7 Benefits of Meditation on the Brain and Body
Meditation has existed for more than 5000 years, possibly dating back to 3000 B.C. or even earlier. Many cultures and religions have a version of meditation that brings humans from the material world closer to the spiritual world.
More recently, meditation has become widely recognized as a tool to improve emotional well-being, reduce stress, improve physical health and heighten mental acuity. These are just a few of the benefits of meditation!
Meditation activates the parasympathetic nevous system: this is the part of the autonomic nervous system that helps us recover from stress. Reducing that stress not only has a major effect on your brain, but it also can have myriad benefits throughout the body, including improving inflammatory conditions like Irritable Bowel Syndrome and chronic pain issues.
7 Benefits of Meditation
With just a few minutes of quiet each day, you may notice a marked impact. Here are some of the health benefits of meditation that can help both your brain and your body.
Meditation Changes Your Brain Structure
A recent study showed that in the brains of nearly 300 regular meditation practitioners, eight regions of the brain were consistently more developed than those in non-meditators. The areas affected are responsible for body awareness, memory, emotional regulation and intercommunication between regions of the brain. While the study did not further examine the effect of these morphological changes on the subjects’ daily lives, it suggests that performance of tasks controlled by these regions should improve.
Meditation Strengthens Your Heart
The relaxation response triggered by meditation can impact indicators of health like heart rate, blood pressure and oxygen consumption. Meditation helps to calm an otherwise frantic system, building connections in the brain that encourage blood pressure regulation.
In addition, practicing mindfulness alters how we respond to stressful situations. Rather than exploding with rage, regular meditators are often better at assessing and reacting calmly to a situation (also great for your blood pressure!). Evidence also suggests that the more you meditate, the better at this you become, and the more noticeable the impact on your heart and circulatory health.
Meditation Can Improve Your Digestion
That fight-or-flight state isn’t only turned on when you’re being pursued by a bear. Stress in real life – in your work, relationships, while you’re driving – activates the same high-intensity response. When you’re in a pressure-filled work situation, your body takes resources away from immediately non-essential functions like digestion to deal with the more pressing situation.
Mindfulness and meditation teach the body to respond more calmly, so essential functions can happen more easily. Meditation has been shown to improve symptoms of Irritable Bowel Syndrome and Inflammatory Bowel Disease, calming inflammatory responses and allowing more regular digestion and elimination.
Meditation Improves Genes that Bolster Your Resistance to Disease
Regular relaxation, including practices like yoga, meditation, prayer and deep breathing, has been shown to turn on genes that protect against disorders including infertility, rheumatoid arthritis, cancer and inflammation. In regular meditators, genes that inhibit these conditions are more active and occurrences of these diseases were lower. Long-time meditators weren’t the only ones to see benefits, either. New meditators saw a positive change in their genetic expression within just two months of beginning a regular daily practice. In this short period of time, subjects’ protective genes were activated, making the benefit of meditation accessible to all. Their immune systems became more effective at detecting, destroying and disposing of diseased cells since starting to meditating regularly.
Meditation Can Help Mediate Your Response to Pain
One of the most surprising benefits of meditation? Pain responses. Pain can be a good thing: that signal helps us pull our hand away from a hot iron or stop running if we are injured. Being able to tolerate a moderate amount of discomfort, though, can be beneficial and it can be improved with meditation.
One study showed that subjects who used mindfulness techniques and were exposed to pain (being touched with something hot) reported 27% less pain than those who did not practice mindfulness. The pain matrix in the brain was 45% less active. Not only did meditation change people’s perception of the pain, it also altered the neural activity associated with it. This is great news for people suffering with chronic pain.
Meditation Can Improve Your Memory
The hippocampus is a complex deep within the brain that is involved in memory consolidation. When we’re stressed, the body is pumped full of cortisol, the primary stress hormone responsible for helping the body cope with life-or-death situations. This chemical makes glucose more easily available to the brain and muscles and tells the body to shut down non-emergency functioning, including memory storage.
Cortisol has been shown to shrink the hippocampus and interfere with memory storage and processing. Chronic stress means chronic memory impairment. However, one study showed that with an eight-week mindfulness practice, gray matter in the hippocampus regenerated in a correlative relationship: the more you meditate, the stronger the connections in the memory center will be.
Meditation is Good for Your Mental Health
Improved mental health is one of the most important benefits of meditation. An estimated 18% of adults in the U.S. deal with anxiety disorders. Meditation has been shown to reduce symptoms of these conditions in as little as five weeks. While not everyone will respond to meditation in the same way, and some conditions do require additional therapies or medication, a self-focus meditation practice may help to calm the neural pathways and habitual thought patterns that contribute to anxiety disorders.
There’s a lot more to meditation than yoga mats and sitting on the floor. In fact, there are countless benefits of meditation for both your body and mind. Some of the most notable include improved heart health, digestion, and immune health, as well as improved memory, pain management, and mental health. The best part is that anyone can enjoy these benefits of meditation, even if you’ve never done the practice before. Simply taking a few minutes out of your day to practice mindfulness will help you reap these amazing benefits.