Meditation and Its Benefits

Meditation is rooted in Eastern culture and has been practiced for thousands of years by different cultures throughout the world. The term meditation encompasses a wide variety of techniques and practices, including mindful meditation, transcendental meditation, and guided meditation. The various forms of meditation implement techniques such as focusing attention on an object, a word, or the breath. A specific posture is sometimes used but not necessary.

Meditation is easy to learn, requires no special equipment, and can be done most anywhere. Stress reduction is often experienced after just the first session. For long-term health benefits, most research agrees that a mere 20 minutes a day is all that is needed. However, even 10 minutes a few times a week can make a difference.

The regular practice of meditation contributes to both psychological and physiological health. Meditation brings the brainwave pattern into an alpha state, which is a level of consciousness that promotes healing. Meditation is used as a form of relaxation, to promote mental acuity, to promote psychological health, to aid in treatment in various physical disorders and diseases, and for overall mind/body health.

The psychological benefits of meditation can include:

  • Decreased anxiety
  • Decreased depression
  • Decreased stress
  • Decreased moodiness and/or irritability
  • Increased emotional stability
  • Greater creativity
  • Increased learning ability
  • Increased memory
  • Increased vitality
  • Increased happiness

The physiological benefits of meditation can include:

  • Lower heart rate, resulting in a reduced workload on the heart
  • Increased blood flow
  • Lower levels of cortisol, a corticosteroid hormone produced in the adrenal gland that is connected to stress levels
  • Reduction of free radicals, an unstable molecule within the body that can cause tissue damage and lead to disease
  • Lower blood pressure
  • Lower cholesterol levels
  • Improved air flow
  • Decreased muscle tension, thereby reducing tension headaches and various pain conditions.
  • Increases activity of natural-killer cells, thereby improving the function of the immune system
  • Increased exercise tolerance
  • Increased serotonin production, which may help relieve insomnia
  • A decrease in the intensity of some symptoms associated with various chronic illnesses

Much research has been done to back up the beneficial claims of meditation. Some of that research follows:

In order to determine exactly what part of the brain meditation acts on, researchers at Harvard Medical School used an MRI to monitor the brain activity of participants while they meditated. The research found that meditation activates the sections of the brain in charge of the autonomic nervous system, which controls body functions such as digestion and blood pressure. Since these functions are often compromised by stress, it makes sense that meditation would benefit stress-related conditions such as heart disease and digestive disorders.

Jon Kabat-Zin, Ph.D., associate professor of medicine at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center and director of the Medical Center’s Stress Reduction Clinic, recorded the brain waves of stressed employees of a Madison, Wisconsin firm. Kabat-Zin found that people who meditate shift their brain activity from the stress-prone right frontal cortex of the brain to the calmer left frontal cortex. This shift decreases the negative effects of stress, anxiety, and mild depression. Kabat-Zin also noted that the amygdala, the section of the brain that processes fear, became less active.

In a separate study by Kabat-Zin, patients with chronic pain conditions participated in mindful meditation for an eight-week period. Seventy-two-percent of those patients experienced at least a 33-percent reduction in pain. Sixty-one-percent of patients felt their pain had been reduced by a minimum of 50-percent.

The arthritis self-help course at Stanford University employed meditative techniques as a key element of their program. More than 100,000 people with arthritis have taken the 12-hour course to learn meditation-style relaxation exercises. Graduates report a 15- to 20-percent reduction in pain.

The journal Stroke published a study of 60 African-Americans with atherosclerosis, divided into groups that either did or did not practice meditation for six to nine months. African-Americans were specifically chosen for this study because they are twice as likely to die from cardiovascular disease as are whites. The study participants who meditated showed a marked decrease in the thickness of their artery walls. Contrarily, the participants who did not meditate showed an increase of their artery walls. The reduction of artery wall thickness in the meditation group could potentially decrease the risk of heart attack by 8-percent and the risk of stroke by 8- to 15-percent.

A study published in Psychosomatic Medicine had 90 cancer patients practice mindful meditation for seven weeks. At the end of the study, the patients reported significantly less depression, anxiety, anger, and confusion. They also had more energy and fewer heart and gastrointestinal problems.

Researchers at the Maharishi School of Management in Fairfield, Iowa, studied a group of people who had meditated for four months. At the study’s closing, the researchers determined that the group produced less cortisol (the so-called stress hormone) and were better able to adapt to stress in their lives.