There is growing evidence to show that meditation can make you healthier and happier. For example, mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) is sometimes used to treat depression, and brain imaging technology suggests meditation actually changes your brain in a number of beneficial ways.
MRI scans have shown that long-term meditation can alter the structure of your cerebral cortex, the outer layer of your brain. Additionally, brain regions associated with attention and sensory processing have been shown to be thicker in those who meditate.
Previous studies have linked meditation to benefits such as improved attention, memory, processing speed, creativity, and more. Recent research also suggests that meditation helps counteract age-related loss of brain volume.
In short, meditation can be viewed as a form of brain exercise that strengthens it and keeps it "younger" longer. Other studies reveal the benefits of meditation are not limited to your brain; it also has anti-inflammatory effects and affects gene expression—all of which can boost overall physical health and longevity.
One of the most recent studies 1,2 in this field looked at 50 long-term meditators and 50 control subjects between the ages of 24 and 77. Among the controls, advancing age correlated with a loss of brain volume, as expected. Those who meditated, however, were found to suffer less age-related brain atrophy. As reported by GMA News:3
"People who reported meditating for an average of 20 years had higher brain volumes than the average person...
The study's senior author told Reuters Health that the team of researchers expected to see more gray matter in certain regions of the brain among long-term meditators. "But we see that this effect is really widespread throughout the brain," said Dr. Florian Kurth...
The meditators' brains appeared better preserved than average people of the same age. Moreover, the researchers were surprised to find less age-related gray matter loss throughout the brains of meditators.
Meditation expert Emily Fletcher4 explains the differences between two popular styles of meditation, and how they affect your brain.
She also discusses the similarities between meditation and caffeine. Both have the effect of energizing you and boosting your productivity, but meditation accomplishes this without the adverse effects associated with caffeine.
As explained by Fletcher, caffeine is similar to the chemical adenosine, produced by your brain throughout the day. Adenosine makes you sleepy, and caffeine effectively blocks the adenosine receptors in your brain, thereby disallowing your brain from recognizing how tired it is.
While this may not be harmful in and of itself in the short-term, caffeine also stimulates more neural activity in your brain, which triggers your adrenal glands to release the stress chemical adrenaline.
Eventually (whether you're drinking lots of coffee or not), remaining in a chronic state of "fight or flight" that adrenaline engenders can lead to any number of stress-related disorders.
Meditation, on the other hand, energizes you and makes you more productive without triggering an adrenaline rush. According to Fletcher, meditation provides your body with rest that is two to five times deeper than sleep.
Meditating for 20 minutes also equates to taking a 1.5 hour nap, but you won't have that "sleep hangover" afterward. Instead, you'll feel awake and refreshed, and as she says, "more conscious."
Meditation de-excites your nervous system rather than exciting it further. This makes it more orderly, thereby making it easier for your system to release pent-up stress. It also makes you more productive.
She notes that many are now starting to recognize meditation as a powerful productivity tool. Contrary to popular belief, taking the time to meditate can actually help you gain more time through boosted productivity than what you put into it.
In a previous interview,5 Fletcher stated:
"[People say] I'd love to meditate, I know that I need it but I'm so busy right now, my life is just too crazy to meditate. And what they don't understand is that once you start practicing you actually end up having more time. It's this weird paradox that happens.
Even though you're making a pretty significant time contribution to your day to meditation, because it in turn makes your brain function so much better, that you end up accomplishing your tasks much faster and so you end up with more time in your day and your sleep becomes more efficient because you're using your sleep as a time for sleep because you use the meditation as a time for stress relief."
Stress is a well-recognized culprit that can promote ill health across the board, and the ability of meditation to quell stress is an important health benefit. Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University recently published a study claiming they've found the biological mechanism by which mindfulness affects physical health.
In a nutshell, meditation impacts your biology and physical health via "stress reduction pathways" in your brain. As explained in the press release:6
"When an individual experiences stress, activity in the prefrontal cortex — responsible for conscious thinking and planning — decreases, while activity in the amygdala, hypothalamus and anterior cingulate cortex — regions that quickly activate the body's stress response — increases.
Studies have suggested that mindfulness reverses these patterns during stress; it increases prefrontal activity, which can regulate and turn down the biological stress response.
Excessive activation of the biological stress response increases the risk of diseases impacted by stress (like depression, HIV and heart disease).
By reducing individuals' experiences of stress, mindfulness may help regulate the physical stress response and ultimately reduce the risk and severity of stress-related diseases."
Such effects may explain why meditation can help to relieve stress-related diseases such as: High blood pressure, Sleep disturbances and fatigue, Chronic pain, Gastrointestinal distress and irritable bowel syndrome
Headaches, Skin disorders, Respiratory problems such as emphysema and asthma, Mild depression and premenstrual syndrome PMS.
Other research, such as that at the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine has sought to quantify the benefits of the relaxation response by assessing gene expression before and after meditation, and have compared effects of short- and long-term meditation routines.
Among their findings, they discovered that meditation has anti-inflammatory effects. In one study,8 participants who participated in an eight-week long meditation program, as well as longer-term meditators saw increases in anti-oxidant production, telomerase activity, and oxidative stress.
Among their findings, the Benson-Henry researchers discovered that meditation has anti-inflammatory effects. In one study, participants in an eight-week long meditation program, as well as longer-term meditators, saw increases in anti-oxidant production, telomerase activity, and oxidative stress.
The researchers noted that benefits appear to be dose related, with changes even after one session7.
Fletcher discusses various benefits of meditation.
Besides improving your focus and boosting your mental cognition, mindfulness training has also been found to reduce levels of stress-induced inflammation,10 which could benefit people suffering from chronic inflammatory conditions like rheumatoid arthritis, inflammatory bowel disease, and asthma. It also helps relieve feelings of stress and anxiety.
Meditation strengthens your corpus callosum, the bridge between your two brain hemispheres.
Your left brain is in charge of the past and the future, language, math, and critical thought, while your right brain is in charge of "right now," intuition, inspiration, connectedness, creativity, and problem solving.
By strengthening the connection between your right and left hemispheres, you gain access to more creative problem solving, and increase your productivity without adding stress. About 40 minutes into the video, Fletcher leads you through a simple meditative technique involving breathing and guided visualization that helps balance the two hemispheres of your brain.
I have tried to meditate unsuccessfully off and on for over 25 years. I suspect that many of you have had similar experiences. The biggest challenge is to know if you are doing it correctly. At the beginning you need help to learn to meditate correctly, but ultimately you're left to navigate the course to relaxed brain waves unguided.
You can start out slow and put your toes in the water by meditating for three minutes once or twice a day. If you have more time and are motivated, you can even do 20-minute sessions.
Now, I find that if I wake up early and can't go back to sleep, I will meditate for up to an hour as it provides many of the same benefits of sleep. If you are unable to fall back to sleep, this is a great option.
Also, I find my best meditation time is in the morning, right after I awaken, as I can get into the deepest states of relaxation at that time. Applying the Buteyko breathing also really helps to calm the mind and get into deep states of relaxation.
Natural health expert Dr. Joseph Mercola
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