We all know that in the old spiritual traditions the practice of meditation is fundamental to accumulating true wisdom, getting in touch with our intuition and deeper Self, and that it ultimately leads to enlightenment.
Over the last several decades, as meditation practices gained more and more popularity in the west, the long list of benefits added improved energy levels, heightened creativity, better effectiveness and productivity, more restful sleep, and an overall happier outlook on life.
But today’s science is discovering that in addition to all these, there are also immediate health benefits to meditation in general and to Mindfulness Meditation in particular.
Previous research on Mindfulness Meditation has shown that it:
- eliminates stress and depression
- improves blood circulation
- aids in lowering blood pressure
- strengthens immune system and brain function
- minimizes pain sensitivity
The latest studies now break down what exactly it is about the practice that seems to have these beneficial effects.
The findings “unveil the conceptual and mechanistic complexity of mindfulness, providing the ‘big picture’ by arranging many findings like the pieces of a mosaic,” study researcher Britta Holzel, of Justus Liebig University and Harvard Medical School, said in a statement.
The latest research from Holzel has shown that Mindfulness Meditation can actually change the structure of the brain, especially in the brain regions responsible for sense of self, stress, memory and empathy. Here are some findings from the earlier studies:
Mindfulness Meditation makes your brain plastic
Quite literally, sustained meditation leads to something called neuroplasticity, which is defined as the brain’s ability to change, structurally and functionally, on the basis of environmental input.
For much of the last century, scientists believed that the brain essentially stopped changing after adulthood.
But research by University of Wisconsin neuroscientist Richard Davidson has shown that experienced meditators exhibit high levels of gamma wave activity and display an ability — continuing after the meditation session has attended — to not get stuck on a particular stimulus. That is, they’re automatically able to control their thoughts and reactiveness.
Mindfulness Meditation increases gray matter
A 2005 study on American men and women who meditated a mere 40 minutes a day showed that they had thicker cortical walls than non-meditators. What this meant is that their brains were aging at a slower rate. Cortical thickness is also associated with decision making, attention and memory.
M.R.I. brain scans taken before and after the participants’ meditation regimen found increased gray matter in the hippocampus, an area important for learning and memory. The images also showed a reduction of gray matter in the amygdala, a region connected to anxiety and stress. A control group that did not practice meditation showed no such changes.
Mindfulness Meditation is more effective than sleeping
In a 2006 study, college students were asked to either sleep, meditate or watch TV. They were then tested on their alertness by being asked to hit a button every time a light flashed on a screen. The meditators did significantly better than the nappers and TV watchers.
Mindfulness Meditation can help normalize blood pressure
In 2008, Dr. Randy Zusman, a doctor at the Massachusetts General Hospital, asked patients suffering from high blood pressure to try a meditation-based relaxation program for three months. These were patients whose blood pressure had not been controlled with medication. After meditating regularly for three months, 40 of the 60 patients showed significant drops in blood pressure levels and were able to reduce some of their medication. The reason? Mindfulness Meditation promotes deep levels of relaxation which, in turn, results in the formation of nitric oxide that opens up your blood vessels.
Mindfulness Meditation protects your telomeres
Telomeres — the protective caps at the end of our chromosomes — are the new frontier of anti-aging science. Longer telomeres mean that you’re also likely to live longer.
Research done by the University of California, Davis’ Shamatha Project has shown that meditators have significantly higher telomerase activity that non-meditators. Telomerase is the enzyme that helps build telomeres, and greater telomerase activity can possibly translate into stronger and longer telomeres.
Mindfulness Meditation can slow the progression of HIV
A 2008 study on HIV positive patients found that, after an eight-week meditation course, patients who’d meditated showed no decline in lymphocyte content compared with non-meditators who showed significant reduction in lymphocytes.
Lymphocytes or white blood cells are the “brain” of the body’s immune system, and are particularly important for HIV positive people. The study also found that lymphocyte levels actually went up with each meditation session.
Mindfulness Meditation has powerful pain relieving properties
A 2011 study conducted at Wake Forest Baptist University found that meditation could reduce pain intensity by 40 percent and pain unpleasantness by 57 percent.
Meditation works by reducing activity in the somatosensory cortex and increasing activity in other areas of the brain.
Ultimately, Dr. Holzel said she and her colleagues would like to demonstrate how meditation results in definitive improvements in people’s lives.
“A lot of studies find that it increases well-being, improves quality of life, but it’s always hard to determine how you can objectively test that,” she said. “Relatively little is known about the brain and the psychological mechanisms about how this is being done.”
In a 2008 study published in the journal PloS One, researchers found that when meditators heard the sounds of people suffering, they had stronger activation levels in their temporal parietal junctures, a part of the brain tied to empathy, than people who did not meditate.
“They may be more willing to help when someone suffers, and act more compassionately,” Dr. Holzel said.