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Effects of meditation on body and mind – scientific research findings
While meditation practice is well recognised as a tool for quietening the mind, and cultivating harmony in daily life, scientific research has also discovered that meditation has actual, measurable effects on the body that relate to both physiological and emotional-psychological healthy functioning.
Some remarkable findings have come from studies involving Tibetan Buddhist monks. One study found that their meditation practices would dramatically affect the body’s resting metabolic rate –lowering it by 64%, and raising it by 61%, compared to normal resting metabolic rate [Ref. 1]. Another study showed that they were able to increase their body temperature with as much as 8°C .
But you don’t need to live in a Tibetan Buddhist monastery to reap the beneficial effects of meditation practice. Even as little as 20 minutes of meditation a day can have significant effects on your health. A study, involving two hundred African Americans diagnosed with coronary artery disease, found that 5 years of daily meditation led to decreased mortality rate of 43% . The study also found that the meditation practice led to significant decreases in blood pressure, a finding that is supported by a meta-review of nine research studies focusing on the effects of meditation on blood pressure .
A great deal of research is currently done to map the effects of meditation on the brain. A study involving 25 people who completed an 8-week program of mindfulness meditation found demonstrable effects on brain function, in that the meditators had significant increases in activation of the left-side anterior part of the brain, an area that is associated with positive mood. Interestingly, they also had a significant increase in antibodies following vaccination against influenza, compared to the non-meditator control group, reflecting increased immune system functioning .
By use of MRI scans of the brains of both long term meditators and people who have done only an 8-week mindfulness meditation course, researchers have found that meditation can alter the structure of the brain, increasing the volume of grey matter in the orbito-frontal cortex and hippocampus regions, which are responsible for emotional regulation and response control [6,7].
Meditation practice can also have positive effects on aging and longevity. A study that measured the gene expressions in long- and short-term meditators found significant alterations, for both groups, that indicate that meditation practice may counteract cellular damage related to chronic psychological stress . Another study relating to aging and longevity concerns the length of telomeres – the protective caps at the ends of chromosomes – and how this length may be affected by mindfulness practice. The length of telomeres offers insight into mitotic cell and longevity. The findings from this study suggest that mindfulness meditation may indeed slow down cellular, and hence possibly organismal, aging .
Yet another study relating to aging found that brain regions associated with attention, interoception and sensory processing were thicker in experienced meditation practitioners (people who had meditated around an hour a day for six years or more) than in a control group. Between-group differences in prefrontal cortical thickness were also found to be most pronounced in older participants, suggesting that meditation might offset the cortical thinning that usually occurs as we age .
With regard to emotional-psychological health, it appears evident that meditation enhances positive emotions and mood, and makes people less vulnerable to the stresses and upsets of daily life. A study where participants were exposed to upsetting images found that a brief mindfulness meditation increased the participants’ ability to regulate negative responses to the images . A study involving 90 patients diagnosed with cancer found that a 7-week meditation course had significant effects on the participants’ moods and stress levels. Compared to non-meditators they had a 65% reductions of mood disturbances (like depression, anxiety, anger, confusion), and a 31% reduction of stress symptoms .
The studies mentioned above are only a small sample of the vast pool of research available that clearly demonstrates the beneficial effects of meditation practice on physical and mental wellbeing. If you are interested in learning how to meditate, and finding out for yourself what the practice of meditation has to offer, please, visit the Integrating Awareness Meditation course page for more information!
- Benson, H., Malhotra, M.S., Goldman, R.F., Jacobs, G.D., Hopkins, P.J., 1990, “Three Case Reports of the Metabolic and Electroencephalographic Changes during Advanced Buddhist Meditation Techniques”, Behavioral Medicine 16(2), 90-95.
- Benson, H., Lehmann, J.W., Malhotra, M.S., Goldman, R.F., Hopkins, J., Epstein, M.D., 1982, “Body temperature changes during the practice of g Tum-mo yoga”, Nature, 295, 234-236.
- Schneider, R., Nidich, S., Morley Kotchen, J., Kotchen, T., Grim, C., Rainforth, M., Gaylord King, C., Salerno, J., 2009, “Abstract 1177: Effects of Stress Reduction on Clinical Events in African Americans With Coronary Heart Disease: A Randomized Controlled Trial”, Circulation, 120:S461.
- Anderson, J.W., Liu, C., Kryscio, R.J., 2008, "Blood Pressure Response to Transcendental Meditation: A Meta-analysis", American Journal of Hypertension, 21(3), 310-316.
- Davidson, R.J., Kabat-Zinn, J., Schumacher, J., Rosenkranz, M., Muller, D., Santorelli, S.F., Urbanowski, F., Harrington, A., Bonus, K., Sheridan J.F., 2003, “Alterations in Brain and Immune Function Produced by Mindfulness Meditation”, Psychosomatic Medicine, 65(4), 564-570.
- Hölzel, B.K., Carmody, J., Vangel, M., Congleton, C., Yerramsetti, S.M., Gard, T., Lazar, S.W., 2011, “Mindfulness practice leads to increases in regional brain gray matter density”, Psychiatry Research, 191(1), 36-43.
- Ludersa, E., Togaa, A.W., Leporea, N., Gaserb, C., 2009, “The underlying anatomical correlates of long-term meditation: Larger hippocampal and frontal volumes of gray matter”, NeuroImage, 45(3), 672–678.
- Dusek, J.A., Out, H.H., Wohlhueter, A.L., Bhasin, M., Zerbini, L.F., et al. , 2008, “Genomic Counter-Stress Changes Induced by the Relaxation Response”, PLoS ONE 3(7): e2576. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0002576
- Epel, E., Daubenmier, J., Moskowitz, J. T., Folkman, S. and Blackburn, E., 2009, “Can Meditation Slow Rate of Cellular Aging? Cognitive Stress, Mindfulness, and Telomeres”, Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1172, 34–53. doi: 10.1111/j.1749-6632.2009.04414.x
- Lazar, S.W., Kerr, C.E., Wasserman, R.H., Gray, J.R., Greve, D.N., Treadway, M.T., McGarvey, M., Quinn, B.T., Dusek, J.A., Benson, H., Rauch, S.L., Moore, C.I., Fischl, B., 2005, “Meditation experience is associated with increased cortical thickness”, Neuroreport. 16(17), 1893–1897.
- Arch, J.J., Craske, M.G., 2006, “Mechanisms of mindfulness: Emotion regulation following a focused breathing induction”, Behaviour Research and Therapy, 44(12), 1849–1858.
- Speca, M., Carlson, L.E., Goodey, E., Angen, M., 2000, “A Randomized, Wait-List Controlled Clinical Trial: The Effect of a Mindfulness Meditation-Based Stress Reduction Program on Mood and Symptoms of Stress in Cancer Outpatients”, Psychosomatic Medicine 62(5), 613-622.