How can meditation support our mental and physical health?

Meditation is an ancient practice with some archaeologists dating meditation back to as early as 5,000 BCE, according to Psychology Today. It is steeped with history and appears across religions and wellbeing systems like yoga. So, what can such an ancient practice offer us in our modern world?

In this article, we explore some of the ways that a regular meditation practice could improve your mental and physical health.

Reduces stress

There’s no question that stress and anxiety are common problems and likely the most common reason people turn to meditation. A 2018 study by YouGov reported that over the course of a year, 74% of people felt so stressed they have been overwhelmed or unable to cope. Since the study, the world has faced a global pandemic, rising unemployment rates and job losses, increased health anxiety and a host of knock-on effects. Could this be the most stressed we’ve ever been?

Stress causes raised cortisol (stress hormone) levels in the body along with increased inflammation. On a physical level, meditation has been shown in studies to reduce both cortisol levels and inflammation. On an emotional level, a sense of calm and wellbeing is often reported after meditation with mindfulness meditation being widely used as a stress management technique for its benefits for coping with stress in a less reactive way. 

Promotes better sleep

According to Sleep Foundation, “Research suggests that various types of meditation can help improve insomnia, and may even improve sleep quality for those without existing sleep problems”. 

Many sleep disturbances are caused by stress and anxiety so the stress reduction benefits of meditation which help us activate the parasympathetic nervous system (the rest and digest state) will also aid our sleep. Other benefits for sleep include raising melatonin levels and prepping us for sleep state due to the change in brainwaves experienced during meditation. These alpha and theta brainwaves are associated with deep relaxation.

Boosts your immune system

It sounds too good to be true but the simple practice of meditation could boost your immune system.  A recent review of various studies suggests the possible effects of mindfulness meditation on specific markers of inflammation, cell-mediated immunity, and biological ageing. 

Studies have found that meditation increases electrical activity in the left side of the brain – the side associated with your immune system. Studies also suggest that people who meditate regularly may have higher counts of antibodies in their blood.

Related: Can your diet choices boost your immune system?

Decreases inflammation in the body

A Harvard Study showed how meditating even once could dampen the genes involved in the inflammatory response. It’s good news for those suffering from inflammatory conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis, asthma and autoimmune disease. Stress can play a role in these conditions so the combination of stress relief and the reduction of inflammation make meditation a worthwhile addition to your wellbeing practices.

Keeps your mind young

Several studies have shown that the constant practice of meditation induces neuroplasticity in the brain with benefits including:

  • Reduction of age-related brain degeneration
  • Improvement of cognitive functions
  • Improvements in attention, working memory, spatial abilities, and long-term memory.

In one Harvard study before and after MRI images of participants’ brains showed striking differences between participants who meditated daily in the study and those who didn’t. The scans showed differences in the hippocampus, which usually shrinks with age. The thickness increased for those who meditated but remained unchanged in the nonmeditators. This part of the brain is heavily involved in memory and learning.

Aids pain management

If you suffer from chronic pain, meditation may be able to help. A study by the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH) found that mindful meditation reduces pain sensations in the body. This suggests that meditation could be a useful addition in managing pain conditions such as osteoarthritis, headaches, and other chronic pain conditions to complement any relevant medication.