Practicing meditation may boost your mood, curb your cravings, and can even help you deal with pain.
BY MACAELA MACKENZIE
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If you’ve ever spent a few minutes meditating at the end of yoga class, you know that trying to slow down your thoughts is a bit trickier than it looks.
“Our minds are constantly moving—worrying about deadlines, evaluating our own performance or that of others, or dwelling on interactions from the past,” explains Nina Smiley, PhD, director of mindfulness programming at Mohonk Mountain House in New York.
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But practicing mediation trains your mind to focus your awareness on the present, which can help you achieve that coveted Zen. This state of calmness doesn’t just feel good—it’s actually good for your health, too. Even mainstream medicine is starting to acknowledge the ancient practice as research surrounding its benefits grows.
Health Benefits of Meditation
“I recommend all people—that includes all patients I have—learn which [meditation] techniques work for them, and then practice it routinely,” says Mike Roizen, MD, chief wellness officer at the Cleveland Clinic and chairman of the Vitamin Packs medical advisory board. That’s because meditation doesn’t carry the risk of any negative side effects—and it’s free.
But understanding how meditation works has proven difficult. “It’s only recently that we’re starting to see studies that are good, randomized, controlled trials that are larger in size, explains Madhav Goyal, MD, MPH, an assistant professor of at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine who researches the effects of meditation on overall well-being.
So why exactly should you bother with meditation? The evidence we do have is very promising. Here, six ways practicing mindfulness every day may benefit your body from the inside out, plus tips for trying it yourself.
1. Meditation improves your mental health
Psychologically, “meditation helps us get out of our own way,” says Judson Brewer, MD, PhD, associate professor in medicine and psychiatry and director of research at the Center for Mindfulness at the University of Massachusetts.
The strongest link we have between meditation and overall health is its ability to reduce stress, which can trigger or exacerbate several serious conditions, including heart disease, obesity, and even anxiety disorders.
The good news is, meditating can boost your mood: After researchers at Johns Hopkins University analyzed 47 trials (which included more than 3,500 people), they concluded that mindfulness meditation programs could help improve anxiety, according to a meta-analysis published in JAMA Internal Medicine.
Health Benefits of Meditation
Long-term meditation can also help slash your depression risk (or help you treat it if you’re already struggling), potentially because it has a positive effect on your brain chemistry, explains Dr. Rozien. Research suggests various meditation techniques curb the release of mood-altering cytokines, an inflammatory chemical that may lead to the development of depression over time.
“We have pretty good evidence now to recommend [meditation] clinically, either as a treatment or as an adjunct treatment, for people who are suffering from anxiety, depression, or chronic pain,” says Dr. Goyal.
2. It reduces harmful inflammation
“Inflammation is the body’s reaction to something it doesn’t want where it is,” explains Dr. Roizen. In some cases, that’s a good thing—it’s the result of your body working to attack an allergen or infection. But chronic inflammation causes structural changes in your body. Inflammation is tied to several major chronic diseases, like cancer, diabetes, IBS, and even Alzheimer’s.
But meditation may help mitigate those damaging effects. In a study published in the journal Brain, Behavior, and Immunity, researchers gave participants mindfulness meditation training or enrolled them in a general health improvement program. After eight weeks, they used a fire-y capsaicin cream to trigger an inflammatory response on their skin—simply because it’s easier to test your skin than your brain, explains Dr. Rozien.
They found that the meditating participants showed a significantly smaller inflammatory response compared to those who didn’t, which suggests meditation might have the potential to reduce chronic inflammation in your body, says Dr. Roizen.
3. Meditation can help control your cravings
It’s called mindless eating for a reason—plowing through an entire bag of chips isn’t usually a conscious decision. In a recent study published in the Journal of Behavioral Medicine, Dr. Brewer and a team of researchers created an app designed to use elements of meditation and mindfulness to reduce cravings. For 28 days, a group of overweight and obese participants meditated for 10 minutes. At the end of the trial, they’d curbed craving-related munching by 40 percent.
“Mindfulness helps us bring a curious awareness to the actual experience of craving so that we are not caught up in it,” explains Dr. Brewer, whose research specifically focuses on meditation’s ability to control cravings and anxiety. “With [meditation] we can break the link between urge and action.”
