The Benefits of Meditation for Brain Health: How Mindfulness Can Improve Cognitive Function


In today’s busy world where stress and mental health concerns are prevalent, it is vital that we do everything in our power to support optimal brain health. And with society’s fast-paced, on-the-go lifestyle, meditation has emerged as a popular tool for its ability to help us slow down, relax, and improve our mental wellbeing. As a functional medicine expert, I’ve seen firsthand the benefits meditation can have on your cognitive health beyond just reducing stress. So without further ado, let’s dive into the science behind meditation and unlock the transformative power of this time honored practice to cultivate a happy, healthy brain.


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The science behind meditation

Meditation has long been an integral part of traditional practices, and has gained significant recognition in the scientific community in recent years for its impact on brain health. In fact, numerous studies have revealed that regular meditation can induce neuroplasticity, the brain's ability to reorganize and form new neural connections, to improve overall cognitive function. Here are just a few ways your brain can benefit from a regular meditation practice.

1. Meditation reduces stress and neuroinflammation

Chronic stress is a pervasive challenge in modern society, wreaking havoc on our physical and mental well-being. Fortunately, meditation acts as a powerful antidote by activating the relaxation response and reducing (1) the production of stress hormones like cortisol. By alleviating stress, meditation lowers (2) neuroinflammation, a significant contributor to cognitive decline and various neurological disorders, including Alzheimer's disease and Parkinson's disease.

2. Meditation enhances neurotransmitter function

Neurotransmitters such as serotonin and dopamine, play a vital role in regulating mood, motivation, and overall brain function. Through meditation, we can influence the delicate balance of these chemicals to promote an optimal state of mental well-being. Studies have shown (3) that meditation increases serotonin production, leading to improved mood and reduced symptoms of anxiety and depression. Meditation has also been linked (4) to increased dopamine levels amplifying feelings of pleasure, focus, and motivation.

3. Meditation boosts cognitive reverse and function

Cognitive reserve refers to the brain's ability to withstand the degenerative effects of aging and neurological disorders. Regular meditation has been linked to an increase in cortical thickness, particularly in regions associated with attention, sensory processing, and emotional regulation. This boost in cognitive reserve provides a protective buffer, (5) reducing the risk of cognitive decline and neurodegenerative diseases, such as dementia and Alzheimer's.

4. Meditation supports the mind-body connection

At the heart of functional medicine - and the main focus of my latest book, Gut Feelings - the mind-body connection emphasizes the profound relationship between our mental and physical health. Meditation serves as a bridge, fostering harmony between your emotions and physical wellbeing. By promoting relaxation and reducing the body's inflammatory response, meditation supports brain health and overall well-being. Additionally, meditation enhances self-awareness and mindfulness, empowering you to tune into your natural intuition which can help you be aware of and address early signs of cognitive decline.

5. Meditation can improve our mood

Studies have found that meditation can be even more effective than pharmaceutical medications for treating anxiety and depression - without any of the common side effects! This is because meditation can increase (6) gray matter in the right angular and posterior parahippocampal gyri area of the brain that controls your mood. 

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Exactly how to practice meditation

Integrating meditation into your daily routine doesn't have to be a daunting task. And it doesn’t have to take long either! Anywhere between 10-15 minutes per day is enough to reap the benefits of meditation. Here are some practical tips to get started:

1. Start small

Begin with just a few minutes of meditation each day and gradually increase the duration as you become more comfortable.

2. Establish a routine 

The great thing about meditation is that it can be done anywhere. However, when you are first getting started, establishing a routine can be helpful in making it a daily habit. Choose a quiet and peaceful environment where you can relax and focus without distractions.

3. Explore different techniques

Experiment with various meditation techniques, such as mindfulness, breathwork, loving-kindness, or transcendental meditation, to discover what resonates with you.

4. Be consistent

Aim for regular practice, even if it's just a few minutes each day. Consistency builds the foundation for lasting benefits.

5. Seek guidance

Apps like Headspace and Calm offer short, guided meditations based on what your goals are and can help you move through your practice more effectively when you are getting started. You can also consider joining a meditation group or working with a qualified meditation teacher to deepen your practice and receive personalized guidance.

The Takeaway

Meditation is a powerful, natural way to take back control of your brain health. From reducing stress and inflammation to enhancing cognitive reserve and promoting a vibrant mind-body connection, the benefits of this ancient practice are truly life-changing. By incorporating meditation into your daily life, not only can you deepen your connection with yourself, you can unlock the full potential of your brain to live a longer, healthier, vibrant life for years to come.

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  1. Koncz A, Demetrovics Z, Takacs ZK. Meditation interventions efficiently reduce cortisol levels of at-risk samples: a meta-analysis. Health Psychol Rev. 2021 Mar;15(1):56-84. doi: 10.1080/17437199.2020.1760727. Epub 2020 Jul 7. PMID: 32635830.
  2. Khalsa DS. Stress, Meditation, and Alzheimer's Disease Prevention: Where The Evidence Stands. J Alzheimers Dis. 2015;48(1):1-12. doi: 10.3233/JAD-142766. PMID: 26445019; PMCID: PMC4923750.
  3. Thambyrajah JC, Dilanthi HW, Handunnetti SM, Dissanayake D. Serum melatonin and serotonin levels in long-term skilled meditators. Explore (NY). 2023 Mar 22:S1550-8307(23)00067-8. doi: 10.1016/j.explore.2023.03.006. Epub ahead of print. PMID: 37061347.
  4. Kjaer TW, Bertelsen C, Piccini P, Brooks D, Alving J, Lou HC. Increased dopamine tone during meditation-induced change of consciousness. Brain Res Cogn Brain Res. 2002 Apr;13(2):255-9. doi: 10.1016/s0926-6410(01)00106-9. PMID: 11958969.
  5. Malinowski, P., Shalamanova, L. Meditation and Cognitive Ageing: the Role of Mindfulness Meditation in Building Cognitive Reserve. J Cogn Enhanc 1, 96–106 (2017).
  6. 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 Jan;8(1):34-9. doi: 10.1093/scan/nss076. Epub 2012 Jul 18. PMID: 22814662; PMCID: PMC3541494.

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Dr. Will Cole, DNM, IFMCP, DC is a leading functional medicine expert who consults people around the globe, starting one of the first functional medicine telehealth centers in the world. Named one of the top 50 functional and integrative doctors in the nation, Dr. Will Cole provides a functional medicine approach for thyroid issues, autoimmune conditions, hormonal imbalances, digestive disorders, and brain problems. He is the host of the popular The Art Of Being Well podcast and the New York Times bestselling author of Intuitive Fasting, Ketotarian, The Inflammation Spectrum and the brand new book Gut Feelings: Healing the Shame-Fueled Relationship Between What You Eat and How You Feel.

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