Mindfulness and Meditation

Meditation as Medicine

July 24, 2022

A meditation practice can give your health a huge boost by lowering your stress, slowing down the aging process, expanding your energy and vitality, and increasing your sense of wellness. So, before you reach for traditional medicine like a painkiller or sleeping aid, consider that there might be a more sustainable, healthier way to achieve feelings of well-being and relaxation. At a fundamental level, meditation activates healing mechanisms that already exist within your body.

This all might sound too good to be true, but the scientific studies are pouring in suggesting we all should try meditation. The number of randomized controlled trials involving mindfulness jumped, from 11 conducted between 1995-1997 to 216 from 2013-2015, as the scientific community started to understand what the yogis have known for thousands of years: meditation and mindfulness are good for your health.

What are the tools of mindfulness?

Breath: By learning conscious breathing and developing breath control, you can alter your mental state in a matter of minutes. From long deep breathing to lower anxiety, left nostril breathing to soothe your anxious thoughts, or right nostril breathing to give your body a boost of energy, the breath offers dozens of techniques to improve your physical health and psychological state. Try this Ujjayi breath practice to trigger your relaxation response.

Mantra: The vibratory effects of mantra improve the immune function and quiet the mind. It is hard to think about that work email you need to send or that family member you are upset with when you are chanting. And there is a physical aspect to mantra too as your tongue strikes precise parts of the roof of your mouth, activating different areas in your brain. Specific mantras have different effects. You can think of it like picking up the phone and dialing different telephone numbers. And just like the telephone analogy, it doesn't matter if you understand the mantra, the call still goes through, and the brain still responds. Try this Meditation to De-Stress to experience the power of mantra.

Mental Focus: There is a developing body of information that supports the idea that your thoughts influence your DNA and can help your body to heal. The reverse is also true. Too much negative thinking or anxious worrying can lower your immune function, making it more likely that you will get or stay sick. Meditation offers beneficial mental focus by directing your thoughts into the present moment and out of an uncertain future or an unchangeable past. Try this Meditation to Cultivate Gratitude.

Mudra: Mudra, or specific hand and finger positions, are another element of meditation. Much like mantra, mudras work on a subtle level by activating different areas of your brain. Each finger is important and significant, and the flow of energy throughout the body can be deeply influenced by the placement of your hands and fingers. Try this Mudra Clinic for a great primer about mudras.

Benefits of Meditation

1)    It Lowers Stress and Anxiety

Studies show that meditation increases the calming hormones melatonin and serotonin while decreasing the stress hormone cortisol. Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans of the brain give us a visual image of how meditation helps to turn off the sympathetic nervous system, the part of the brain that monitors for danger and controls the flight/fight/freeze response. In essence, meditation works to tell your brain you are not in danger and signals it is safe for your body to relax. Next time you reach for an Ativan, try meditation instead.

2)   It Slows the Aging Process

Meditation slows the aging process in a wide variety of ways, from increasing the youth hormone dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) to lengthening your telomeres.  

DHEA, a hormone that your body naturally produces in the adrenal gland, helps to produce other hormones, including testosterone and estrogen. It typically starts to decline as we age, which is why it is good news that some studies show up to a 47% increase in DHEA in meditators over non-meditators. This statistic is particularly important because the research shows DHEA levels are correlated with longevity. Statistically, the more DHEA you have, the more years you have left. 

In their book The Telomer Effect, Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell and Dr. Elissa Epel describe how meditation can help lengthen your telomeres and thereby slow aging. Telomeres are like the caps at the end of your shoelaces that keep them from fraying and exist at the end of your chromosomes.  “Telomeres are listening to your thoughts,” says Blackburn. Epel goes on to explain that even five minutes a day of meditation can strengthen and lengthen your telomeres, thereby slowing the aging process. You can keep using that expensive night cream, but if you want to age better and live longer, add meditation to your beauty regime.

3)   It Improves Sleep Quality

A lack of sleep can lead to chronic disease and anxiety, and with almost 9 million Americans taking prescription sleeping aids, sleeplessness is a national concern. Quality sleep is essential to let the body and brain rest and heal. Studies show that people who meditate have a significantly lower total wake time (TWT) than non-meditators. Beyond wake time, meditation increases the flow of melatonin and decreases the flow of cortisol, triggering a relaxation response that results in better sleep. Before you pop a Benadryl to help you sleep, try meditating for ten minutes. 

4)   It Improves Your Immune System Function

While there has long been a link between meditation and decreased stress and anxiety, until recently, the science around how meditation impacts the immune system was less clear. A 2021 controlled study revealed astonishing results about how meditation can improve immune system function. The study created an extreme environment to test the results: participants went on an eight-day silent retreat, eating a vegan diet, meditating eight to ten hours a day and waking and sleeping on a specific schedule. 

The results were impressive. 220 genes directly associated with immune response increased, and the immune system was activated with no negative consequences. While most of us won’t be meditating eight to ten hours a day, adding ten to twenty minutes of meditation will likely deliver a healthy boost to your immune system.

In Summary

As you can see, there are lots of reasons to incorporate meditation into your day, and while no one is saying you should abandon all pharmaceuticals, meditation may offer a more sustainable path forward to many of the health concerns of our fast-paced modern life. 

One of the most important aspects of establishing a meditation practice is finding the style that works for you. Use this guide to explore different options and get started today. Your brain and body will thank you.