4. It gives your brain a boost
There’s also evidence that a mindfulness-based meditation gives you a brain boost. In fact, a study published in Psychological Science concluded that two weeks of mindfulness training improved the GRE reading comprehension scores of participants compared to a control group.
“They showed that [mindfulness meditation] would decrease mind wandering and improve cognitive performance,” explains Mickie Brown, RN, the clinical manager for education, mindfulness, and patient wellbeing at Mount Sinai Selikoff Centers for Occupational Health, who was not involved with the study.
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It’s not totally clear how this happens, but other research finds that meditation might actually make parts of your brain thicker, including areas associated with attention and introspection—and a “bigger brain” translates to more power, says Dr. Goyal. A second follow-up study also found that mediating for 40 minutes a day for just two months was enough to increase brain volume in areas related to stress, learning, memory, empathy, perspective, and compassion—theoretically making you better at certain cognitive tasks.
5. Meditation helps fight premature aging
Could meditation be a solid foundation of youth? “We know that unmanaged stress is one of the greatest causes of aging,” says Dr. Roizen. “It increases your risk of heart disease, stroke, and cancer.”
In one 2016 study published in Translational Psychiatry, researchers recruited 102 women to spend six days at a retreat where they either just relaxed or did a meditation program. Compared to blood drawn before the women checked in, blood samples from the end of the retreat showed improvements in biomarkers related to aging in the newly-minted meditators.
While the exact reason why isn’t clear, “we know from this and many other studies, meditation works through reducing the aging effect of stress,” Dr. Roizen says.
6. It helps keep a cold out of your future
Meditation be beneficial to staving off a cold. In a study published in the Annals of Family Medicine, researchers assigned 150 participants aged 50 and older to one of three groups for eight weeks: mindfulness meditation training, moderate-intensity exercise training, or a control group.
Meditation and exercise both reduced their susceptibility to colds compared to the control group—the latter two groups took just over half as many sick days as the people in the control group during the course of the study.
Again, the relaxing effects are likely a factor, says Dr. Goyal, since stress can actually get in the way of your immune system’s ability to fight an infection.
7. Meditation may help you deal with pain
If pain is really in the mind, theoretically so is your ability to shut it down—and a small study published in the Journal of Neuroscience looked at how meditation might help you do that. To establish a baseline, 15 people with no meditation experience were told to simply focus on their breath in an MRI machine. During the scan, researchers alternated applying a small amount of heat to their calves and asked them to rate their pain after the experiment.
The participants were then given four days of mindfulness training before repeating the entire process. After learning mediation techniques, they reported a 57 percent reduction in unpleasantness and a 40 percent reduction in pain intensity.
Meditation doesn’t exactly change the physical pain, Brown explains. The brain scans in the study show meditation reduced brain activity in areas associated with sensation, so it likely changes our relationship to the feeling, she says. In other words, it can help your brain reframe pain and make it easier to experience.
During meditation training, “one is actively taught how to observe what they’re feeling and then not react to it,” says Dr. Goyal. “It’s one way of training the mind to reduce one’s negative reaction.”
How to practice meditation
Starting a meditation practice can be simple—and doesn’t have to involve chanting “Om” (unless you totally want to!).
“Meditation can take many forms, whether it’s a breathing exercise, use of a mantra, or a guided visualization,” says Smiley. “Mindfulness meditation can be easily incorporated into your daily routine, such as your morning shower or coffee breaks. For beginners, I recommend that they start practicing meditation through a breathing exercise.”
Here’s how to do it: Get yourself to a comfortable place. It’s ideal to find an area without distractions so you can concentrate on your breath and harnessing meditation’s restorative powers, but you can meditate in a chair, on the floor, lying down, or even standing up or walking. Once you’ve found your spot, start by centering yourself with a few deep breaths. “As you inhale and exhale deeply, silently say ‘in’ and ‘out’ with each breath,” Smiley says. “During this cycle, if a thought comes into the mind, gently and non-judgmentally acknowledge it, let it go, and return to the breath.”
You don’t need a marathon meditation session to reap its goodness—research shows that even 10-minute sessions can improve focus, memory, and even train your brain to better cope with everyday life. And don’t stress about being “good” at it. You can’t mess up meditation, and if you can’t banish all thoughts from your mind that’s OK too—if you get distracted or feel your thoughts wandering, simply acknowledge it and actively shift the focus back to your body and breath.