From a scientific perspective how does mindfulness meditation improve your physical health?
You may think that mindfulness meditation just improves your mental health but you may be surprised to know that there are numerous research bodies of evidence that show that it also improves your physical health.
Meditating literally changes the size & shape of your brain. A study published in Psychiatry Research: Neuroimagining demonstrated that after an 8 week meditation program the part of the brain that is associated with fear, worry and stress (amygdala) had decreased in size and the connections with the amygdala and other areas of the brain had become weaker. Whereas the pre-frontal cortex which is associated with learning, reasoning & emotion regulation had increased in size and the links to other parts of the brain had become stronger. Additionally increases were also seen in the hippocampus which is associated with memory and learning.
Whether you are sleeping or awake there is always some sort of activity going on in the brain which is reflected in your brain waves. Alpha, Beta and Gamma waves are normally associated with being awake and alert, whereas Theta and Delta are associated with sleep or deep meditation. When you are fully alert and awake you brain is normally in Beta state but this can be a sign of rumination and mind wandering which can lead to stress and worry. Alpha waves are also associated with being alert and awake but with a tendency for increased focus, creativity, concentration and mental clarity. Studies have shown that Alpha brain waves are more present in regular meditators, are seen as being more beneficial and can lead to improved mood and increased contentment.
Meditation can also bring on changes on a cellular level. Your chromosomes, found in the nucleus of most living cells, have a protective protein called telomeres, which protect your DNA and reduce the chance of cell death. Stress, anxiety and worry (along with other poor lifestyle choices and ageing) have been shown to shorten telomeres and can lead to diseases such as cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes and Alzheimer’s to name a few. However this study demonstrated that taking part in a meditation programme helped to maintain the lengthen of the telomeres and even increased their length. Thus showing that meditation may pay an important role in preventing the development of illnesses.
Meditation has been shown to decrease blood pressure as well as decreasing the variability of your heart rate which can improve the transportation of oxygen & carbon dioxide around the body. A study published in the Journal of Psychosomatic Medicine reported that study participants who practised mindfulness had significant decreases in blood pressure compared to participants who took part in another type of stress management technique.
Suffering from stress & anxiety has been shown to suppress the immune system making you more susceptible to infections (you can read more about this in my blog post “Stress – How It Affects the Body and What You Can Do About It”). Mindfulness meditation increases your ability to relax, reduces stress & anxiety and so improves your immune function. This can be seen in one study where meditators were injected with the flu virus along with non-meditators. The meditators were able to produce a larger number of antibodies and had increased immune function compared to the non-meditators.
Gene expression and the development of disease
We all have a genetic make up that decides the colour of our hair/skin/eyes, height, body shape etc. but we also have genes that can make us more prone to developing a particular illness. These types of genes may stay dormant all of your life, however science has shown that these genes can actually become switched on if you have an unhealthy lifestyle including poor diet, smoking, high alcohol consumption and stress. The production of a molecule called nuclear factor kappa B; can influence the expression of such genes and lead to the development of disease. However a study that was published in 2017 revealed that mind-body interventions such as meditation, yoga and other stress management techniques have been shown to reduce the production of nuclear factor kappa B, suppresses the expression of such genes and makes it less likely to develop the disease.
If you would like to know more about Mindfulness then have a read of my blog post "What is Mindfulness and how it can help you lead a stress free life" or if you are interested in attending a Mindfulness class you can find out when my next one is here.