The Science-Backed Health Benefits Of Meditation
My job as a functional medicine practitioner is to really identify what is and isn’t working for people and keeping them from living optimally. I dive deep into their symptoms, labs, and health history to determine the underlying cause of their health problems. Are they exposed to toxins? Is it the foods they are eating? Do they have hormone imbalances, viral infections, or microbiome imbalances?
It is easy to neglect aspects of our health. One being our mind, and specifically, the importance of the mind-body connection which when left unattended can contribute to major problems. If we aren’t feeding our mind it doesn’t matter if we chug kombucha all day and eat as clean as possible. Our body hears everything our mind says. Just because we aren’t feeding our bodies toxins through food we can still be serving ourselves toxic thoughts and emotions.
Regardless of a patient’s specific diagnosis, this is why I recommend meditation practices for almost every person. It’s of the utmost importance to find a meditation practice that works for each individual. Why, you ask? Well, let’s get geeky and examine the science behind why meditation works and what makes it so awesome for your health.
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1. Reduced inflammation
Have you ever heard of NF Kappa B before? No, it’s not a fraternity. It’s a major source of inflammation which is a contributor to almost every chronic health problem in our society. A randomized controlled trial showed that NFkB can be lowered with meditation and therefore, can lower overall inflammation levels.
2. Improved immune function
Does it seem like you are always fighting off a cold? Well, a study (1) published in the Asian Journal of Psychiatry showed that meditation improves genetic pathways that control our immune system!
3. Reduced pain
Since meditation can lower inflammation and promote a sense of calm, it makes sense that it can also naturally ease pain. A study (2) published in the Journal of Neuroscience showed how meditation improved certain pathways that influence pain.
Telomeres are located at the ends of your chromosomes and kind of look like the plastic parts found at the end of your shoe strings. Longer telomeres are correlated with a longer lifespan and shorter telomeres are associated with a shorter lifespan. Studies have shown (3) that meditation can preserve telomere length and reduce cellular stress.
5. Lowered anxiety
There have been many studies showing that meditation helps to reduce anxiety. But how exactly does it work? Well, the part of our brain activated with feelings of anxiousness is known as the posterior cingulate cortex. When anxiety is calmed the anterior cingulate cortex is activated. MRI’s show us (4) that meditation actually activated this area of the brain.
6. Regulated mood
Research has shown that meditation is just as effective – if not more effective – than mood-altering medications for improving depression and anxiety. Plus, meditation has no potential side effects! Meditation can increase (5) brain gray matter volume in the right angular and posterior parahippocampal gyri areas of the brain that control our mood.
7. Better attention and focus
Do you have trouble paying attention or have ADD-type symptoms? Regular meditation is associated (6) with more activity in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and the angular cingulate cortex, the areas of the brain responsible for memory and focus.
8. Less cognitive decline
Neuroplasticity is your brain’s ability to regenerate itself by making new neural connections. This slowly decreases over time but meditation can increase (7) the thickness of the brain’s prefrontal cortex. This helps to slow down cognitive decline and preserve neuroplasticity.
9. Stabilized blood pressure
A randomized control trial (8) published in Hypertension found that a type of meditation, known as transcendental meditation, can lower blood pressure.
10. Reduced stress levels
If you’re stressed, raise your hand. Well, meditation is a natural stress reliever and there’s no “woo-woo” or esoteric reason behind it. Scientific studies have shown (9) that meditation can positively regulate the area of the brain that controls stress, known as the subiculum area of the hippocampus. No crystals necessary.
11. Deeper social connection
Even though meditation is typically done in solitude, research in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (10) revealed that meditation can increase our sense of connection with others. Group meditation studios and classes are capitalizing on this fact and are a great way to help increase your emotional intelligence and deepen your social connection.
12. Increased compassion
The world needs more compassion. A randomized controlled trial (11) found in the Journal of Happiness Studies, showed that after 9 weeks of meditation, self-compassion increased and fear of displaying compassion decreased.
13. Improved self-control
According to research (12) in the scientific journal Emotion, meditation is an effective way to improve self-control, increase introspection, and decreased impulsivity.
A study (13) in the Journal of the American Medical Associate (JAMA) found that an average of 2.5 hours of meditation per week can be enough to reap consistent health benefits. That equates to only 21 minutes a day! Think about how much time we waste on social media. Certainly, we all have 21 minutes to spare in honor of our health.
