By Dr. Joanna Rosenfeld ND
Since you have taken an active interest in your own health care treatment, then you have likely heard about the benefits of meditation and mindfulness. But do you really know why regular meditation is so beneficial? Common self-reported benefits include reduced levels of anxiety, depression and pain; data which have been reinforced through many scientific trials. Practicing mindfulness through meditation improves our brain function, our immune system, our propensity for developing chronic disease and even slows down the aging process.
Stress and Your Health
An estimated 60-90% of health care visits are related to mind-body stress induced conditions. The stress response, also called the “fight or flight response”, is the body’s way of managing a threat – real or imagined. The threat creates a downstream release of epinephrine and norepinephrine and then cortisol into the bloodstream. These hormones cause increased heart rate, blood pressure and breathing rate as well as increased blood sugar levels. If the body is exposed to stress for long periods of time, cortisol levels will remain high in the blood stream. Continuous elevated cortisol levels contribute to increased levels of inflammation, weight gain, decreased immune function, higher risk of developing cardiovascular disease and accelerated aging. So what helps us in the short term to manage stressful conditions can really hurt us in the long run.
Stress decreases the effectiveness of the immune system, which is why people often get sick following periods of stress. Rats who were kept in isolation, which is stressful environment for them, experienced much slower healing time than rats who were kept in a social environment. If they were given some form of stimulation, their wounds healed much more quickly. This indicates that although stress does down-regulate immunity and wound healing, these effects can be mitigated by changing the environment, and stress levels.
Meditation can help provide an immune boost. In a group of people receiving the flu vaccine, regular meditators produced more antibodies to the flu virus than non-meditators. Meditation can also be used in conjunction with other treatments to improve outcomes. For example, in patients with psoriasis, those who listened to a guided meditation while receiving conventional UV treatment had faster time to skin clearing than controls receiving UV treatment but no guided meditation.
Meditation has also been shown to have an effect at the level of gene expression. Researchers analyzed gene profiles of subjects who had never practiced meditation, and then again after completing an 8 week daily meditation program. After 8 weeks the genetic profile showed increased activity, of certain beneficial genes responsible for energy, blood sugar control and slowed aging. There was also decreased activity of harmful genes, coding for inflammation. These changes were seen before and after just one session of meditation, demonstrating that meditation changes our genetic profile in just minutes.
Functional and Structural Brain Changes
Meditation practice is able to influence both the structure and function of the brain. Long-term meditators have increased gamma activity, which is associated with peak concentration and higher levels of cognitive functioning. Increases in gamma activity were even seen in people who had only been practicing meditation for one week.
In addition to functional changes in the brain, there are also structural differences in the brain of people who meditate. As people age, the brain shrinks and loses grey matter. However, 50 year old meditators have the same amount of grey matter as 25 year old non-meditators, showing meditation has a protective effect on the aging brain.
Eliciting the Relaxation Response
So, how can you incorporate meditation and mindfulness into your day so that can you start reaping the multitude of benefits? There are many meditation facilities; or online resources and CDs that will help you get started. Herbert Benson recommends something even more simple, and benefits are seen in just 10 minutes a day.
1. Choose an appropriate environment
Ideally chose a quiet and calm environment with as few distractions as possible.
2. Find a Mental Stimulus
Choose a word, thought, phrase repeated silently or aloud. This is a way to break the train of distracting thoughts that enter your mind. Close your eyes or use a soft gaze. Try to coordinate your inhale and exhale breath as you repeat the sentence or word. Examples of words include “peace”, “one”, and “trust” or sentences such as “I am relaxed” or “I am breathing in calm and breathing out tension”.
3. Adopt a Attitude
Adopt a passive attitude and when distracting thoughts occur, they should be disregarded and attention redirected to the repetition. Do not worry about the outcome of the exercise, or how well you are performing. Adopt a “let it happen” attitude. This is the most important part of the process – wandering thoughts are expected, and it is important that you acknowledge them and then return to your repetition.
Sit or lie down in a comfortable position to prevent undue muscle tension. This may mean sitting cross-legged, or lying down but be careful not to fall asleep! Swaying or rocking may prevent falling asleep if you have a tendency to do so during this practice.
It’s never too late to start enjoying the physiological, emotional and spiritual benefits of this rewarding practice – your body and mind will thank you!
Questions about this article? Contact Dr. Rosenfeld at [email protected]