11 health benefits of meditation
Many people question what meditation is and what exactly it entails. Most people however, have had some sort of introduction to meditation, even though they may not have known it. Have you ever been advised to take a deep breath in and then relax during times of stress? This technique of coping, is a form of meditation.
Meditation is an umbrella term for a wide range of techniques which enable an individual to enter a state of relaxation. It incorporates breathing techniques, distraction, attention focusing and quieter thought processes. Meditation aims to provide a feeling of inner calm and positivity. It takes you mind away from the stresses of day-to-day life.
It is common knowledge that meditation promotes calmness and relaxation. It enhances an individuals well-being by reducing their stress levels. However, meditation can also have profound health benefits.
A vast amount of literature claims that meditation can transform your life. This article aims to explore each of these benefits in detail to provide you with an insight into what practising meditation can do for you and your health, and if it really can transform your life.
What are the health benefits of meditation?
1. Encourages healthier food choices and weight loss
How often in times of stress, have you wanted to eat some chocolate or other sugary food to make you feel better? This is often referred to as comfort eating. Comfort eating is the process of consuming food to simply satisfy emotional feelings rather than hunger. This results in overeating and weight gain.
One in four people are classified as being obese. Obesity increases the risk of many health conditions including type two diabetes, heart disease, hypertension, stroke, breast cancer, colon cancer and gall stones.
Obesity is associated with not just physical complications, but there are also psychological problems associated with it too, such as depression due to decreased confidence. This results in a vicious cycle of overeating to compensate for the negative emotional feelings associated with being overweight, leading to more weight being gained and so forth. Meditation can provide a means of breaking this cycle.
Meditation may not directly result in weight loss in the way that exercise does, however it provides a positive coping strategy, thus resulting in decreased stress levels. When you are relaxed you have a reduced desire to comfort eat to make yourself feel better. Meditation seems to provide a positive coping strategy to help with the stresses of everyday life.
This view is supported by the work of Kristiller et al. (1999) who found that women who practised meditation for a six week daily programme were fifty percent less likely to binge eat than they were prior to the programme commencing. Meditation increases your thought processes and makes you become more aware of your health choices hence enabling you to make better food choices.
2. Decreases blood pressure
It is estimated that at least one in three adults suffer from high blood pressure. High blood pressure (which is medically termed as hypertension), is a serious problem as it increases the risk of cardiovascular disease, including heart disease and stroke. It is often termed a ‘silent killer’ because many people are unaware that they have it until complications arise.
Healthy blood pressure has a reading of around 120/80 mm Hg. The first number shown is the systolic reading. This reading demonstrates the pressure of blood in your arteries when your heart is beating outwards. The second number is known as the diastolic. This reading provides health professionals with an idea of how well your arteries are resisting blood flow. It is the pressure of blood in your arteries when your heart is resting.
A study completed by the University of Kentucky (2008) illustrated that the daily practise of transcendental meditation reduces both the systolic and diastolic blood pressure, resulting in a decrease in the incidence of cardiovascular disease.
Similar results were also demonstrated by Hughes et al. (2013), who found that regular use of meditation lowers blood pressure in pre-hypertensive patients. The study also found that meditation can delay and even prevent the need for the prescription of anti-hypertensive drugs in patients with borderline hypertension.
3. Increases immunity
Dominguez et al. (2014) measured the levels of leukocytes and lymphocytes, the infection fighting components of the blood, in a group of participants practising transcendental meditation, in comparison to a non-practising group. It was found that the quantity of these white blood cells were greater in individuals that participated in at least thirty minutes of meditation daily compared to those who do not practise meditation at all.
Having an increased level of white blood cells in the bloodstream means that the body is better equipped to fight infection, resulting in decreased morbidity. The study concluded that these changes in lymphocyte and leukocyte levels were a result of decreased stress levels and an increased quality of life in meditation practitioners. Creswell et al. (2008) also reported an increase in lymphocytes in the blood in individuals who meditate daily, for at least thirty to forty-five minutes.
The findings of the former studies coincide with those obtained by Barrett et al. (2012). In the latter study however, the researchers focused on the effects of meditation on the incidence of respiratory infection. Participants were split into three groups; the first group participated in at least thirty minutes of daily exercise, the second group participated in at least thirty minutes of daily meditation and the final group experienced no changes to their lifestyle.
It was found that the incidence of the common cold and influenza was almost double in the control group, in comparison to the group of subjects that practised meditation. In addition to this, individuals who do not meditate at all had an increased duration of illness and therefore an increase in the number of sick days taken off from work.
4. Decreases levels of anxiety and depression
Some of the research evaluated above has already described how meditation can lower the levels of stress that you may experience during your day-to-day life, thus increasing your quality and satisfaction of life.
Meditation decreases the levels of stress hormones in the bloodstream, creating a feeling of relaxation and calmness. It also enhances the release of feel good chemicals knows as endorphins, which promote feelings of happiness. Additionally, meditation encourages you to gain more control over your own thought processes, thus enabling you to focus on positive, rather than negative thoughts.
In a preliminary experiment conducted by Barnhofer et al. (2009), patients suffering from depression were split into two groups; one group was treated with just their usual antidepressant medication, whilst the other group was treated with their normal medication in addition to a particular type of meditation known as mindfulness based cognitive therapy.
