Positive effects of meditation
It’s popular to talk about meditation and its many positive effects on the mind and body. But just what are the benefits of meditation on the human body, as supported by research?
Let’s take a closer look.
Positive effect of meditation: Immune System
It’s long been suggested that how one thinks and feels has a big impact on how one’s body responds. Research on meditation indicates the relationship between the mind and body are very closely knit.
- In one small study, a control group of 16 adults and a test group of 25 adults went through an 8-week mindfulness meditation program. While the researchers specifically focused on brain activity, they also noted “significant increases” in antibody response to flu as administered via a flu vaccine.
- Six weeks of meditation training reduced innate immune response in the form of lower IL-6 levels as a result of emotional stress.
- A 2016 study reported meditation adjusted both the physical adrenal and immune responses in a positive manner in men who had been injected with endotoxin.
Positive effect of meditation: Inflammation reduction at the Cellular Level
Research has shown that those who meditate regularly can reduce inflammatory responses at the cellular level. In one study, expert meditators were able to reduce the expression of histone and pro-inflammatory genes. This had the added positive effect of increasing the speed that cortisol levels returned to normal.[iv]
Another study tested the effect of vacation time and meditation on inflammation. In this study, researchers evaluated two groups of meditators: one which was new to the practice and one for whom meditation was a regular practice. At the end of the study[v]–
- Perhaps not surprisingly, all groups showed an improved overall well-being.
- The novice meditators showed a better ability to deal with stress.
- The regular meditators were found to have increased telomerase activity and lower TNF-a levels. Once again, the regular meditators had an ability to reduce their body’s inflammatory response at the cellular level.
Other studies have shown the better emotional control demonstrated by those who practice meditation also reduces inflammatory response.
Positive effect of meditation: stress reduction
Meditation is known to help reduce stress. Harvard Medical School Professor Dr. Herbert Benson demonstrated this more than 40 years ago when he introduced the “Relaxation Response” [Link to Relaxation Response article]. Recent research continues to confirm this effect.
One recent study evaluated the effect of a 12-week meditation program with 60 older adults. The 53 who completed the study reported less stress, better sleep and a generally improved overall quality of life.
Reduced stress isn’t just in perception however. Meditation has been shown to reduce levels of the so-called stress hormone cortisol. For example, patients who were to undergo coronary bypass surgery were divided into two groups with one a control group and another given a meditative practice. The group that meditated had comparatively lower cortisol levels before and after surgery in addition to less anxiety!
The impact of meditation on stress can have far-reaching benefits as high, chronic stress has been linked to:
- Weight gain
- Chronic fatigue
- More frequent illness
- Metabolic syndromes like hypertension and diabetes
- Cushing’s Syndrome, in more extreme cases
Positive effect of meditation: brain function
People who practice meditation regularly have been shown to increase matter in the brain. Researchers have observed increases in the:
- Right hippocampus, the area responsible for emotion and mindfulness[xi]
- Prefrontal cortex, one area responsible for decision-making[xii]
- Anterior cingulate cortex, another area responsible for self-control, mood and thinking
These improvements didn’t require a lot of practice or expertise. For example, short-term meditation alone produces improvements in the anterior cingulate cortex.
Patients with Parkinson’s Disease (PD) have also shown increased gray matter in areas of the brain associated with PD after practicing meditation.
The Physical Benefits of Meditation Are Really Unlimited
Improved immune system response, lower cortisol levels, reduced inflammation and increased brain activity all mean one thing. Meditation benefits every aspect of physical health.
Fortunately, meditation doesn’t have to be complicated. As some noted when they described the “Relaxation Response,” all you need is a quiet place you can sit comfortably and a few minutes to relax and you have meditation.
Davidson RJ, et al. Alterations in brain and immune function produced by mindfulness meditation. Psychosom Med. 2003 Jul-Aug;65(4):564-70.
Thaddeus W.W. Pace, et al. Effect of compassion meditation on neuroendocrine, innate immune and behavioral responses to psychosocial stress. Psychoneuroendocrinology, Volume 34, Issue 1, 2009, Pages 87-98, ISSN 0306-4530, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.psyneuen.2008.08.011.
Van Middendorp H, Kox M, Pickkers P, Evers AWMa proof-of-principle studyClinical Rheumatology. 2016;35:1081-1085. doi:10.1007/s10067-015-3009-8.
Kaliman P, Álvarez-López MJ, Cosín-Tomás M, Rosenkranz MA, Lutz A, Davidson RJ. Rapid changes in histone deacetylases and inflammatory gene expression in expert meditators. Psychoneuroendocrinology. 2014;40:96-107. doi:10.1016/j.psyneuen.2013.11.004.
Epel ES1, et al. Meditation and vacation effects have an impact on disease-associated molecular phenotypes. Transl Psychiatry. 2016 Aug 30;6(8):e880. doi: 10.1038/tp.2016.164.
[vi] Melissa A. Rosenkranz, Richard J. Davidson, Donal G. MacCoon, John F. Sheridan, Ned H. Kalin, Antoine Lutz,
A comparison of mindfulness-based stress reduction and an active control in modulation of neurogenic inflammation. Brain, Behavior, and Immunity, Volume 27, 2013, Pages 174-184, ISSN 0889-1591, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.bbi.2012.10.013.
[vii] William B. Malarkey, David Jarjoura, Maryanna Klatt, Workplace based mindfulness practice and inflammation: A randomized trial. Brain, Behavior, and Immunity,Volume 27, 2013, Pages 145-154, ISSN 0889-1591
[xii] Lazar SW, Kerr CE, Wasserman RH, et al. Meditation experience is associated with increased cortical thickness. Neuroreport. 2005;16(17):1893-1897.
[xiii] Tang Y-Y, Lu Q, Feng H, Tang R, Posner MI. Short-term meditation increases blood flow in anterior cingulate cortex and insula.Frontiers in Psychology. 2015;6:212. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2015.00212.