3 Meditation Health Benefits Backed by Science


3 Scientifically Backed Health Benefits of Meditation

Even with scientific evidence that supports the health benefits of meditation, many people still think that the supposed benefits of meditation are a sham. Indeed some proponents of meditation can become evangelical and make all sorts of unsupported and silly claims. This undermines the legitimate health benefits of meditation, both mental and physical. 

In this article we’ve narrowed down the three main health benefits of meditation that have the strongest scientific evidence. There is evidence that implementing a daily meditation habit will reduce stress, combat age-related cognitive decline, and decrease blood pressure. That is fantastic return-on-investment when you consider that meditation can be as simple as sitting quietly with your eyes closed for fifteen minutes each day.

If you want to make meditation a daily habit, read this.

1. Reduce stress

For most of us, it's difficult to accurately and precisely describe stress. But the biological response to stress and the effects that this response has on the human body are well understood by doctors and scientists.

A stress response meant the difference between life and death for our ancient ancestors who had to contend with predators and the elements. In fact, the stress response is the main reason we're all still here. Scientists are able to quantify the nature and intensity of this stress response by measuring the levels of certain chemical compounds in blood, urine, and hair. The chief among these stress-signaling compounds is cortisol. 

Cortisol is mainly synthesized in your brain from the adrenal gland. Your body produces and releases cortisol on a fixed schedule, but can ramp up production and release in response to external or internal stressors. Cortisol increases blood-sugar, suppresses the immune system, and aids in metabolism. It also allows us to measure and compare stress responses between people and groups.

Researchers used cortisol and other inflammatory markers to measure the effectiveness of meditation-based stress reduction strategies relative to traditional strategies, such as medication, exercise, and behavioral therapy. They found that compared to traditional stress reduction strategies, the meditation-based strategy resulted in lower cortisol levels. Lower cortisol levels are indicative of lower stress, suggesting that meditation is an effective stress reduction strategy.

Another study conducted on people suffering from anxiety disorders compared meditation to conventional strategies, such as medication, exercise, or behavioral therapy, using a patient-scoring system. Instead of measuring cortisol levels, researchers had patients score themselves on many different metrics related to stress, anxiety, pain, and depression. The results showed that meditation positively affected the self-reported anxiety scores in the majority of patients. This tells us that, at minimum, the patients' perception of how stressed they were was positively affected. Oftentimes the perception of stress and anxiety is enough to cause or mitigate a biological response.

There is evidence that meditation can directly affect, and suppress, the biological stress response in humans. If chronically produced, cortisol gives rise to negative physiological phenomena such as high-blood sugar, irregular metabolism, and long-term cardiovascular disease. By meditating daily you can decrease the frequency and magnitude of your stress response, disrupting patterns of chronic stress that may have a grip on your life, and ultimately mitigating these negative health effects.

2. Fight age-related cognitive decline

Age-related cognitive decline is an unfortunate reality that touches everyone at one time or another. Fortunately, there is a growing body of evidence showing that some of these effects can be counteracted by cognitive training programs. Due to the positive mental health effects that meditation has had on younger populations, researchers are investigating the potential that meditation programs have for mitigating age-related cognitive decline. Preliminary evidence from this work shows that meditation may positively affect memory, cognition speed, attention, and executive function in older populations.

Beyond general cognitive decline there are specific diseases like Alzheimer's that manifest as extreme cognitive decline and eventual loss of memory. Researchers are exploring the role of stress and anxiety in the neurodegeneration associated with Alzheimer's. Stress, and the associated elevated cortisol levels, has been shown to cause neurotoxic damage to cells in important brain areas including the hippocampus. In addition, stress can increase other Alzheimer's risk factors like inflammation, insulin resistance, and hypertension.

