The most significant benefits of meditation
Eastern philosophies have recognized the health benefits of meditation for thousands of years. Meditation lowers blood pressure, strengthens the immune system and delivers an overall improvement in your ability to concentrate. And the best part about meditation is you don’t need to be a Buddhist monk to experience the many health benefits of meditation.
The studies on the health benefits of meditation are numerous and the benefits proven seem endless as well. It has been stated that long-term mediators experience 80 percent less heart disease and 50 percent less cancer than non-mediators and that females who meditate have an average of 47 percent more DHEA, the youth-related hormone, than those who don’t. This hormone helps heighten memory, lower stress levels, preserve sexual function and maintain weight.
Various benefits from research studies indicate that meditation:
Improves both Physical and Emotional Responses to Stress. With stress playing a role as a contributing factor in major modern killers – there’s no time like now to get yours under control. A study conducted at the Department of Physiology and Anatomy, Faculty of Medicine, Chulalongkorn University, Bangkok, Thailand found that after meditation, serum cortisol levels were significantly reduced, serum total protein level significantly increased, and systolic pressure, diastolic pressure and pulse rate significantly reduced. Read related article for stress reduction from meditation.
Improves Concentration. Meditation, according to Penn neuroscientist Amishi Jha and Michael Baime, director of Penn’s Stress Management Program, is an active and effortful process that literally changes the way the brain works. Their study is the first to examine how meditation may modify the three subcomponents of attention, including the ability to prioritize and manage tasks and goals, the ability to voluntarily focus on specific information and the ability to stay alert to the environment.
Decreases Blood Pressure. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that 1 out of 3 American adults have high blood pressure. Having high blood pressure increases one’s chances of developing heart disease, stroke, congestive heart failure and kidney disease. According to a study conducted at the University of Kentucky meditation is an effective treatment for controlling high blood pressure with the added benefit of bypassing possible side effects and hazards of anti-hypertension drugs. The study’s lead author, Dr. James W. Anderson, professor of medicine at the University of Kentucky College of Medicine, associated meditation with approximate reductions of 4.7 mm systolic blood pressure and 3.2 mm diastolic blood pressure and said that blood pressure reductions of this magnitude would be expected to be accompanied by significant reductions in risk for atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease. Read related article on meditation for physical health.
There is a long list of studies and results that indicate superior benefits of meditation which help conditions as:
- Anxiety disorders
- Binge eating
- Heart disease
- High blood pressure
- Sleep problems
- Substance abuse
Please feel free to contact us about the pros and cons of using meditation if you have any of these or other medical conditions. Meditation isn’t a replacement for traditional medical treatment. But it can be useful in addition to your other treatments.
Different types of meditation
There are many types of meditation and relaxation techniques with meditation components. But all share the same goal of inner peace. Techniques such as:
Observation meditation. This type of meditation is based on being mindful, or having an increased awareness and acceptance of living in the present moment. You focus on what you experience during meditation, such as the flow of your breath. You can observe your thoughts and emotions but let them pass without judgment. This Technique can also be incorporated in daily life by living in the ‘now’ and accepting for what is.
Guided meditation. Sometimes called guided imagery or visualization, with this method of meditation you form mental images of places or situations you find relaxing. You try to use as many senses as possible, such as smells (using incense), sights, sounds and textures. This Technique can be led through by a guide or teacher.
Mantra meditation. In this type of meditation, you silently repeat a calming word, thought or phrase to prevent distracting thoughts. Transcendental meditation is a type of mantra meditation in which you achieve a deep state of relaxation to achieve pure awareness.
Qi gong. This practice generally combines meditation, relaxation, physical movement and breathing exercises to restore and maintain balance. Qi gong (chee-kung) is part of traditional Chinese medicine.
Kung Fu. This is a form of the gentle side of Chinese martial arts. A series of self-paced series of postures or movements in a slow, graceful manner while practicing deep breathing.
Yoga. You perform a series of postures and controlled breathing exercises to promote a more flexible body and a calm mind. As you move through poses that require balance and concentration, you’re encouraged to focus less on your busy day and more on the moment.
In the fast paced industrial age, millions are suffering from stress related problems of the physical body such as high blood pressure, heart disease, migraines and much more. Doctors can only prescribe medication in order to ‘stop’ these so called problems. There is an answer to this may be meditation.
Taking part in programs designed to modify behavior, such as anger management training and transcendental meditation sessions, seems to have a measurable impact on blood pressure according to preliminary results of the Health Education and Diet, Stress Management and Anger Reduction Therapy (HEAD SMART) study.
