Learn five ways meditation can improve your mental and physical well-being.
If you’ve been following my work for any length of time, you’ve probably heard me mention meditation as an excellent way to reduce stress and improve health (here, here, and here). Just last week I wrote about mindfulness (which can include mindfulness meditation) as a way to avoid a “near-life experience.”
We know that stress is a major contributor to almost every ailment imaginable, from thyroid disorders and diabetes to digestive issues. But it’s often difficult for people to commit to a stress-reduction practice like meditation, likely in part because stress-reduction can seem vague and hard to define compared with changing your diet, supplement, or exercise routine.
But when you look at the research, meditation as a form of stress-reduction has actually been studied in many randomized clinical trials that show concrete, measurable benefits. And the best part is that you can reap most of these benefits in just 10-20 minutes per day!
What is “meditation”?
There are several subcategories under the broad umbrella of ‘meditation’, but the two types most frequently studied are transcendental meditation and mindfulness meditation. The main difference between the two is that with transcendental meditation (TM), you focus on a mantra that you repeat in your head, whereas with mindfulness meditation, you typically focus on your breath or other physical sensations.
I was introduced to meditation through TM when I was 17 years old (thanks Dad!). After a few years I transitioned to mindfulness meditation, and eventually to Zen practice. Regardless of which form of meditation you practice, the goal is to develop greater awareness of your thoughts, feelings and sensations, and learn to observe them without reacting unconsciously.
Here are my top five reasons you should start meditating today.
1. It will make you more focused and productive
I personally have had a pretty consistent meditation practice for more than 20 years now, and one of the areas I find it most helpful is for boosting productivity and improving focus. One study shows that meditating for just 10 minutes per day can improve focus and help the brain become more efficient at processing conflicting stimuli. (1)
Another study found improvements in attention and cognitive function after only four days of meditation training. (2) There’s even convincing evidence that meditation actually causes physical changes in the gray and white matter of the brain, particularly regions responsible for awareness, self and emotion regulation, and memory. (3) By meditating, you can actually ‘re-wire’ your brain to be more effective and efficient.
2. It’s good for your heart
Increased productivity and focus is great, but the benefits of meditation aren’t just mental. Several randomized controlled trials have shown significant decreases in blood pressure in participants assigned to meditation, compared with controls who were assigned to progressive muscle relaxation or health-education programs. (4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10) This is important because high blood pressure is the single greatest risk factor for heart attack. Meditation is also associated with decreases in mortality in older patients with high blood pressure. (11)
Meditation improves other markers of heart health as well. (12) For example, in African American adolescents with borderline high blood pressure, four months of meditation resulted in significantly decreased left ventricular mass compared with controls receiving health education. (13) This is noteworthy because increased left ventricular mass is an early sign of left ventricular hypertrophy, which is a strong predictor of cardiovascular-related mortality. One small study even showed significant reductions in cholesterol levels in patients with high cholesterol who meditated for 11 months. (14)
3. You’ll be happier and less stressed
One of the more widely acknowledged benefits of meditation is improvement in mental disorders such as anxiety and depression. Several trials have found meditation to be effective at reducing symptoms of anxiety and depression, even when compared with active controls (such as relaxation techniques). (15, 16, 17)
One difficulty in meditation research is setting up an appropriate control group, so I found this next study’s use of “sham meditation” interesting. They compared the effects of brief mindfulness meditation (20 minutes per day for three days) with the effects of sham meditation, where participants believed they were meditating but were not instructed to focus on the breath and let go of passing thoughts. Even though the trial lasted only three days, participants in the mindfulness meditation group reported significantly lower levels of depression, fatigue, and confusion at the end of it when compared with the sham meditation group. (18) All of the participants believed they were meditating, but the mindfulness meditation group still showed significantly greater benefits.
4. It might reduce inflammation
It seems logical that meditation could improve anxiety and depression by reducing mental stress and improving cognitive function. But we also know that symptoms of depression and anxiety can be caused by inflammation, and a few studies have actually shown that meditation can reduce gene expression for inflammatory cytokines.
One study assigned a group of premenopausal breast cancer survivors to a mindfulness meditation practice consisting of one 2-hour group class per week and 5-20 minutes of individual meditation per day. (19) After six weeks, the patients in the meditation group had reduced levels of pro-inflammatory gene expression and signaling compared with a control group who received no treatment.
A study on 45 dementia caregivers found that meditating for 12 minutes per day for eight weeks resulted in altered gene expression, with increased expression of immunoglobulins and decreased expression of pro-inflammatory cytokines. (20)
5. It can help you sleep
Lack of sleep is a major contributor to chronic disease in our modern society. Even when people have time to get adequate sleep, they often can’t fall asleep because their brains are still in high-gear. Good sleep hygiene (like reducing nighttime exposure to artificial light) certainly helps, but by training your brain to let go of passing thoughts instead of pursuing them through meditation, you’ll make it far easier to “turn off” your brain when it’s time to sleep.
Several studies have supported meditation as an effective treatment for insomnia. (21, 22) One randomized controlled trial of 30 adults with chronic insomnia even found that an 8-week mindfulness meditation program was as effective at improving sleep as medication with Lunesta. (23)
Bonus reason: you have nothing to lose!
There are many more conditions than I’ve listed here that stand to benefit from regular meditation practice. Meditation has been shown to increase longevity in elderly nursing-home residents (24); increase telomerase activity in immune cells (25, 26); and improve immune strength and resistance to the flu (27). Meditation has also been studied and found to be helpful in disordered eating (28), fibromyalgia (29, 30), chronic low back pain (31), insulin resistance (32), and psoriasis (33).
But the cool thing about meditation is that you really don’t need a huge list of tightly-controlled trials to assess its safety and prove that it works. It’s not a drug. There are no side-effects. It doesn’t cost money. So you have nothing to lose by just giving it a shot, and everything to gain.
There are tons of free resources online for getting started with meditation. Lifehacker has some helpful information, and the UCLA Mindfulness Awareness Research Center has a free meditation podcast with guided weekly meditations. I also like the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction Program, and some people have found apps like Headspace to be helpful.
If you have any favorite resources or suggestions, share them in the comments below!