Meditation’s many benefits
Do you want to improve your memory and ability to focus? Wouldn’t it be great to feel less stressed out—enjoy better sleep? How about if there was also a simple way to help manage your weight, lower your blood pressure, and your risk of heart attack?
You can have all of those things without taking a single pill, drastically changing your diet, or spending a single dollar. Daily meditation can help you. And you don’t have to be a Buddhist monk to do it well! Read on and I’ll explain how meditation transforms your brain and body, and how you can start benefiting from it almost immediately.
How Meditation Connects Brain and Body
Speaking of Buddhist monks, a very interesting study on them showed exactly how meditation connects their brains and bodies.
In the study, the brains of Buddhist monks were scanned while they meditated. What researchers discovered was extraordinary. Meditation activated the brain’s anterior insula, a primary source of brain-body communication. That may not sound like a big deal but let’s take a deeper look to show how this protects your body from illness.
Your brain is your body’s central command. Nearly everything else in the body follows the brain’s marching orders. For example, your brain and immune system’s ability to communicate with each other actually improves the strength and performance of your immune system. Same goes with your endocrine system, your nervous system, your digestive system, and so on.
I cannot understate the magnitude of these findings. It basically says regular meditation can improve communication between your brain and nearly all systems of your body. No pills (or doctor visits) required!
Perhaps you aren’t convinced because Buddhists are “professional meditators”. Well, another study found that meditation improved the participants’ immune response to a flu vaccine. These subjects weren’t monks or yoga instructors. They were everyday people who had learned about mindfulness meditation and put it into practice.
Other Health Benefits of Meditation
I understand if you want to see and feel more tangible results to meditation—maybe even more immediate results. Well, here are a few studies that show how quickly meditation improves your health.
One recent study took a group of unemployed, highly stressed people and taught them to meditate. A second group was taught “meditation lite,” focusing on simple de-stressing techniques. Both groups had blood tests and brain scans before and after their three-day sessions.
Everyone reported feeling better, but something amazing happened to the meditation group—their brains physically changed. There was measurably increased communication–back-and-forth chatter—between the parts of their brains that process stress-related reactions and in other parts associated with focus and calm.
Multiple studies show that meditation increases the volume and density of your hippocampus, the area of your brain that is crucial for your memory.
Other studies show that meditation also helps your brain develop wrinkles, and this is a good thing! The more wrinkles on the outside surface of your brain—called the cortex—the better your brain’s ability to perform sophisticated processes such as abstract thought and introspection.
All of these studies were conducted independent of each other and they studied a variety of people. But there’s one thing they have in common. None of them show any negative effects of meditation.
So let’s add these up. Here we have something that provides: better brain-body communication, reduced stress, improved memory, etc. No negative side effects. No drugs or supplements needed.
As a physician, it’s my duty to “prescribe” it. I want you to meditate at least 10-15 minutes every day, starting today. Doctor’s orders!
How You Can Start Meditating Today
Meditation requires only two pieces of equipment. Happily, you already have both:
- Your own behind and a place to rest it
- Your own active, engaged mind
Let’s focus on your mind. Specifically, let’s clear it out. All the noise. All the racing thoughts. All the chatter and clatter bouncing around. This was hard for me at first—not just keeping out the noise in my mind but keeping it quiet throughout a meditation session. But with repetition and practice, it didn’t take long before I caught on and started to think I could meditate in the Himalayas with Buddhists monks!
Sometimes it helps to visualize those thoughts leaving your mind. For example, I visualize myself removing my scattered thoughts from my head and placing them outside my meditation area. Sometimes I picture myself pressing an imaginary mute button on my head—silencing all those thoughts instantly and on command.
The next step is something you’ve been doing your entire life—breathing. But here, you breathe in a way that’s very different than automatic, unconscious breathing. Instead, I want you to begin each breath deep in your stomach, not in your lungs. You’ve got it right when your stomach expands before your lungs, as you inhale through your nose. You then exhale through your mouth, focusing on emptying your lungs, then compressing your stomach.
Focus all of your attention on the sounds and sensations of air filling your lungs, then leaving your lungs. Slow, deliberate breaths, in…and out. And if your mind drifts to your to-do list or that conversation you had yesterday (and it will), simply recognize it and re-focus on your breathing again.
This deliberate focus on breathing is an example of a powerful tool that recently entered the meditation lexicon—mindfulness.
Mindfulness—The Secret Ingredient to Meditation
The words mindfulness and meditation are often said interchangeably, which causes confusion about the differences between them. Here’s a simple breakdown: meditation is an action, mindfulness is a mental state.
Mindful thinking requires you to focus solely on your present moment—how you feel, what you are thinking, what you are doing. When you are meditating, mindful thinking helps you ward off intrusive thoughts that disrupt your concentration, breathing and relaxing.
For example, “What should I cook for dinner?” or “Did I set the DVR for my favorite show?” or “I forgot to do X, Y, or Z!”
A mindful meditator lets those thoughts go and focuses on meditation-related thoughts—the deepness of your breathing, the smell of air going in and out of your lungs, the quietness of the room, the feeling of relaxation spreading throughout their body, and so on.
It takes practice to “let go” of distracting thoughts. Millions have succeeded, and you can too. Like any exercise, you improve with repetition. They call it a “practice” for a reason.
Tips and Meditation Aids to Help Get Your Started
Meditation doesn’t cost a penny but it does require you to do one thing—make time for it. I find that early mornings or late evenings work best for me. Pick a time of day where you can set aside 15 to 30 minutes of quiet time in a quiet place. Kick your loved one out of your bedroom if you have to!
Eliminating distractions is difficult, especially when your smartphone is beeping and blaring throughout the day. In this case, you can use it to your advantage by finding meditation apps or programs on YouTube that you can play while meditating.
The best meditation aids combine relaxing music and sound effects (chirping birds, buzzing insects, streams of water, etc.) and run continuously for 15 to 30 minutes—the perfect length of a meditation session. Plug in ear phones if you have to. The whole point is to isolate yourself from distraction as much as possible.
My favorites meditation aids are Sound Therapy, Holosync Solutions, Wholetones, Centerpointe, and Heartmath. Google them, but in the end use whichever works best for you.
Using visual aids can also help you “stay in the moment,” such as focusing on a lit candle.
There’s no prescribed “dose” of meditation, and there’s no such thing as too much of it. To me, the most important thing is that you are meditating regularly.
If you just can’t bring yourself to meditate for 15 minutes at a time. Start with 5…then 10. Maybe set a timer for yourself and gradually add minutes to your practice as it begins to come more naturally to you.
I sincerely urge you to try it—and find your own way to happier, healthier life.
- Gilsinan, Kathy. “The Buddhist and the Neuroscientist.” The Atlantic. Published July 4, 2015.
- Reynolds, Gretchen. “How Meditation Changes the Brain and Body.” New York Times. Published February 18, 2016.
- Davidson, RJ et al. “Alterations in Brain and Immune Function Produced by Mindfulness Meditation.” Psychosomatic Medicine. Published July 2003.
- Scientific American, Instant Egghead Episode #54. “How Does Meditation Change the Brain?” Published via YouTube October 31, 2013.