When it comes to meditation, most of us think about inward focus, personal relaxation or a deep concentration that allows for release and inner calm. Meditation can certainly offer that – but don’t underestimate the host of physical benefits for both the body and brain.
People have been practicing meditation for thousands of years and it is an integral part of many religions, such as Buddhism and Hinduism. But you don’t have to be religious to meditate. In fact, non-religious forms of meditation and ‘mindfulness based cognitive therapy’ – a combination of meditation and cognitive therapy – are enjoying a surge in popularity as aids to health and wellbeing. Here are five ways that meditation can help.
1. Compassion Meditation Boosts Your Immune System
There is evidence that compassion meditation, which aims to bring gentle awareness to our interactions with others and encourage feelings of empathy, actually boosts the body’s immune system.
Researchers at Emory University found that “engagement in compassion meditation reduced stress-induced immune and behavioural responses.” Another study by the University of Wisconsin-Madison showed that compassion meditation affects brain regions that can make a person more empathetic to other peoples’ mental states.
2. Meditation Changes the Structure of Your Brain
A study published in the medical journal Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging showed that regular meditation can change brain structure in just 8 weeks.
Participants in a 2 month mindfulness meditation class experienced structural brain changes including increased grey-matter density in the hippocampus which known to be important for learning and memory, and in structures associated with self-awareness, compassion and introspection.
This was the first study that conclusively documented meditation-produced changes in the brain.
3. Meditation improves heart health
In a study led by Dr. Randy Zusman at the Massachusetts General Hospital participants significantly decreased their blood pressure levels. The study involved a three month experiment where participants were trained to practice a relaxation technique. Over the course of the research 40 of the 60 participants showed a decrease in blood pressure.
In a separate study at the Maharishi University of Management participants at risk of heart disease showed a 48% decrease in the risk of heart attack following a course in transcendental meditation compared to a control group who attended classes about diet and exercise.
4. Meditation Switches on Genes That Fight Disease
Researchers at the Harvard Medical School have found that deep relaxation seems to switch off ‘disease causing’ genes, while switching on genes that actively protect us from disorders such as high blood pressure to pain to infertility and even rheumatoid arthritis.
The researchers compared the genetic profile of individuals who were long-term practitioners of relaxation methods such as yoga and meditation to a control group of individuals who were not relaxation practitioners. Researchers attribute these changes to a phenomenon they call the ‘Relaxation Effect’.
5. Meditation Can Help Reduce Chronic Pain
There is a huge body of research work indicating that meditation can reduce chronic pain. One notable study conducted at the Texas Tech University found that meditation in conjunction with traditional medicine enhances the effectiveness of Western medical treatment. In another study published in the Journal of Behavioural Medicine, patients suffering from backache, chronic migraine and tension headaches were able to lessen or even stop their pain medication.
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