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- Fahri Saatcioglu, Regulation of gene expression by yoga, meditation and related practices: A review of recent studies Asian Journal of Psychiatry Volume 6, Issue 1, February 2013, Pages 74-77 doi:10.1016/j.ajp.2012.10.002
- Zeidan F, Martucci KT, Kraft RA, Gordon NS, McHaffie JG, Coghill RC. Brain mechanisms supporting the modulation of pain by mindfulness meditation. J Neurosci. 2011;31(14):5540‐5548. doi:10.1523/JNEUROSCI.5791-10.2011
- Epel E, Daubenmier J, Moskowitz JT, Folkman S, Blackburn E. Can meditation slow rate of cellular aging? Cognitive stress, mindfulness, and telomeres. Ann N Y Acad Sci. 2009;1172:34‐53. doi:10.1111/j.1749-6632.2009.04414.x
- Fadel Zeidan, Katherine T. Martucci, Robert A. Kraft, John G. McHaffie, Robert C. Coghill, Neural correlates of mindfulness meditation-related anxiety relief, Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, Volume 9, Issue 6, June 2014, Pages 751–759, https://doi.org/10.1093/scan/nst041
- Leung MK, Chan CC, Yin J, Lee CF, So KF, Lee TM. Increased gray matter volume in the right angular and posterior parahippocampal gyri in loving-kindness meditators. Soc Cogn Affect Neurosci. 2013;8(1):34‐39. doi:10.1093/scan/nss076
- E. Baron Short, Samet Kose, Qiwen Mu, Jeffery Borckardt, Andrew Newberg, Mark S. George, and F. Andrew Kozel, Regional Brain Activation during Meditation Shows Time and Practice Effects: An Exploratory FMRI Study Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine Volume 7. 2010. https://doi.org/10.1093/ecam/nem163
- Lazar SW, Kerr CE, Wasserman RH, et al. Meditation experience is associated with increased cortical thickness. Neuroreport. 2005;16(17):1893‐1897. doi:10.1097/01.wnr.0000186598.66243.19
- Schneider RH, Staggers F, Alxander CN, et al. A randomised controlled trial of stress reduction for hypertension in older African Americans. Hypertension. 1995;26(5):820‐827. doi:10.1161/01.hyp.26.5.820
- Luders E, Kurth F, Toga AW, Narr KL, Gaser C. Meditation effects within the hippocampal complex revealed by voxel-based morphometry and cytoarchitectonic probabilistic mapping. Front Psychol. 2013;4:398. Published 2013 Jul 9. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2013.00398
- Fredrickson, B. L., Cohn, M. A., Coffey, K. A., Pek, J., & Finkel, S. M. (2008). Open hearts build lives: Positive emotions, induced through loving-kindness meditation, build consequential personal resources. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 95(5), 1045–1062. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0013262
- Jazaieri, H., Jinpa, G., McGonigal, K., Rosenberg, E., Finkelstein, J., Simon-Thomas, E., Cullen, M., Doty, J., Gross, J., & Goldin, P. (2012). Enhancing compassion: A randomized controlled trial of a Compassion Cultivation Training program. Journal of Happiness Studies, 14, 1113-1126. doi:10.1007/s10902-012-9373-z
- Sze JA, Gyurak A, Yuan JW, Levenson RW. Coherence between emotional experience and physiology: does body awareness training have an impact?. Emotion. 2010;10(6):803‐814. doi:10.1037/a0020146
- Goyal M, Singh S, Sibinga EMS, et al. Meditation Programs for Psychological Stress and Well-being: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis. JAMA Intern Med. 2014;174(3):357–368. doi:10.1001/jamainternmed.2013.13018
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BY DR. WILL COLE
Dr. Will Cole, IFMCP, DNM, DC, leading functional medicine expert, consults people around the world via webcam and locally in Pittsburgh. He received his doctorate from Southern California University of Health Sciences and post doctorate education and training in functional medicine and clinical nutrition. He specializes in clinically researching underlying factors of chronic disease and customizing a functional medicine approach for thyroid issues, autoimmune conditions, hormonal imbalances, digestive disorders, and brain problems. Dr. Cole was named one of the top 50 functional medicine and integrative doctors in the nation and is the best selling author of Ketotarian and The Inflammation Spectrum.