Discover meditation’s many health benefits
“Take a deep breath.”
That’s what we tell ourselves and others when stress and anxiety are taking hold. That deep breath is a brief pause to calm down and collect your thoughts so that you have a clearer focus and sounder state of mind. It seems almost instinctive, right? But, in effect, you’ve just done about five seconds of meditation.
“Take a deep breath” is great advice, but moments of high stress are not the only time you should do it.
Daily meditation doesn’t just calm you down during a crisis. Studies show that it can improve your memory, ability to focus, sleep better, and even provide crucial support to your cardiovascular health. Best of all, you don’t have to be a Zen master to get the benefits of meditation!
Meditation transforms your brain and body. And, while it does take practice, you don’t need to be a Zen Buddhist or new-agey guru to practice meditation. In fact, it’s far easier than you may think and you can benefit from it starting today.
How Meditation Connects Your Brain and Body
Recently, a very intriguing study showed exactly how meditation connected the brains and bodies of its subjects. These weren’t just ordinary people off the street. They were Buddhist monks—daily practitioners of meditation.
Researchers discovered that meditation activated their 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 at how this protects your body from illness.
Your brain is your body’s central command. Nearly every action, function and process in the body follows your brain’s marching orders. And the better your brain can communicate with the rest of your body, the better your body functions. 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 overstate the magnitude of these findings. It basically shows that regular meditation can improve communication between your brain and nearly all systems of your body. And that improved communication translates to improved performance of your body’s major systems. No pills (or doctor visits) required!
Meditation and Stress Relief
Of course, you’re not a Buddhist monk—perhaps it’s not a fair comparison. You probably want more tangible proof on how meditation helps the brains and bodies of the rest of us who aren’t “professional meditators” living in scenic and serene mountain temples.
Fair point. Allow me to counterpoint.
Another study found that meditation improved participants’ immune response to a flu vaccine. These subjects were everyday people who had learned about mindfulness meditation and put it into practice.
A third study looked specifically at highly stressed individuals. One group was taught meditation. Another group was taught “meditation lite.” 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.
Further research shows that meditation can:
- Increase the volume and density of your hippocampus, the area of your brain that is crucial for storing memories
- Improve your brain’s ability to perform sophisticated processes like abstract thought and introspection
- Increase your brain’s ability to learn, remember, and regulate your emotions
- Reduce your level of and susceptibility to stress
- Lower your blood pressure
- Reduce symptoms of chronic inflammatory conditions, like asthma, rheumatoid arthritis, and inflammatory bowel disease
- Slow your body’s and brain’s aging process
Though all of these studies were conducted independently on a variety of people, they did have one thing in common that you should know about. None of them showed a single negative side effect of meditation.
So let’s add these up. Here we have something that provides: better brain-body communication, reduced stress, improved memory, healthy blood pressure, and slower aging. Not a single negative side effect. No drugs or supplements needed.
This is nothing but a win-win situation.
How You Can Start Meditating Today
Meditation doesn’t require a new wardrobe or gym membership. It’s as affordable as it is easy.
The only thing required is a little time and some patience.
If you’re anything like me, racing thoughts and “brain chatter” can be a frustrating hurdle to overcome.
I admit that this was hard for me at first. But with patience and practice, it didn’t take long before I caught on and started to think I could meditate in the Himalayas with Buddhists monks!
Start with as little as 5-10 minutes a day. Set a timer, sit quietly, close your eyes and simply focus all of your attention on the sound of your breath.
As thoughts and “brain chatter” creep in, it helps to visualize those thoughts literally leaving your mind. For example, I imagine myself removing my scattered thoughts from my head and placing them outside my meditation area. One by one. And with each one, I feel a little bit more at ease.
Sometimes I picture myself pressing an imaginary mute button on my head—silencing all those thoughts on command.
The next step is something you’ve been doing your entire life—breathing. But here, you breathe in a way that’s a little bit different than you’re used 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 and 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.
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. Even if you feel like your mind was all over the place for the full 10 minutes (or whichever amount of time you choose to devote), just sitting with your breath has a benefit.
And it will get easier with practice.
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, etc. 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!”
Being a mindful meditator means you can let those thoughts go and focus 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 your 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 You 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 5 to 10 minutes of quiet time in a quiet place, to start. You’ll ultimately want to build your practice to at least 30 minutes.
Kick your loved ones out of your room 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 music 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.
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.
Accelerate Meditation’s Benefits with These Supplements
When you leave that serene bubble of meditative bliss, reality can set in quickly. All those stressors re-emerge. Meditation certainly helps you deal with them. But sometimes even an otherwise calm mind can use some help. That’s why I recommend a few supplements that can do exactly that.
First is the amino acid l-theanine. Studies show that l-theanine can support concentration and calmness. It’s commonly used as a sleep aid but it’s not a sedative. It can help switch off that annoying “brain chatter” that keeps you awake at night. I recommend that you take 200 mg/day.
Next, gamma-amino butyric acid (GABA) is a neurotransmitter that can reduce anxiety and induce relaxation in as little as 15 minutes. Look for a supplement with 100 mg/day.
Finally, there is Venetron, an extract of the Apocyum venetum, whose flowers have been staples of Chinese calming teas as far back as the 15th century. Modern studies back up its folklore. Venetron has been shown to help promote calmness and contentment, reduce feelings of anxiety, and promote a healthy night’s sleep without being habit-forming and without side effects. Look for a supplement with 50 mg/day.
Start Meditating, Start Feeling Better as Soon as Today
You can feel better in the face of stress as soon as today. You can sleep better as soon as tonight. Meditation can unlock dozens of crucial benefits and you really don’t have to exhaust yourself to do it. In fact, you’ll refresh yourself by doing it!
Start today and feel the difference immediately.
- 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.
Last Updated: February 11, 2020
Originally Published: March 8, 2018