It changes brain mass and lowers cholesterol levels – scientists are discovering more and more fascinating effects of meditation on body and mind. A summary of the most important results.
For millennia, people from various cultural backgrounds have been aware of the effects of meditation on mental and physical well-being. For a long time, meditation was lumped together with esotericism – yet it has established itself as an effective relaxation method in recent decades. For a few years, it has become more and more apparent that meditation is much more: a mental training with impressive potency. Even though it is above all monks who meditate so diligently during their lives that they gather tens of thousands of hours of meditation experience, meditation also works without any problems without spirituality.
Mental and physical health are closely linked. Mental suffering can manifest illnesses in the body, and physical illness often results in psychological problems. Meditation has a noticeable effect on the psyche after just a few hours – less susceptibility to stress and a sense of inner peace and balance. This, in turn, has effects on the physical aspects such as blood pressure, immune system or cholesterol levels. Neuroscientists have examined and measured these noticeable effects in various studies. Using imaging techniques such as magnetic resonance imaging, the neurobiological effects of meditation exercises on brain activity and brain structure were visualized. It appears,
Improved stress sensation
10 percent of all millennia fear that they will fall over at some point due to stress and will no longer be able to meet the demands of our ever-faster society. For a long time, methods like autogenic training, progressive muscle relaxation or stress management methods such as MBSR (Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction) proven methods to control stress and stress sensation. The results, such as relaxation and a feeling of satisfaction, can be felt quickly. Our physical and emotional stress is strongly linked to the stress hormone cortisol, which is proven to be lowered by meditation. In addition, a connection between reduced stress experiences through meditation was scientifically proven: the substance of the right amygdala in the brain decreased in meditators, which was significantly associated with a reduced stress and anxiety life.
Emotional stability and positive thinking
Monks are known for their cheerful, happy mind. According to scientific studies, this optimistic attitude is accompanied by a detectably more active left frontal cortex. This brain area regulates emotions and can provide emotional balance. The amygdala is part of the brain’s limbic system and controls, among other things, the emotional assessment of situations. Especially this area is less active for meditators. Therefore, they encounter conflicts and problems less irrational. The hippocampus is also part of the limbic system and is responsible for regulating emotional responses.
Excessive stress reduces the size of the hippocampus, which can lead to emotional imbalances and even depression. Thanks to stress regulation and reduced cortisol secretion through meditation, the gray matter of the hippocampus thickens and the ability to regulate emotions improves accordingly. There are 4.9 million people in Germany who suffer from depression and the use of antidepressants has doubled in ten years. According to one study, meditation could be an alternative to antidepressant and behavioral therapies for the treatment of depressive illness.
Mindfulness and patience
Many people suffer from the daily thought-carousel in which they jump non-stop from one thought to another, often repeating thoughts in an endless burdening spiral. The goal of meditation does not have to be to turn off these thoughts but to strengthen the ability to be present in the immediate moment during meditation and in everyday life. Improved mindfulness means that less emotional stress is caused by over-thinking the past and the future. Through meditation, one learns to observe his thoughts with distance or to be careful and not to go directly to an uncontrolled affective reaction. These emotional learning processes are controlled by the orbitofrontal cortex, which has been shown to be more dense in meditators. So it’s possible
Memory, concentration and mental flexibility
The brain has to process increasingly more information and impressions in today’s world. At some point, a level is reached at which the ability to concentrate decreases and the head simply tires. Good memory and a high attention span are therefore becoming more and more important. The less severe increase in gray matter in the hippocampus has a positive effect on learning ability and memory. Studies have also shown that meditators find it easier to focus on things and notice more quickly if they lose focus. In brain scan, this is shown in a more active anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) and in the prefrontal cortex. The more active ACC also strengthens the ability to
Intuition and body perception
Often, the feeling for one’s own body gets lost in everyday and professional stress and we do not even notice when something is wrong. It can have fatal consequences to delay illnesses, to ignore complaints or simply not to take them seriously. Meditators who concentrate on the perception of the body during meditation automatically improve their body awareness. They show a higher density of gray matter in the right islet cortex as well as an increased activity in the somatosensory cortex. In both brain areas, the awareness of the own body is controlled. This better perception of one’s own sensations also increases the so-called gut feeling. This primal instinct and intuitive knowledge are often an important guide in our lives.
Meditation slows down the aging process
It is generally accepted that with age, not only does our skin become wrinkled, but it also reduces cognitive performance. However, through meditation, we can strengthen the areas of our brain responsible for memory, sensory, and emotional evaluations. Normally, the density in the prefrontal cortex in the cerebral cortex decreases with age. However, long-term meditators have found that the cerebral cortex is up to five percent thicker. Especially for meditators between 40 and 50 years shows an impressive difference, because the thickness of their cerebral cortex corresponds to that of a 20-year-olds. Above all, fluid intelligence, the ability to think logically, benefits from years of meditation.
Effects of meditation on our physical health
- Better sleep
Through meditation, people behave much more attentively in everyday life, they can control their feelings better and do not fall so quickly into emotional stress. Since the mind is less concerned with distracting thoughts during the day and in the evening, it is much easier to fall asleep and the quality of sleep improves.
- Reduced pain sensation
Above all, the emotional processing of pain is influenced by meditation. It has been found that the pain areas of the brain, such as the primary somatosensory cortex, are severely shut down during meditation and that pain intensity is reduced by 40 percent. By comparison, morphine reduces pain by 25 percent.
- Blood pressure drops
One study has shown that regular meditation can lower blood pressure by up to 12 percent. This is probably due to the fact that the relaxation effect of meditation, the narrowed blood vessels widen again and less cortisol stress hormones are released.
- Strengthened immune system
Stressed people are more susceptible to disease and have a more susceptible immune system. The positive feelings and more optimistic attitude of life achieved through regular meditation activate the left brain, which is associated with a strengthened immune system. Often meditation is therefore used in cancer patients and as an adjunctive measure in chemotherapy.
- Cholesterol level drops
Not only are unhealthy fats in your diet responsible for high cholesterol, but stress is also a cause. Therefore, relaxation and meditation, in addition to diet or medication, should also be considered in the treatment. One study has shown that after one year of meditation, the cholesterol level can drop by 30 mg/dl, which is more than can be achieved with medication. The combination of a healthier lifestyle and regular meditation can prevent long-term cardiovascular disease or even arteriosclerosis.
- Decreased migraine attacks
Many migraine attacks are triggered by stress. Stress prevention can, therefore, be a therapeutic approach to prevent attacks. In one study, the participants’ migraine attacks decreased by 1.4 per month, were 2.9 hours shorter, and the pain was perceived as less intense.
Meditation: Balm for mind AND body
In summary, most of the effects of meditation listed are due to the intense reduction of stress combined with improved (self-) perception.
During the meditation, we learn to control our thoughts, to balance the emotional world, and ultimately discover the depths of our being. This is probably the biggest difference to common relaxation methods. With regular meditation, the body releases less stress-promoting cortisol that can attack and permanently damage critical areas in our brains. At the same time, areas of the brain are strengthened that positively influence our behavior and let us go through life more calmly. When we reduce stress through meditation, we are not only psychologically better, but we are and will stay physically healthier.
The effects of meditation can be felt quickly, because, after just a few meditation sessions, mindfulness, inner peace and less sense of stress are clearly noticeable. It is impressive that after 25 hours of meditation the first changes in the brain are measurable. Interestingly, these changes are infinite, because even in study participants with 50,000 hours of meditation experience, linearly increasing brain changes were still measurable.
Image Credit: Unsplash