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)
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.
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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.
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Don’t know about others, but meditation helping me a lot. It has helped me to reduce stress, i am more focused now, and super energized as well.
I wasn’t taking meditation seriously few months back. Than one fine day i tried it and it was something like magic happen. I loved it. I felt tears in my eyes. Its like clearing your RAM, i feel fresh everytime. I more focused and happy then earlier.
Great article! You mention an evolution for TM to (presumably) Vipassana to Zen.
My questions are:
– When you say Zen do you mean Zazen/Shikantaza or Koan work?
– Did you make the change from TM to Zen based on the result of research in terms of bran benefits or simply personal preference?
Having never done TM or mantra work, I cant say anything about it as a style but see it as a concentration-focused practice whereas mindfulness and shikantaza are more of an awareness-based practice and I wonder if they have the same benefits on the brain.
I myself got involved into meditation after watching horror movies involving astral projection. Since that I have been experimenting with different types of meditation, especially staring at the flame of a candle.
What was interesting to observe is my mood. After months of daily meditation, I decided to stop for couple of weeks, and within first 7 days i got more grumpy, stressed, easier to get irritated. Once I got aware of my mood swings, I got back to daily meditation of 15-30 minutes a day, right before sleep, and let me tell you something…. IT WORKS LIKE MAGIC!
Meditation can give you a feeling of calm, peace and balance that advantages both your emotional well-being and your overall health.
Wow…….”No wonder I been pumping out work and meditation does really work and music does it for me too!” Thanks Chris
I chant 30 minutes a day Nam meheyo renge keyo to start my day. I can feel it if I miss it.
Wow. Great read, and some serious discussion going on here. Who knew people had such strong feelings about their quiet time?
At the risk of just “adding to the noise,” I think it’s important for people to understand that value of meditation is not so immediate in many cases, as taking a pill of some sort. Years may go by before one notices a measurable change in the way they feel. Inside, there may be countless changes, but the growth (IMHO) is perceptively like watching hair grow. Day-to-day it seems the same.
Well, I think I know the point you are making. I think stress reduction is almost immediate and further stress reduction also does improve over time. However to your point, I think meditation helps you to bring your tendencies to a conscious level that were previously unconscious. This process is very subtle and happens over a longer period of time. This process leads to aha moments and a clearer realization of the choices you make and how to make personal lasting changes to benefit yourself and others. One suggestion I would make is never to judge a particular meditation as good or bad, beneficial or not beneficial, just do the meditation consistently and go back to your daily activities in a mindful manner.
Yes, you get me. I think it depends on the person too. Someone who is otherwise a calm person may not notice a big shift in one session… whereas, say, someone who lives with constant anxiety will probably feel something immediately after a session. I’m with you on labeling things as good and bad…
People with anxiety I agree will certainly notice immediate benefits but I also think people simply living a hectic schedule with life’s daily stressors which typically applies to most people imo, would also experience immediate benefits from daily meditation as well. I have had many times that I think I don’t have time to meditate today now I know those days are when I definitely should take the time to meditate.
I’ve been practicing meditation ever since I moved to Asia in mind-2014 and, since then, I have not only noticed a marked difference in my mental acuity throughout the day, but (as you stated) it legitimately helped me with my sleep!
3 cheers for daily meditation!
Just starting out with meditation, i’m having some difficulties in relaxing and “stop thinking” lol it’s like my mind has a life of its own…
Thanks for the article, great tips 🙂
An interesting technique that probably works somewhat like meditation is EFT: the”emotional freedom technique” that Dr. Mercola (mercola.com) recommends. It’s a more active approach to fixing specific problems.
EFT is not a form of meditation. A useful tool perhaps for various issues both physically and emotionally but is is not meditation.
Wow, there are so many people advertising expensive junk in this comment thread. The whole point of the article is that meditation is FREE to everyone, and does not require fancy tools or a “guru” who wants you to turn over your material wealth for his benefit.
Shame on the people who are trying to do business in a place for healing.
I believe the point of the article was simply to provide the benefits of meditating. Chris made several recommendations that were not free. Obviously, there is some self serving promotion regarding meditation products/teachers in the comments made by readers, so I think the take away is to start a meditation practice and choose your flavor but I agree with you that one should be cautious in spending an inordinate amount of money on a meditation program or following any teacher blindly, as meditation at it is roots is simple and just needs to be practiced regularly to achieve the benefits.
It’s good that mindfulness meditation is going more mainstream. The program that I recommend is Shinzen Young’s teaching on “The Science of Enlightenment” available from Sounds True. He teaches mindfulness with an emphasis on Vipassana (“to see things as they really are”) Buddhism, but his approach is truly non-sectarian, as he acknowledges your theology or religious orientation is not what’s important here. He approaches the material in a natural, scientifically oriented way. There are 6 guided meditations included, plus lots of teaching.
A number of people have mentioned binaural beat recordings. I can recommend i-Awake technologies for those – more reasonably priced than Holosync I think. I personally like the Harmonic Resonance program from iAwake.
Great article! I started meditating a few years ago, and while I haven’t formed a complete habit of it (I really should do it everyday!) On days I do it, though, I find I can get through the day a lot less anxious and a lot less tired at the end of the day. I’d HIGHLY recommend it to people who feel too stressed to get through the day.
I second the book 10% Happier, as it helped me understand how mindfulness works in a busy, stressful, modern life. And that led me to the Insight Timer which has both free and paid apps.
Insight timer allows you to time your formal meditation sessions but much more. There are guided meditations by many of the “big names” in meditation from a variety of approaches and backgrounds. There are communities you can join to chat with others with similar interests. And you can see a map of the world which shows how many app users around the world are meditating at the same time you are. Sounds superfluous, but since meditation is largely a solitary practice, it’s nice to know you are not alone. There is an online journal option as part of the app, and if you are the type motivated by it there are “milestones” you can earn for meditating regularly.
Meditation on Loving Kindness is also very helpful and can be developed gradually towards liberation of mind. In one sitting one can start with breath mediation and once mind quietens down direct loving kindness (or Metta) towards all beings in the universe.