“Blood pressure, at least from the anger management and transcendental meditation (groups), is being reduced on average by 12 millimeters mercury (mm Hg) systolic and 7 to 8 millimeters mercury diastolic,” said Lollis, a professor at the Morehouse School of Medicine in Atlanta, Georgia.
The study of 150 men and women in the San Francisco area compared the effects of twice daily meditation, muscle relaxation and health education classes. Women who meditated showed the greatest benefit.
The transcendental meditation study is the latest in a number conducted by researchers affiliated with the Maharishi University of Management, founded by the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the Indian cleric best known for teaching the Beatles about eastern religion in the 1960s. Numerous studies of other meditation techniques by researchers at other schools have also found benefits for those suffering from conditions ranging from arthritis to cancer.
Dr. Frank Staggers, a study co-author, said the idea for the study stemmed from successful results achieved after he asked patients with high blood pressure to use relaxation techniques. Staggers, who is black, said many of the patients at the Oakland clinic are black and suffer from high blood pressure.
“It just makes sense. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that if you just relax, your whole body would say `OK, thanks’ and settle down. It’s a simple concept but something that we had to prove,” Staggers said.
Women who meditated had both blood pressure readings drop about seven points while the other two groups registered drops of about one point one and three points. The findings were less supportive for meditating men.
Men who meditated had a 0.2 point increase in their systolic reading and a 4.7 point drop in their diastolic reading while those who practiced muscle relaxation registered drops of 2 points and 3.1 points. Men in the health education group recorded drops of about .9 and 2 points.
The use of blood pressure medication, meanwhile, went down slightly in the transcendental meditation group while increasing for the other two groups, the authors reported.
Trish Magyari, director of the mindfulness-based stress reduction program at the University of Maryland’s Center for Integrative Medicine, who was not involved in the study, said the results were most significant for women and consistent with previous studies that have shown benefits of meditation for stress-related conditions. Magyari said she has seen similar reductions in blood pressure among patients who practice meditation at her center, which studies complementary and alternative medicine.
Dr. Amparo Castillon-Richmond, a co-author of the study, said meditation may help balance opposing nervous system functions responsible for slowing and speeding the heart and other involuntary functions. Meditation may activate the half responsible for lowering blood pressure, she said.
Castillon-Richmond, of the Midwest Latino Health Research Training and Policy Center at the University of Illinois at Chicago, said participants were given a mantra, a simple word or sound, by a teacher, closed their eyes and repeated the word in their mind, settling what she called the “thought process” and allowing them to reach a “level of restful alertness.”
“The technique in meditation is very simple, you take 20 minutes in the morning and 20 minutes in the afternoon to close your eyes and repeat the mantra, that’s all it takes,” she said.
Dealing with stress the wrong way
When we are placed in situations of pressure or stress, our body responds in very negative ways. Such outcomes are mental fatigue, anxiety attacks, anger, frustration and all these can lead to other problems of the physical body. Many people tend to deal with such ‘problems’ with listen to music, resorting to drugs or alcohol, physical exercise and many others. But the solution is not to turn away from it but be able to control, reduce and on a higher level not be affected by it at all.
Now a team of researchers from China and the University of Oregon have developed an approach for neuroscientists to study how meditation might provide improvements in a person’s attention and response to stress. The study, done in China, randomly assigned college undergraduate students to 40-person experimental or control groups. The experimental group received five days of meditation training using a technique called the integrative body-mind training (IBMT). The control group got five days of relaxation training. Before and after training both groups took tests involving attention and reaction to mental stress.
The experimental group showed greater improvement than the control in an attention test designed to measure the subjects’ abilities to resolve conflict among stimuli. Stress was induced by mental arithmetic. Both groups initially showed elevated release of the stress hormone cortisol following the math task, but after training the experimental group showed less cortisol release, indicating a greater improvement stress regulation. The experimental group also showed lower levels of anxiety, depression, anger and fatigue than was the case in the control group.
“This study improves the prospect for examining brain mechanisms involved in the changes in attention and self-regulation that occur following meditation training,” said co-author Michael I. Posner, professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Oregon. “The study took only five days, so it was possible to randomly assign the subjects and do a thorough before-and-after analysis of the training effects.”
Integrative body-mind training
The IBMT approach was developed in the 1990s. Its effects have been studied in China since 1995. The technique avoids struggles to control thought, relying instead on a state of restful alertness, allowing for a high degree of body-mind awareness while receiving instructions from a coach, who provides breath-adjustment guidance and mental imagery while soothing music plays in the background. Thought control is achieved gradually through posture, relaxation, body-mind harmony and balanced breathing. The authors noted in the study that IBMT may be effective during short-term application because of its integrative use of these components.