The study found that levels of depression were significantly lower in the group practising daily meditation. In addition to this, it was reported that meditation can be as effective as antidepressants for treating depression.
Although this experiment was only preliminary and therefore completed on a small scale, utilising only twenty eight participants, the findings coincided with those from other studies. For example, Marchland et al. (2012) also reported a decreased prevalence of stress, anxiety and depression in individuals who practised mindfulness based cognitive therapy and Zen meditation.
5. Improves quality and quantity of sleep
It will come as no surprise to you that stress can cause insomnia. Unfortunately we experience stress in our everyday lives. Our body responds to stress by releasing extra hormones, namely cortisol and adrenaline. These hormones result in a number of changes throughout the body, including the contraction of muscles, increased heart rate and increased energy levels. This is known as the ‘fight and flight’ response.
During chronic stress, our bodies may find it difficult to switch off from this response, hence making it difficult to get a decent nights sleep. Meditation can help to relieve stress, decreasing the levels of adrenaline and cortisol, enabling the body to relax and sleep to commence.
6. Increases attention and concentration
Many studies have illustrated how meditation can increase your attention span. A recent study showed that daily meditation improves your concentration by increasing your ability to focus on specific information, improving your ability to prioritise tasks and by increasing your alertness. (University of Pennsylvania, 2007).
Meditation enables you to focus on one task at a time without distractions, thus improving attention and concentration span. Slagter et al. (2007) reported participants had increased attention, concentration and better utilisation of resources following three months of regular daily meditation.
This is supported by a further study which reported increased concentration and information retention in medical students who meditated prior to attending lectures (Ramsburg, 2004).
7. Provides chronic pain relief
Meditation reduces stress and enables your body to enter a state of deep relaxation. When the body is relaxed and you are enjoying what you are experiencing, your body responds by releasing feel good chemicals known as endorphins.
These chemicals provide pleasure and happiness. This positive state of mind can help to combat any pain usually experienced from chronic illnesses. Meditation also provides distraction techniques enabling you to take your mind away from any emotional pain that you are experiencing.
8. Increases fertility
A common cause of fertility problems is stress. The more relaxed that you are, the more likely you are to conceive. The cortisol that is released in times of stress can inhibit ovulation. Without the release of an egg, fertilisation cannot occur. The part of the nervous system that is responsible for this response to stress is known as the sympathetic nervous system.
Meditation teaches you techniques that can inhibit the activity of the sympathetic part of the nervous system and encourage the stimulation of the parasympathetic nervous system. The parasympathetic nervous system promotes calmness and relaxation. This encourages regular ovulation, thereby increasing the likelihood of conception.
When you have been trying to conceive with no avail for a long time, you can end up worrying and putting more stress on yourself to get pregnant the following month. Many couples say that they only managed to actually conceive when they stopped trying.
Meditation can provide you with a distraction technique which can take your mind away from the strain of trying for a baby. Techniques that you learn can even be applied in labour, as meditation has been found to be an effective form of pain relief during child birth.
9. Lowers blood sugar levels
Paul-Labrador et al. (2007) found that patients suffering from diabetes had improved insulin regulation and therefore lower blood glucose (sugar) levels following a four month programme of daily meditation. Insulin is the hormone that regulates blood glucose levels.
In patients with type two diabetes, the cells become resistant to insulin, resulting in high levels of glucose circulating in the blood. This can cause damage to the eyes, kidneys and nerves in the feet.
Stress increases blood glucose and leads to bad eating habits and lack of motivation to exercise. Meditation combats stress, relaxing the body, reducing binge eating and therefore reducing blood sugar.
10. Fewer migraines
Although the exact cause of migraines remains unknown, a risk factor is tension in the face, jaw and neck. You may have heard the term ‘tension headache’ be used before. This is often attributed to poor posture, for example, as a result of spending long periods of time sat at a desk in front of a computer whilst at work.
Meditation provides us with a technique that enables our whole body to relax. As the muscles in our head and neck relax, this tension is released, decreasing the frequency and intensity of headaches.
Another common risk factor for migraines is stress. As previously mentioned, meditation combats stress levels, helping you to relax. It also provides distraction techniques to enable us to stray away from negative thoughts. With fewer issues to worry about we are less likely to experience stress induced headaches.
11. Reduces tension throughout the rest of your body
It isn’t only our head and neck muscles that experience tension whilst carrying out everyday tasks. Poor posture is an obvious cause of muscle tension. Stress can also cause our bodies to tense up.
When the sympathetic nervous system is triggered in times of stress, our bodies experience the ‘fight and flight’ response as described above. This results in muscle contraction. Meditation teaches us how to relax our bodies, releasing tension and reducing muscular aches and pains.
This article has provided a comprehensive guide relating to the health benefits of meditation. The majority of the scientific evidence included describes the negative impact that stress can have on the body and how meditation can combat this and promote a sense of calm.
If the health benefits above sound appealing to you, then you should definitely give meditation a try. It will teach you how to relax and increase feelings of happiness and positivity.
I hope that you have enjoyed reading this article and that you can now see the positive impact that meditation can have on your health and lifestyle. Have fun relaxing!