The five most relevant studies about the benefits of meditation on your health
1- Mindfulness practice leads to increases in regional brain gray matter density
In 2010 researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital performed MRI studies in participants before and after they underwent an eight-week mindfulness based stress reduction program (MBSR). They identified increases in gray matter concentration in several areas of the brain in the MBSR group compared to the controls ( the posterior cingulate cortex, the temporo-parietal junction, hippocampus and the cerebellum ). These are areas of the brain involved in learning and memory processes, emotion regulation, self-referential processing, and perspective taking.
WHAT IT MEANS: This study showed that certain parts of the brain respond to meditation by restructuring themselves , a process called neuroplasticity. The changes in these areas help you pay more attention and focus which can be useful at work as well as home ( staying on task instead of checking your phone or listening to spouse instead of interrupting with your own opinion ). It also helps you regulate your emotions so you can respond more efficiently to a challenging situation instead of simply reacting automatically. ( asking questions and trying to understand instead of yelling or accusing).
Mindfulness practice leads to increases in regional brain gray matter density
Britta K. Hölzel,*,a,b James Carmody,c Mark Vangel,a Christina Congleton,a Sita M. Yerramsetti,a Tim Gard,a,b and Sara W. Lazara
2-Mindfulness reduces the area of the brain that triggers anxiety
The amygdala as a brain structure crucial in stress responses including the detection of stressful and threatening stimuli and the initiation of adaptive coping mechanisms. An exaggerated amygdala activation has been found in anxiety and social phobia. This study at Massachusetts General Hospital showed that the amygdala was thinner after mindfulness training as evidenced by decreases in right basolateral amygdala gray matter density. Following the intervention, participants reported significantly reduced perceived stress.
WHAT IT MEANS: The amygdala helps us react to stress but an hyperactive amygdala perceives most situations as a disproportionate threat , triggering a constant stress reaction. This unnecessary and prolonged exposure to stress increases the risk of being affected by a number of mental and physical illnesses due to constantly high stress hormone levels. A thinner amygdala means decreased anxiety and a better experience of our lives
Stress reduction correlates with structural changes in the amygdala
Britta K. Hölzel, James Carmody, Karleyton C. Evans, Elizabeth A. Hoge, Jeffery A. Dusek, Lucas Morgan, Roger K. Pitman, and Sara W. Lazar1
3- Mindfulness prevents premature aging and may have a protective effect against cancer
Telomeres are stretches of DNA that cap our chromosomes and help prevent chromosomal deterioration -- biology professors often liken them to the plastic tips on shoelaces. Recent emerging research has suggested that telomeres may be susceptible to stress, reducing their length.
Loss of telomere integrity may result in DNA damage, when a critically short telomere length (TL) is reached, cells enter senescence and have reduced viability, and chromosomal fusions appear.
Shorter TL has been implicated in several disease states, including cardiovascular disease, diabetes, dyskeritosis congenita, aplastic anemia, and idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis. Shorter TL also was found to be predictive of earlier mortality in patients leukemia and breast cancer.
WHAT THIS MEANS: Shortened telomeres aren't known to cause a specific disease per se, but they do whither with age and are shorter in people with cancer, diabetes, heart disease and high stress levels. We want our telomeres intact. Preserved telomere size means healthy chromosomes which in turns leads to longevity and protection against certain diseases particularly cancer
Mindfulness-based cancer recovery and supportive-expressive therapy maintain telomere length relative to controls in distressed breast cancer survivors
Linda E. Carlson PhD1,2,4,*, Tara L. Beattie PhD1,3,4, Janine Giese-Davis PhD1,2,4, Peter Faris PhD2, Rie Tamagawa PhD1,2, Laura J. Fick PhD3,4, Erin S. Degelman MSc3,4 andMichael Speca PsyD1,2
4- Mindfulness interventions are just as effective as antidepressants
Researchers at the University of Oxford found that mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) is just as effective as antidepressants for preventing a relapse of depression, which affects 50-80% of people who experience a first bout of depression.The relapse rate for both groups over 24 months was more or less identical: 44% for the MBCT cohort and 47% for those taking antidepressant medication.
Even though in this study MBCT was not found to be superior to medication, it was found to be a cost-effective alternative to maintenance antidepressants for prevention of depressive relapse or recurrence.
WHAT IT MEANS MEANS: Patients with chronic depression are at risk of having recurrent episodes. Antidepressant medications are the standard of therapy but many patients are looking for alternatives to daily medication. Event though more research is needed in this area, this is important it shows that mindfulness may help patients with depression manage their lives without the use of medications, which might have several undesired side effects. It gives patients an inner tool that they can use to avoid having depressive thoughts. In other words it gives them more power and control.
Effectiveness and cost-effectiveness of mindfulness-based cognitive therapy compared with maintenance antidepressant treatment in the prevention of depressive relapse or recurrence (PREVENT): a randomised controlled trial
A study at the University of Wisconsin revealed significant increases in antibody titers to influenza vaccine among subjects after an 8 week mindfulness meditation program compared with those in the control group.
WHAT IT MEANS: Our immune system is our defense system against diseases. A weak immune system is a open field for infections. A better immune system makes you more resistant to getting sick ( less chances of catching a cold or the flu) and helps you fight disease better.
Mindfulness meditation and the immune system: a systematic review of randomized controlled trials.