IBMT has been found to improve emotional and cognitive performance, as well as social behavior, in people, said lead author Yi-Yuan Tang, a professor in the Institute of Neuroinformatics and Laboratory for Body and Mind at Dalian University of Technology in Dalian, China. Tang currently is a visiting scholar at the University of Oregon, where he is working with Posner on a new and larger study to be conducted in the United States.
The current study did not include direct measures of brain changes, although previous studies have suggested alterations have occurred in brain networks. Posner said the planned studies in the United States will include functional magnetic resonance imaging to examine any brain network changes induced by training.
In summary, the 11-member team wrote: “IBMT is an easy, effective way for improvement in self-regulation in cognition, emotion and social behavior. Our study is consistent with the idea that attention, affective processes and the quality of moment-to-moment awareness are flexible skills that can be trained.”
At this point, the findings suggest a measurable benefit that people could achieve through body-mind meditation, especially involving an effective training regimen, but larger studies are needed to fully test the findings of this small, short-term study, Posner said.
Meditation research explores how the brain works when we refrain from concentration, rumination and intentional thinking. Electrical brain waves suggest that mental activity during meditation is wakeful and relaxed.
“Given the popularity and effectiveness of meditation as a means of alleviating stress and maintaining good health, there is a pressing need for a rigorous investigation of how it affects brain function,” says Professor Jim Lagopoulos of Sydney University, Australia. Lagopoulos is the principal investigator of a joint study between his university and researchers from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) on changes in electrical brain activity during nondirective meditation.
Whether we are mentally active, resting or asleep, the brain always has some level of electrical activity. The study monitored the frequency and location of electrical brain waves through the use of EEG (electroencephalography). EEG electrodes were placed in standard locations of the scalp using a custom-made hat
Participants were experienced practitioners of Acem Meditation, a nondirective method developed in Norway. They were asked to rest, eyes closed, for 20 minutes, and to meditate for another 20 minutes, in random order. The abundance and location of slow to fast electrical brain waves (delta, theta, alpha, beta) provide a good indication of brain activity.
Calm mind awareness with theta waves
During meditation, theta waves were most abundant in the frontal and middle parts of the brain.
“These types of waves likely originate from a relaxed attention that monitors our inner experiences. Here lies a significant difference between meditation and relaxing without any specific technique,” emphasizes Lagopoulos.
“Previous studies have shown that theta waves indicate deep relaxation and occur more frequently in highly experienced meditation practitioners. The source is probably frontal parts of the brain, which are associated with monitoring of other mental processes.”
“When we measure mental calm, these regions signal to lower parts of the brain, inducing the physical relaxation response that occurs during meditation.”
Quiet experiences with alpha waves
Alpha waves were more abundant in the posterior parts of the brain during meditation than during simple relaxation. They are characteristic of wakeful rest.
“This wave type has been used as a universal sign of relaxation during meditation and other types of rest,” comments Professor yvind Ellingsen from NTNU. “The amount of alpha waves increases when the brain relaxes from intentional, goal-oriented tasks. This is a sign of deep relaxation, but it does not mean that the mind is void.”
Neuro-imaging studies by Malia F. Mason and co-workers at Dartmouth College NH suggest that the normal resting state of the brain is a silent current of thoughts, images and memories that is not induced by sensory input or intentional reasoning, but emerges spontaneously “from within.”
“Spontaneous wandering of the mind is something you become more aware of and familiar with when you meditate,” continues Ellingsen, who is an experienced practitioner. “This default activity of the brain is often underestimated. It probably represents a kind of mental processing that connects various experiences and emotional residues, puts them into perspective and lays them to rest.”
Meditation distinct from sleep
Delta waves are characteristic of sleep. There was little delta during the relaxing and meditative tasks, confirming that nondirective meditation is different from sleep.
Beta waves occur when the brain is working on goal-oriented tasks, such as planning a date or reflecting actively over a particular issue. EEG showed few beta waves during meditation and resting.
“These findings indicate that you step away from problem solving both when relaxing and during meditation,” says Ellingsen.
Nondirective versus concentration
Several studies indicate better relaxation and stress management by meditation techniques where you refrain from trying to control the content of the mind.
“These methods are often described as nondirective, because practitioners do not actively pursue a particular experience or state of mind. They cultivate the ability to tolerate the spontaneous wandering of the mind without getting too much involved. Instead of concentrating on getting away from stressful thought and emotions, you simple let them pass in an effortless way.”