Studies suggest meditation can significantly improve our health both mentally and physically by reducing the harmful effects of stress on our body.
“When the mind worries, it causes activation of our stress system that has a cumulative negative effect over time and makes us more susceptible to poor health and disease,” says Dr Craig Hassed, coordinator of mindfulness programs at Monash University.
“Meditation and mindfulness practices have been found to have the opposite effect on the body by counteracting these negative physiological effects of stress,” he says.
Here, we explore the top five science-backed reasons to meditate.
It supports your immune system
Next time you feel the beginnings of a cold approaching, why not try a mind-body approach. “A distressed mind causes inflammation in the body,” explains Dr Hassed.
But a review of research into the effectiveness of mindfulness meditation on the immune system suggests it may lower levels of C-reactive protein, a blood marker for inflammation, and increase a number of key immune system helper cells, which destroy infection and help to prevent us from getting sick.
It increases your emotional control
One of the brain centres involved in our emotional responses, the amygdala, becomes reactive when our minds are distressed or distracted, explains Dr Hassed.
“The amygdala controls our response to fear and other primal emotions, which explains why we often have little control over these emotions when we’re stressed,” he says.
However, a recent study found that after an eight-week course of mindfulness meditation, the amygdala in meditators had shrunk.
“After a couple of weeks of meditating people often say ‘I’m not as reactive to stressful situations as I was a few weeks ago’ and that’s because of these brain changes,” says Dr Hassed.
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It improves your executive functioning and memory
Mindfulness and meditation techniques have been shown to greatly improve higher ‘executive functions’ such as concentration, memory and the ability to solve problems.
In one study published in the journal Neuropsychobiology participants of a mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) program had a small but significant increase in these higher executive functions after two months.
It seems regular meditation can change the parts of the brain in charge of executive functioning. For example, research that examined brain scans of regular meditators found increased thickness of the prefrontal cortex, an important region for learning, planning and problem-solving and increased grey matter concentration in the hippocampus, a memory centre of the brain, when compared with the brains of non-meditators.
It slows down the ageing process
Mindfulness-based meditation practice can actually help slow down our biological clocks as measured by the length of our telomeres – segments of DNA on the end of our chromosomes that shorten as the years pass, causing ageing in our cells.
In a study by scientists at Harvard University, researchers compared the telomere length of experienced practitioners of a kind of meditation called loving-kindness (LKM). They found longer telomeres in meditators when compared with non-meditators, indicating a slower rate of cellular ageing.
“Meditation switches on the repair enzyme telomerase to slow down the rate of ageing,” says Dr Hassed.
It helps you maintain your weight
If you are struggling with managing your weight, a mindfulness approach to weight loss could be just the thing for you.
A Journal of Obesity study that examined weight loss in overweight women found that women who meditated half an hour a day and practised mindful eating, maintained their weight, while those who didn’t continued to gain weight.
How can we tap the benefits of meditation?
“The key conditions are regular practice – ideally aim for 40 minutes a day – and then also be more mindful in your day-to-day life outside of your meditation practice,” advises Dr Hassed.
Take this advice on board and you could be well on the way to unlocking the power of your body-mind connection