To understand how meditation may counteract the negative effects of Alzheimer’s, researchers examined the brain activity of participants in a meditation study. Specifically, they monitored the frontal lobe and the post cingulate cortex (PCG) - two areas known to be affected by Alzheimer's. The results showed that meditation increased blood flow to both the frontal lobe and the PCG. In addition, meditation appeared to activate the PCG. This is significant because one of the early signs of Alzheimer's is the disruption of the connection between the PCG and the hippocampus. Researchers hypothesize that activating the PCG could protect the connection between the hippocampus and PCG, potentially delaying the onset of Alzheimer's symptoms.

Although research is in the early stages, there is a growing body of evidence that cognitive training programs, and specifically meditation programs can help delay age-related cognitive decline. In addition, brain imaging studies have shown that meditation may help stimulate parts of the brain involved in protecting against diseases like Alzheimer's. 

3. Decrease blood pressure

High blood pressure, or hypertension, was a factor in 18% of all deaths globally in 2010 - 9.4 million deaths. It is estimated that hypertension affects 16 - 37% of the global population. While there are specific causes of hypertension, many cases are non-specific and due to a combination of lifestyle and genetic factors.

Having high blood pressure is no joke. It puts you at elevated risk for the following:

  • Heart disease
  • Kidney disease
  • Peripheral vascular disease
  • Heart failure
  • Kidney failure
  • Pulmonary embolism
  • Cognitive impairment
  • Age-related cognitive decline

In fact, health authorities claim that hypertension is the single most significant preventable risk factor for premature death, globally. The non-specific and widespread nature of this condition makes understanding prevention techniques incredibly valuable for our collective health and wellbeing.

The standard prevention advice includes:

  • Maintain a healthy body weight and level of body fat for your age and sex
  • Reduce dietary sodium intake
  • Limit alcohol consumption
  • Include fruit and vegetables in your diet

Exciting new research on meditation suggests that a prolonged meditation practice can lower one's risk of hypertension. A recent meta-analysis observed that long-term (>10 years) meditators had significantly lower blood pressure and heart rate than non-meditators. There is speculation that these decreases are due to the focused and slower breathing patterns often associated with meditation practices. Regardless, if a regular meditation practice can help prevent hypertension you should start today.

A recent study investigated the short term effects of meditation on heart rate and blood pressure. The major finding was that, compared to the non-meditators, the group practicing meditation had lower systolic blood pressure. Systolic blood pressure is simply the blood pressure during the contraction of the heart. In addition to the decrease in blood pressure, the results showed that the group of meditators had decreased insulin sensitivity. Remember that stress causes the release of cortisol and that cortisol can increase insulin sensitivity. Meditation seems to be an effective way of managing several afflictions related to poor lifestyle choices and high stress.

Reduce stress. Fight age-related cognitive decline. Lower your blood pressure. Three fantastic health reasons to kick-off your daily meditation habit today. There is a growing body of evidence that meditation is a holistic strategy for bettering your health Further, it will undoubtedly complement other healthy lifestyle choices. Do yourself a favor and start meditating today.

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References

  1. Goyal M et al. Meditation programs for psychological stress and well-being: a systematic review and meta-analysis. JAMA Intern Med. 2014 Mar; 174(3):357-68.
  2. Melissa A. Rosenkranz et al. A comparison of mindfulness-based stress reduction and an active control in modulation of neurogenic inflammation. Brain, Behavior, and Immunity. 2013 Jan; 27:174-84.
  3. Khalsa DS. Stress, Meditation, and Alzheimer's Disease Prevention: Where The Evidence Stands. J Alzheimers Dis. 2015;48(1):1-12.
  4. Gard T, Hölzel BK, Lazar SW. The potential effects of meditation on age-related cognitive decline: a systematic review. Ann N Y Acad Sci. 2014 Jan;1307:89-103.
  5. Koike MK, Cardoso R. Meditation can produce beneficial effects to prevent cardiovascular disease. Horm Mol Biol Clin Investig. 2014 Jun;18(3):137-43.

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