Back in the 1970’s a young medical researcher by the name of Herbert Benson observed Tibetan Monks in deep states of meditation performing physiological feats that, at the time, defied scientific explanation. In frigid temps, sitting in little more than a tunic, the monks generated enough body heat to dry soaking wet towels. In the past three decades, science has come a long way in understanding the amazing mind and body changes brought about by regular meditation practice. While you’re probably not looking to dry the laundry while meditating, you may be interested in knowing how a simple meditation practice can benefit your health and wellbeing.
Meditation is a millennia-old technique documented in all the spiritual traditions of the world. When meditating, there is a physiological shift in the brain and body, which Dr. Benson was the first to identify and name ‘the relaxation response’ (RR), This response is exactly opposite to the stress response that so many of us have a hard time avoiding in our daily lives. Sure, you have lots of ways to relax—sleeping, watching TV, reading—but these activities do not bring about the same changes in the brain and body that come about when you meditate.
What is different about meditation—in addition to changes in brain waves, heart rate and breathing rate—is that you are disengaging from the thinking process. Even though the brain is involved in meditation, it ultimately gives you a brain break, allowing you to become a detached from the mental clutter that fills your mind, Meditation trains your brain to let go of it all, one breath, one moment at time. Your troubles won’t magically disappear, but you’re perspective about them (and your to do list) will shift, especially if you practice meditating just a few days a week.
How does Meditation work?
When you are physically or emotionally stressed, your body releases stress hormones that can have a negative effect on your health. This is not to say negative emotions actually cause disease. Rather, research shows that being stressed and having stress hormones (e.g., cortisol) circulating through your body for prolonged periods, is associated with chronic health conditions and certain diseases.* Meditation brings about the RR, which reduces the levels of stress hormones. Now, your immune system is better able protect you from illness and can help restore wellness and balance if you have been ill or stressed. Some of the many benefits of meditation practices are listed below.
Physical Benefits of Meditation
- Lowers high blood pressure
- Reduces sensation of pain
- Reduces tension-related pain (tension headaches, musculoskeletal pain)
- Strengthens function of the immune system
- Improves quality of sleep
Brain Benefits of Meditation
- Improves blood flow to brain
- Boosts production of brain chemicals associated with mood, memory and learning
- Strengthens neural pathways (neural plasticity)
- Improves emotional stability
- Enhances creativity
- Creates shifts in perspective about daily hassles
Effects of Meditation on Illness
Meditation is very helpful in reducing symptom severity and improving coping if you have an illness, especially one made worse by stress.
- Anxiety disorders
- Heart disease
- High blood pressure
- Chronic pain
- Sleep problems
How do you start a meditation practice?
Just Google ‘Meditation’ and you’ll be surprised to see just how many ways to practice there are. We’ll give you two great options for beginners: In the U.S., the most popular styles of meditation are Transcendental Meditation (TM) and Mindfulness Meditation (MnM). In TM, you repeat a mantra (a single word or phrase). In MnM, you focus attention on your moment-by-moment thoughts and sensations. The breath is used to steady your awareness in the present moment with each inhalation and, with each exhalation, let go of and move on from any thought or sensation that may arise. For most of us, the type of meditation style chosen isn’t as important as the fact that you are giving yourself the gift of time for meditation.
- To begin a meditation practice you only need about 10 minutes a day.
- Progress slowly to 20 minutes daily, 3-4 times a week. Whether you choose TM or MnM is up to you.
- Use sounds of nature, music, a candle, or a guided visualization to help you focus your attention away from the chit-chat in your head.
- Meditation is often done seated or lying down. Use cushions or a chair to support your posture.
- Eyes closed or open—up to you.
If you don’t want to try meditating on your own, look for a class in your community.
You’ll soon discover that meditation is a state of mind involving awareness and acceptance, that you can be do in the midst of any activity—even the laundry.
Written by: Karen M. Rider, M.A.
Karen is a contributing editor with Medicine Talk Pro. She has a decade of experience writing about holistic health and wellness. Karen holds degrees in kinesiology and health psychology and has training in wellness coaching, yoga, and health research. She is a member of the American Society of Journalists and Authors and the Association for Health Care Journalists. When she isn’t writing, Karen enjoys biking and kayaking with her family and relaxing with a home-brewed cup of organic tea. Learn More about Karen
The Relaxation Revolution: Enhancing Health through Mind-Body Medicine. Dr. Benson speaks to a small group about the role of the relaxation response in enhancing personal health with mind-body techniques.
Kabat-Zinn, J. Full Catastrophe Living: Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain, and Illness (Delta Trade Paperbacks, 1990).
Mehrmann, Craid S., “Meditation: Classifications, Mechanisms, and Clinical Applications” in Naturopathic Doctor News & Review 11:1, (January 2014), 1; 6-9
Tang, YY, et al., “The neuroscience of mindfulness meditation.” Nat Rev Neurosci. 2015 Apr;16(4):213-25. doi: 10.1038/nrn3916. Epub 2015 Mar 18.
Morgan, Nani et al. “The Effects of Mind-Body Therapies on the Immune System: Meta-Analysis.” Ed. Reury F. P. Bacurau. PLoS ONE 9.7 (2014): e100903. PMC. Web. 11 Nov. 2015.
Ospina, M. B. et al. “Meditation practices for health: state of the research.” Evid. Rep. Technol. Assess. (Full Rep.) 155, 1–263 (2007).
Vitetta L, Anton B, Cortizo F, Sali A. “Mind-body medicine: stress and its impact on overall health and longevity.” Ann N Y Acad Sci. 2005;1057:492-505.
Xiong GL, Doraiswamy PM. “Does meditation enhance cognition and brain plasticity?” Ann N Y Acad Sci. 2009 Aug;1172:63-9.