Meditation has a long history dating back at least 3000 years ago. It began as a practice within Hinduism. Perhaps this is the reason why when many people think of meditation, they imagine someone sitting in a lotus pose, legs crossed, hands raised, and eyes closed.
What’s missing from this stereotype is an understanding of how much meditation has become a variegated practice of enhancing mental control, clarity, and repose. Although some people continue to use meditation as part of their religious practice, the majority of those who practice meditation do so to reap its many health benefits.
This is understandable given how little time it takes to effectively employ meditation daily (about 20 minutes—less time than most people spend catching up on social media).
Let’s take a look at the six science-backed health benefits of meditation.
1. Stronger the Immune System
One of the more surprising aspects of meditation is its impact on your immune system. It turns out that regularly calming your mind has a way of building up resistance to various illnesses. That’s not to say that meditation is a firewall that will prevent you from ever getting the flu again. Even so, the evidence is pretty strong that it can significantly reduce the chances of your becoming sick.
An example of this benefit comes from a study that compared three groups of people. There was a control group where no changes were made to their daily lives, an exercise group where the members completed a set of daily exercises and a meditation group whose members practiced meditation daily.
The study found that after eight weeks, the meditation group had 30% fewer respiratory infections when compared to controls. What’s more, the severity of those illnesses that did occur among people in the meditation group was significantly less than either the exercise or control group.
The takeaway lesson: a regular dose of medication may be just the thing to help guard against some illnesses.
How does this work? No one knows for certain. Even so, it seems likely that because meditation reduces stress, this has the follow-on effect of helping the body stay in a strong state of readiness to combat illness.
2. Decreased Psychological Stress
Everyone experiences stress. If you are conscious, then you experience stress. Some sources of stress are pleasant, such as getting married, going on a vacation, moving into your dream home. Many sources of stress are unpleasant, like being fired from work, the loss of a loved one, the cost of having your car repaired.
No matter the source and no matter whether the stress is pleasant or cringeworthy, it can take a toll on your mental and physical reserves. Consequently, finding effective ways to control your stress is important for living a full and rewarding life.
Meditation can be one of the tools used to reach this goal. This has been shown in many studies. For example, researchers Cara Geary and Susan Rosenthal compared stress levels in two groups of subjects over the course of eight weeks. One group received training in meditation (and then performed it consistently) while the other group coped with stress in their usual manner.
Not surprisingly, the meditation group had significantly less stress after eight weeks. But what is more surprising is that the meditation group continued to have lower stress levels one year later. Moreover, they also rated their overall sense of well-being as higher than those who had not received training in meditation.
The takeaway lesson is that a brief introduction to meditation can lead to lifestyle changes that have long-term impacts.
3. Enhanced Quality of Sleep
Everyone has experienced how much sleep impacts their mood and their ability to function effectively. A good night’s rest sets the foundation for the day ahead. Likewise, a night of tossing and turning creates an obstacle to pushing forward toward your goals the following day.
It’s a well-known problem that 60 million Americans struggle with each year. If you are one of those who chronically wrestle with getting enough good quality sleep, meditation may just be the thing that helps you turn the corner.
One study that supports this idea included a group of participants that were studied for one year. All participants presented with significantly disturbed sleep. The researchers divided the group into two subgroups. One was taught simple meditation techniques. The other group was given instructions on how to get a better night’s rest (e.g., establish routines, decrease caffeine intake, etc.).
At the end of the year, these two groups showed significant differences in their quality of sleep. The meditation group had markedly improved sleep—similar to what is found with those who use medication to treat sleep problems. They found that the power of meditation to improve the quality of sleep was roughly equal to that of medication or cognitive behavior therapy.
The other group—the one that was provided sleep education/instruction—showed only mild improvement in sleep.
But it is not just one study that supports the link between meditation and improved sleep. A 2018 review of 18 studies on meditation, including a total of 1654 participants, found that meditation improved the quality of sleep much more than using a “wait and see” approach.
4. Decreased Cellular Aging
Although practicing meditation does not lead to eternal youth, it does appear to reduce the speed at which cells age and eventually decay. It seems likely that part of the mechanism by which meditation induces this effect is by increasing the presence of telomerase, an enzyme that protects genes from aging (protects, but does not ultimately prevent).
When this enzyme is scarce, cells tend to age faster. When it is in abundance, cells age more slowly. Likewise, the telomerase enzyme increases when someone is coping well with life and decreases when one feels extremely stressed.
Meditation appears to cause an increase in this enzyme and, consequently, reduces the rate of cellular aging. The mechanism by which this happens may be the reduction in psychological stress that is often seen in those who meditate. By reducing tension in life, and increasing a sense of well-being, the presence of telomerase should increase. In turn, cells live longer.
The longer your cells live, the more slowly they need to be replaced, and the slower you age.
5. Increased Memory
Several studies show that meditation enhances memory. It improves blood flow in the brain, which may account for the improvements in memory.
Although research has not shown that one form of meditation is superior to another, it has shown that it only takes about ten minutes of meditation each day for someone to experience these benefits. Moreover, the improvements in memory begin to show up soon after someone begins to make meditation a daily habit.
An example of this is found in a study that compared two groups of subjects. The first group consisted of people who listened to a 13-minute guided meditation recording each day. The other group of subjects listened to a 13-minute podcast (unrelated to meditation).
At the end of eight weeks, both groups were tested and the one that performed daily meditation showed significant improvement in both long-term memory and recognition memory. Not surprisingly, those that meditated also showed less stress.
6. Decreased Anxiety
Anxiety is part of life that everyone experiences from time to time. It arises, becomes a momentary nuisance, is dealt with, and resolved.
For some people, however, anxiety becomes a major source of concern—one that has life-changing consequences: loss of employment, ruined relationships, squandered opportunities, and physical illness. Even milder (but chronic) anxiety can have a significant impact on one’s happiness and ability to function at his or her best.
Fortunately, many effective approaches reduce or eliminate anxiety. These include Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT), medication, Exposure Therapy, Corrective Experience Focused Therapy, and others. But none of these approaches can compete with the simplicity and ease of meditation.
A 2010 review of 39 studies involving 1,140 participants concluded that meditation has a positive impact on reducing anxiety. Interestingly, the authors also found that meditation is sometimes helpful in reducing anxiety that arises as a function of chronic pain, and cancer treatments.
As was true with memory, it does not require long periods of meditation for it to be effective in reducing anxiety. Just 20 minutes a day can prove helpful.
Many people are likely to see improvement in their anxiety levels by following a ten-minute guided meditation once in the morning and once again in the evening. Below is a short video to help you.
Consistently practicing short periods of meditation can result in numerous benefits. Yet, it takes very little effort and costs nothing but a brief bit of your time. It is easy to learn and can be done at home, in the office, or when away traveling.
Anyone wanting to improve their quality of life can readily take advantage of this tool. The only thing needed is to make a decision—start today.
You can easily do that by going to Ron Siegel’s website (he is a Professor at Harvard Medical school) and listening to one of his guided meditations. Barbara Fredrickson, Professor of Psychology at the University of North Carolina, is one of the foremost researchers on meditation. She has free guided meditations on her website that will get you started enjoying the benefits of making this a daily practice.
More About Meditation
Featured photo credit: Darius Bashar via unsplash.com