and compare the results of meditation to another form of treatment. Researchers are not only interested in the immediate benefits of meditation but also any long-term benefits gained from practicing for several weeks. Based on previous research, it’s possible that long-term meditation practices can actually restructure your brain.
Though research is continuing to discover exactly how mindfulness changes the brain, we do already have plenty of evidence to suggest that meditation does have a significant impact on our physical and mental health.
To further explore how this ancient practice can help improve your health and well-being, here are five benefits of meditation as shown by science.
1. Reduces Inflammation
Inflammation is a natural reaction your body produces in response to harm, such as bacteria, viruses or even your nervous system’s stress response. Left unchecked, inflammation can lead to chronic disease. Many diseases appear to have a direct relationship with long-term inflammation, including inflammatory bowel disease, arthritis and autoimmune diseases.
For people with inflammatory diseases, controlling and managing inflammation is key to living a high quality of life and keeping symptoms at bay. Meditation may be another tool people can use to help manage their condition.
A few studies found that mindfulness programs led to reduced inflammation markers in participants. A 2013 study from the University of Wisconsin-Madison examined people with chronic inflammatory conditions and compared MBSR training with a basic health education program. The researchers found participants who underwent the MBSR training had lower post-stress inflammation responses than the group that didn’t meditate.
Meditation may also reduce inflammation in people without inflammatory conditions. A 2017 study from UCLA found that participants of a three-month yoga and meditation retreat had lower inflammation levels in their bodies.
2. Relieves Anxiety
As a mind-body intervention, meditation also has benefits for mental and emotional well-being. Because the mind and body are so interconnected, physical stress can cause emotional stress and vice versa. Meditation appears to be an effective method for calming both our physical and mental states.
One 2018 study from New York University and Virginia Tech found that meditating for just 13 minutes a day reduced anxiety levels and negative mood in participants over eight weeks. The researchers concluded that even brief meditation sessions, when performed over a multi-week period, have benefits for anxiety and mood similar to longer-duration meditation sessions.
Meditation may also benefit people with anxiety disorders, as one 2016 study published in Psychiatry Research found. Seventy patients with generalized anxiety disorder underwent either an eight-week MBSR training program or a control intervention. Researchers found that the group who had received the meditation training had significantly reduced stress scores as well as lower levels of stress hormones compared to the non-meditators.
3. Alleviates Pain
For people with chronic pain, meditation may provide a natural way to cope. Several studies have looked at how meditation can help reduce symptoms of various diseases, including self-reported pain. Because pain is a subjective experience, it’s usually difficult for researchers to quantify how meditation might reduce pain.
Researchers from Wake Forest University in North Carolina looked into the relationship between meditation and pain by examining the study participants’ brains. The researchers compared pain responses in the participants’ brains before and after undergoing meditation training. After just four days of meditation training, the participants experienced a 40 percent drop in pain intensity compared to their pre-meditation pain levels.
The researchers concluded that if brief meditation training was enough to reduce pain so significantly, perhaps more extensive meditation training would be beneficial as a complementary therapy for people with chronic pain, such as those with cancer or other severe illnesses.
4. Improves Memory and Concentration
Today’s fast-paced world is leading to a collective drop in attention span, with many people feeling distracted by social media and multitasking. To help improve attention span and increase memory retention, mental disciplines like meditation may be beneficial. Several studies have looked at what effect meditation has on working memory and concentration.
In a workplace study, researchers from the University of Washington in Seattle examined the effects of mindfulness meditation training on human resources staff. Researchers divided the participants into three groups, with one group receiving eight weeks of meditation training, one group receiving relaxation training and another group receiving no training. At the end of the eight weeks, the meditation group demonstrated not only lower stress levels but also an improved ability to remember and stay focused on their tasks longer.
Even brief spurts of meditation may be enough to improve your memory and concentration. The same Wake Forest University researchers who examined the benefits of meditation for pain looked at what effect the same four-day meditation training had on attention span. The findings showed that brief meditation training resulted in better focus and working memory.
5. Increases Sleep Quality
Sleep is critical to long-term health. Adults who get less than seven hours of sleep per night are at higher risk of chronic illness, including heart disease and diabetes. Despite how vital sleep quality is, many adults suffer from sleep disturbances and have trouble falling asleep and staying asleep. Though sleep disorders can affect anyone, they’re more common in people over the age of 60 and often go untreated.
Meditation may be an effective way to improve sleep quality by reducing some of the factors that cause sleep disturbances, such as stress or anxiety. One 2015 study compared two groups of older adults with moderate sleep disturbance. The first group underwent a mindfulness meditation intervention, while the control group underwent a sleep hygiene education program. After six weeks, the researchers found that the meditation group had significantly improved insomnia and depression symptoms, less fatigue and overall better sleep quality compared to the non-meditators.
Guided meditation programs can help with sleep disturbances. One of the most popular apps for meditation, Headspace, has a training program just for sleep to help put you into a more calm and relaxed state before bed.
Incorporating Meditation Into Your Wellness Routine
With hectic schedules, many people today struggle to prioritize their health and relaxation. Convenient, accessible practices like meditation give you quiet moments throughout the day to find peace and refocus your mind. Short, daily meditation sessions have shown to offer a variety of health benefits, including reduced stress and pain and improved memory and sleep.
Meditation is a complementary practice, meaning that when combined with other proven treatments, it can improve certain aspects of your physical and mental health. Meditation is considered safe for everyone with no known complications or side effects. With so many mindfulness apps available, it’s easy to begin your meditation practice today.
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