What is the first thing that comes to mind for achieving optimal wellness? Sure, there are many factors to consider, but most people don’t put meditation at the top of the list for physical health and long-term wellness. However, this view may change as fascinating research continues to enlighten us on the extensive health benefits of this time-honored practice.
The most well-known benefit of meditation is its ability to dissolve stress. We know that chronic stress can have grave consequences for our health by suppressing immunity, fueling inflammation, damaging cellular health and DNA, and promoting numerous disease processes. Now, studies reveal that ongoing stress can have a profound effect on our DNA by shortening telomeres, which puts us at a higher risk for developing chronic diseases. But research shows that meditation can successfully repair this DNA damage, restore peace of mind, and offer other powerful health benefits at the same time. Meditation can truly help heal you from the inside out. Here’s how.
Our genes are located on twisted, double-stranded molecules of DNA called chromosomes, and at the ends of the chromosomes are stretches of DNA called telomeres. Telomeres are essentially the end caps that protect chromosomes from fraying due to aging, poor health, environmental assaults, and other influences. (Think of those little caps on the ends of shoe laces.) Researchers already knew that telomeres shorten and deteriorate as we get older, but new studies are finding that chronic stress—and other factors—can speed up this process.
Wear and tear of telomeres can be slowed through the activation of an enzyme called telomerase, which adds bases to the ends of telomeres and keeps them from fraying. Research reveals that regular meditation can increase telomerase activity by more than 30 percent: This means increased DNA protection and healthy cellular longevity.
A number of other studies show that regular meditation can reduce chronic inflammation. This makes sense, because stress releases cortisol and other pro-inflammatory signals into circulation. Researchers have found that regular meditation practice reduces inflammatory biomarkers, such as C-reactive protein, in saliva samples. Other research shows that regular meditation suppresses the expression of genes related to inflammatory processes.
Research with cancer patients and other immune-compromised subjects demonstrates that meditation helps restore healthy immune function—including NK cell and cytokine activity—as well as antioxidant function.
Supports Heart Health
A number of studies show that meditation practice reduces blood pressure and slows resting heart rate. Other studies indicate that regular meditation can reduce the risk of heart attack and stroke by up to 48 percent. Clearly, the stress-relieving, anti-inflammatory benefits of meditation help support heart health, but there may be something deeper going on. Meditation helps increase our feelings of love and compassion, strengthens areas in the brain related to empathy and emotional processing, and promotes our natural state of an open heart. This can have a profound impact on physical heart health and overall healing capacity.
Reduces Pain; Improves Outlook and Quality of Life
MRI imaging shows that meditation can reduce activity in areas of the brain related to pain processing. Other studies in patients with chronic pain showed that regular meditation helped to reduce pain severity and improve quality of life.
In the field of neuroscience, researchers are learning how meditation practice enhances brain power, strengthens connections between neurons, lifts depression, tempers emotional reactivity, builds compassion and empathy, and improves concentration and focus, among other benefits. This may only be the tip of the iceberg!
Meditation practice starts with quieting our constant mental chatter. A wise metaphor describes the condition of our hyperactive, everyday minds: “The mind is like a blind rider on a wild horse.” We have no control, and we don’t know where our thoughts will lead. We are held captive by our mental processes, which express the ongoing dialogue between our desires and dislikes. Quite literally, our brains are wired for this constant back-and-forth of attachment and aversion: what we want to happen versus what we fear will happen.
Society, media, and marketing groups understand and exploit these mental circuits. In other words, we continue to reinforce this expression of ego, rather than work to liberate ourselves from the emotional tug-of-war that dictates our feelings, thoughts, habits, actions, relationships, and experience of life.
By simply taking a step back and making an effort to notice these mental and emotional patterns, we interrupt this neurotic circuitry. The practice of meditation helps us to take note of, release, and gradually reduce these frenetic thought patterns so we can truly relax and recharge our nervous system. Gradually, meditation allows the space between thoughts to become wider and clearer. Our attachments and grasping begin to loosen, and as we ease into this spaciousness, a deeper awareness arises. We begin to experience more peace, clarity, and greater love and compassion.
This process is not about escape or detachment—it’s about training our minds to become more calm, focused, and aware. During meditation practice, feelings will inevitably arise: pain, sadness, fear, hopes, and aversions. But like clouds, they will pass. Our mind’s true nature is like the sky that lies behind the clouds—clear, open, and expansive. The goal in meditation is not to suppress thoughts or feelings, but simply to observe how they come and go like clouds.
To begin, find a quiet space. Sit comfortably with your back straight. Place a small object on the ground in front of you, such as a pebble, and focus on the object and your breathing. It won’t be easy at first. Your busy mind will likely distract with to-do lists and other chatter. This is a natural part of the process, so just gently bring your focus back to your breathing and the object. As you continue to nurture this inner calm with regular practice, it will become easier to access; in turn, this will offer you more than just peace of mind. It opens the door to an incredible array of health benefits.
Regardless of your age, health, or belief system, regular meditation can benefit you on all levels. As more health practitioners recommend this ancient practice, meditation is on its way to holding a well-deserved reputation as a powerful modality for supporting health and preventing illness. Simply put: Meditation practice—even just 10 minutes a day—allows our healing capacity to take a quantum leap.
By Isaac Eliaz, MD, MS, LAc // dreliaz.org