Meditation is one of those things that people think they should do but all too often just never find the time. I’ll admit that maintaining a regular meditation practice isn’t always the easiest thing in the world – even veteran meditators fall off the wagon now and then. But they get back on the cushion (or wherever they do their practice) because the benefits are that compelling. I invite my patients and readers to do the same. You take 10 or 15 or 30 minutes a day to block out the distractions of the world, relax your body, quiet your mind – maybe you follow the in-out of your breath or maybe you have another technique. Day to day, the difference meditation makes may be subtle but over time the world – and your view of it – begins to change in wonderful ways, and I can attest to that. Everyday life becomes less anxious and you become less caught up in finding your place in it. And the health benefits that come with that change in attitude are simply too good to pass up. Here are five of them that should motivate you to do what’s good for you!
1) Meditation curbs depression, and “the disease of me.”
A recent study from Yale found that mediation reduced activity in the circuits of the brain responsible for wandering thoughts and for thinking about yourself. And it’s that kind of chronic distractedness, as well as the fixation on yourself, that’s responsible for a lot of personal unhappiness. No surprise then that a Johns Hopkins’ review of the medical literature found that meditation was just as good as antidepressant drugs at relieving depression, needless to say, without the all too common side-effects! Clearing your mind with a meditation practice is a daily lesson that your ego, and all the concerns and hang-ups that stick to it in any given moment, is not the center of the universe. That’s an insight of the mind that can deliver tremendous health benefits to the body.
2) Meditation builds your brain, and protects it.
A famous study out of Harvard that looked at people who’d taken an 8-week meditation course found that they had an increased thickness in the region of the brain called the hippocampus, which is involved in memory and learning. And they had less activity in the amygdala, which regulates fear and anxiety. Becoming more alert and better able to retain what you take in — what’s not to like about that? Adding to that, new research from UCLA suggests that meditation actually helps preserve the brain’s grey matter, the stuff that contains the neurons that do the mental heavy lifting. That could prove to be a crucial buffer against the cognitive decline that we see in so many of our loved ones in their senior decades. And there’s a similar take-away from a study out of UC Davis which shows that meditation stimulates the activity of the enzyme telomerase which helps keep your chromosomes youthful and your cells throughout your body working the way they’re supposed to.
3) Meditation tamps down pain and gives happiness a lift.
The neurons in your brain aren’t the only thing responsible for keeping you feeling good. Endorphins, generated in the pituitary gland and throughout the nervous system, give us a well-being lift. While endorphins are most famously responsible for the “runner’s high,” it turns out that sitting on a cushion (or a chair or wherever you meditate) is a pretty good way to goose them as well. A study in the Journal of Neuroscience reported that meditation increases the amount of these feel-good chemicals in the bloodstream which, given the stresses that most of my patients confront in their busy city lives, makes the practice something that belongs in any urban survival kit. The net effect: a calmer approach to life – and a longer fuse!
4) Meditation does a (good) number on your heart.
We all rightfully fear the possibility of a heart attack or a stroke, taken together, by far the most common killers in our society. Well, it turns out that meditation can give us some needed protection there, by lowering blood pressure. You would never accuse the stodgy American Medical Association of being a cheerleader for unconventional health approaches but even the AMA in a recent report wrote that one popular form of meditation, Transcendental Meditation or TM, “may be considered as a alternative approach to lowering both systolic and diastolic blood pressure.” You lower blood pressure, you lower the risk of heart attack and stroke, it’s that simple.
5) Meditation helps you get a good night’s sleep – and stay sharp during the day.
Let’s face it, if you hit the pillow with your mind racing with all the things you haven’t done yet, or done well enough, you’re likely going to toss and turn. Here’s my advice – don’t medicate, meditate! If you calm down the mind, the body will almost surely follow. So if you know getting to sleep is likely to be a challenge, do an in-bed, lying-down meditation. You’ll get all the health benefits of the practice even if you don’t immediately zonk out. And the research shows that once meditators do fall asleep, they go down deeper, with enhanced slow-wave sleep patterns.
What about day-time alertness? One eye-catching study evaluated the alertness of a group of students who re-charged during the day with a session of napping or TV-watching or meditating. By now, you shouldn’t be surprised. The meditators did 10% better than the non-meditators on an alertness scale.