6 Health Benefits of Meditation
You may know that meditation helps reduce stress and anxiety, improve focus, and increase happiness. What many people don’t know is that meditation can improve your physical health as well. Here are 6 ways meditation can help you live a longer and healthier life.
1. Lowers High Blood Pressure
Hypertension is one of the leading risk factors for heart disease and stroke, and it can be difficult to treat. Since 2013, The American Heart Association listed meditation as a clinically proven complementary treatment. In a review of the science, they found strong evidence that practicing meditation can reduce high blood pressure.1 We still aren’t sure exactly how this works, or whether some forms of meditation are better than others, but if you have hypertension (or want to prevent it), meditation can be an important part of your treatment strategy.
2. Slows Cellular Aging
Amazingly, cutting edge science is starting to find that meditation may slow down the biological ageing process. When our cells divide, the DNA is protected by long proteins called telomeres. As we age, our telomeres get shorter, which increases the chance of cell damage. As cell damage accumulates over the years, our overall health suffers.
If only we could find a way to stop the telomeres from shortening, it would be like discovering an elixir of eternal youth. Now, let’s be real, meditation isn’t going to stop you from getting older, but scientists are finding evidence that meditation does slow the shortening of telomeres. Several studies have found that meditation activates genes that produce telomerase, a natural enzyme that helps prevent telomere from shortening.2 That means meditation can protect us from age-related health decline at the cellular level.
3. Helps Prevent Diabetes
When we eat sugars, our body uses insulin to break them down. Type-II diabetes is caused by insulin resistance—the body still makes insulin, but it stops working as effectively. Eventually, the pancreas just can’t make enough insulin to break down sugar in the blood, and this results in diabetes.
Research shows that meditation actually helps the body regulate blood sugar by using insulin more efficiently.3 The stress hormone cortisol is a major contributor to insulin resistance, and meditation leads to lower cortisol levels, which in turn allows insulin to do its job properly.
If you already have diabetes, meditation won’t be a cure, but it can help you manage the effects of the disease. If you are at risk of developing diabetes, meditation can be a key part of your prevention plan.
4. Helps Fight Alzheimer’s
From the time we are about 30 years old our brains start to naturally lose neurons over the rest of our lifetime. This process of gradual degeneration in the brain puts older people at risk of cognitive decline, Alzheimer’s, and other forms of dementia. Brain imaging studies have shown that long-term meditators lose less brain matter with age. One study found that cortical thickness in the brain of meditators aged 40-50 years was the same as non-meditators aged 20 to 30.4
But what if you’re already older and you haven’t been meditating all your life? Meditation can still help, especially in the crucial period when there are early signs of cognitive decline but full-blown dementia hasn’t set it. When we meditate, we exercise the brain in a new way. Learning a new skill, improving concentration, and building more conscious awareness all stimulate the growth of new neurons.5 In addition, reducing stress protects our existing brain structures from further damage.6
5. Reduces Chronic Pain
Chronic pain and the often related problem of opioid addiction are some of the biggest public health crises facing society today. For thousands of years, meditation traditions have known about the incredible pain-reducing effects of meditation. Over the last few decades an impressive amount of scientific research has accumulated to back up these claims.
Meditation helps manage chronic pain by increasing activation in several brain areas that regulate pain perception, and by diminishing the negative emotional response connected with the experience of pain.7 In addition, stress is known to make chronic pain worse, so by reducing stress, meditation dampens pain intensity.
Encouragingly, one study showed that even beginner meditators could see a significant reduction in pain severity after just a few weeks of practicing mindfulness.8
6. Improves Immune System Function
The immune system has been called our body’s “floating brain.” It’s an incredibly sophisticated system for identifying and destroying pathogens that threaten our health, and it is intimately linked with our nervous system. When we have weakened immunity, we are sitting ducks for infections.
Practicing mindfulness meditation has been linked with reduced markers for inflammation, a major signal of reduced immune function.9 Several studies have also found that meditation leads to an increase in CD-4 cells, crucial immune cells that stave off disease.10 It isn’t yet known exactly how meditation works to benefit the immune system, but it’s likely that decreased stress and improved self-regulation play a major role.
Brook, R., et al. (2013). Beyond medications and diet: alternative approaches to lowering blood pressure: a scientific statement from the american heart association. Hypertension, 61, 1360–1383.
Jacobs, T., et al (2011). Intensive meditation training, immune cell telomerase activity, and psychological meditators. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 36, 664–681.
Paul-Labrador, M., et al. (2006). Effects of a randomized controlled trial of Transcendental Meditation on components of the metabolic syndrome in subjects With coronary heart disease. Archives of Internal Medicine, 166, 1218–1224.
Loucks E., et al. (2016). Associations of mindfulness with glucose regulation and diabetes. American Journal of Health Behavior, 40, 258–267.
Pagnoni, G., & Cekic, M. (2007). Age effects on gray matter volume and attentional performance in Zen meditation. Neurobiology of Aging, 28, 1623–1627.
Lazar, S., et al. (2005). Meditation experience is associated with increased cortical thickness. Neuroreport, 16, 1893–1897.
Rebecca E., et al (2013). Meditation's impact on default mode network and hippocampus in mild cognitive impairment: A pilot study. Neuroscience Letters, 556, 15-19.
Sonia J., et al. (1998). Cortisol levels during human aging predict hippocampal atrophy and memory deficits. Nature Neuroscience 1, 69–73.
See Chapter 3 of Verhaeghen, P. (2017). Presence: How Mindfulness and Meditation Shape Your Brain, Mind, and Life. New York: Oxford University Press.
Zeidan, F., Gordon, N., Merchant, J. and Goolkasian, P. (2010). The effects of brief mindfulness meditation training on experimentally induced pain. The Journal of Pain, 11, 199–209.
Creswell, D., et al. (2016). Alterations in resting-state functional connectivity link mindfulness meditation with reduced interleukin-6: a randomized controlled trial. Biological Psychiatry, 80, 53–61.
Creswell, J. Myers, H., Cole, S. and Irwin, M. (2009). Mindfulness meditation training effects on CD4+ T lymphocytes in HIV-1 infected adults: a small randomized controlled trial. Brain, Behavior, and Immunity. 23, 184–188.