What is the first thing that comes to mind for achieving optimal wellness? Sure, there are many factors to consider, but most people don’t put meditation at the top of the list for physical health and long-tern wellness. However, this view may change as fascinating research continues to enlighten us on the extensive health benefits of this time-honored practice.
The most well-known benefit of meditation is its ability to dissolve stress. We know that chronic stress can have grave consequences for our health by suppressing immunity, fueling inflammation, damaging cellular health and DNA, and promoting numerous disease processes. Now, studies reveal that ongoing stress can have a profound effect on our DNA by shortening telomeres, putting us at a higher risk of chronic disease. But research shows that meditation is successful in physically repairing this DNA damage, while restoring peace of mind and offering other powerful health benefits at the same time.
Telomeres and Health
Our genes are located on twisted, double-stranded molecules of DNA called chromosomes and at the ends of the chromosomes are stretches of DNA called telomeres. Telomeres are essentially the end caps that protect chromosomes from fraying due to aging, poor health, environmental assaults, and other influences. Researchers already knew that telomeres shorten and deteriorate as we get older, but new studies are finding that chronic stress speeds this process.
Meditation Protects Telomeres
Wear and tear of telomeres can be prolonged through the activation of a key enzyme called telomerase. Telomerase adds bases to the ends of telomeres and keeps them from fraying. So how do you reap the benefits of this super-charged enzyme? One study revealed that regular meditation can increase telomerase activity by up to 43%. 1 This means increased DNA protection and healthy cellular longevity.
Studies, including double blind clinical trials, show that regular meditation practice can reduce chronic inflammation.2 This makes sense, since stress releases cortisol and other pro-inflammatory signals into the circulation. The researchers found that regular meditation practice reduced inflammatory biomarkers such as C-Reactive protein in saliva samples. Other research showed that regular meditation suppressed the expression of genes related to inflammatory processes.
Research with cancer patients and other immune-compromised subjects demonstrates that meditation helps restore healthy immune function, including NK cell and cytokine activity, as well as antioxidant function.3
Supports Heart Health
A number of studies show that mediation practice reduces blood pressure and slows resting heart rate. Other studies show regular meditation can reduce risk of heart attack and stroke by up to 48%. Clearly, the stress-relieving, anti-inflammatory benefits of meditation help support heart health, but there may be something deeper going on. Meditation helps increase our feelings of love and compassion, and strengthen areas in the brain related to empathy and emotional processing. This can have a profound impact on physical heart health, as well as overall healing capacity.4
Reduces pain, improves quality of life
MRI imaging showed that meditation can reduce activity in areas of the brain related to pain processing. Other studies in patients with chronic pain showed that regular meditation helped to reduce pain severity and improve quality of life.5
In the field of neuroscience, researchers are learning how regular meditation practice enhances brain power, strengthens connections between neurons, lifts depression, tempers emotional reactivity, builds compassion and empathy and improves concentration and focus, among other benefits. This may only be the tip of the iceberg!
Meditation practice starts with quieting our constant mental chatter. A wise metaphor describes the condition of our hyperactive, everyday minds: “The mind is like a blind rider on a wild horse.” We have no control, and we don’t know where our thoughts will lead. We are held captive by our mental processes which express the ongoing dialogue between our desires and dislikes. Quite literally, our brains are wired for this constant back and forth of attachment and aversion: what we want to happen vs. what we fear will happen.
Society, media, and corporations understand and exploit these mental circuits. In other words, we’re continually reinforcing this expression of ego, rather than working to liberate ourselves from the emotional tug-of-war that dictates our feelings, thoughts, habits, actions, relationships and experience of life.
By simply taking a step back and making an effort to notice these mental and emotional patterns, we interrupt this neurotic circuitry. The practice of meditation helps us to take note of, and then gradually reduce these frenetic thought patterns so we can truly relax and recharge our nervous system.
Gradually, meditation allows the space between thoughts to become wider, clearer. Our attachments
and grasping begin to loosen and as we ease into this spaciousness, a deeper awareness arises. We begin to experience more peace, clarity, and greater love and compassion.
This process is not about escape, or detachment – it’s about training our minds to become more calm, focused and aware. More present. During meditation practice, feelings will inevitably arise: Pain, sadness, fear, hopes, and aversions. But like clouds, they will pass. Our mind’s true nature is like the sky that lies behind the clouds – clear, open and expansive. The goal in meditation is not to suppress thoughts or feelings, but simply observe how they come and go like clouds.
opens in a new windowTo begin, find a quiet space. Sit comfortably. Place a small object on the ground in front of you, like a pebble, and focus on the object and your breathing. It won’t be easy at first. Your busy mind will likely distract you with to-do lists and other chatter. This is a natural part of the process, so just gently bring your focus back to your breathing and the object. As you nurture this inner calm, it will become easier to access with regular practice, bringing you not just peace of mind, but an incredible array of health benefits as well.
Regardless of your age, health or belief system, simple regular meditation practices can benefit you on all levels. As more health practitioners are recommending this ancient practice, meditation is on its way to holding a well-deserved reputation as a simple yet powerful modality for supporting health and preventing illness. Simply put, meditation practice — even just ten minutes a day — allows our healing capacity to take a quantum leap.
Lavretsky H, Epel ES, Siddarth P, et al. A pilot study of yogic meditation for family dementia caregivers with depressive symptoms: effects on mental health, cognition, and telomerase activity. Int J Geriat Psychiatry. 2013;28(1):57-65.
Creswell JD, Taren AA, Lindsay EK, Greco CM, Gianaros PJ, Fairgrieve A, Marsland AL, Brown KW, Way BM, Rosen RK, Ferris JL. Alterations in Resting-State Functional Connectivity Link Mindfulness Meditation With Reduced Interleukin-6: A Randomized Controlled Trial. Biol Psychiatry. 2016 Jul 1;80(1):53-61. doi: 10.1016/j.biopsych.2016.01.008. Epub 2016 Jan 29. PMID: 27021514.
Black DS, Slavich GM. Mindfulness meditation and the immune system: a systematic review of randomized controlled trials. Ann N Y Acad Sci. 2016;1373(1):13-24. doi:10.1111/nyas.12998
Koike MK, Cardoso R. Meditation can produce beneficial effects to prevent cardiovascular disease. Horm Mol Biol Clin Investig. 2014 Jun;18(3):137-43. doi: 10.1515/hmbci-2013-0056. PMID: 25390009.
Zeidan F, Vago DR. Mindfulness meditation-based pain relief: a mechanistic account. Ann N Y Acad Sci. 2016;1373(1):114-127. doi:10.1111/nyas.13153