Breathe Through Life
There is no denying that managing stress and good health go hand-in-hand. But did you know that there is actual scientific evidence to show that meditation (in all its forms) can help with many of our most common health conditions? In this guest article, Dr. Irene Carr, Vytal Health functional medicine specialist, explains it all. 👇
What is FREE, can be done ANYWHERE, lowers inflammation, pain, and blood pressure, and improves sleep (and more)? What makes lifestyle transformation easier? What helps make life easier and relationships yummier?
Yes, I am speaking of meditation. It is the single best thing I have ever done for my health, plus it has benefited every aspect of my life.
I began to meditate daily in 2009 after the diagnosis of Hashimoto’s autoimmune thyroiditis. I knew my life was so very out of balance. I knew so many of my habits needed to be transformed, and I felt overwhelmed. And I watched patients in my practice who did not address their health comprehensively with modifiable lifestyle factors age rapidly, struggle with hormone imbalances, accumulate additional autoimmune conditions, and other diagnoses.
For me and many of my patients, meditation has been an extremely helpful tool to address health issues, calm stress, and create a greater sense of well-being.
What exactly is meditation?
According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, the formal definition of meditation is “to engage in mental exercise (such as concentration on one’s breathing or repetition of a mantra) for the purpose of reaching a heightened level of spiritual awareness.” Simply put, meditation is about allowing the mind to let go of its constant chatter by focusing our attention on the here and now. This can be accomplished by focusing on your inhalation and exhalation, a word or phrase, or even relaxing music. Inevitably, our busy brains will wander away, even with our best efforts. When that happens, we gently guide our mind back to our breathing, word/phrase, or music. Meditation doesn’t have to be a spiritual practice or even be associated with a religious group, although some religions use meditation, chanting, and prayer in their spiritual activities.
What are the different types of meditation?
I have tried a lot of different forms of meditation including mindfulness, walking meditation, and centering prayer, to name a few. I like having a lot of tools in my toolbox and have found that different periods of my life call for different meditation practices. Other people find a practice that they like and stick with it.
Technically there is a difference between meditation and mindfulness practices which you may read about here. I will be using the terms interchangeably in this article.
While meditation is simple, it is not always easy. It is similar to exercise. Sometimes we are excited about exercise and it feels good, yet other times we drag ourselves to exercise and it may or may not feel good. However, if we keep going, over time we harvest the benefits. A meditation here and there has some benefits, yet so much more will be gained with consistent daily practice.
What is the science behind meditation?
Surprisingly, there are A LOT of research studies focused on how meditation can help with various health issues, both physical and emotional. Here are some of the amazing effects meditation has on some of the most common health issues.
When I think of inflammation, I think of chronic disease, pain, and aging. Inflammation is at the root of these and many other common health problems. Meditation has been shown to decrease the inflammation markers interleukin-6 and C-reactive protein. These inflammation markers are common in autoimmune conditions like rheumatoid arthritis.
Managing blood pressure
A 2020 review of 14 studies (including more than 1,100 participants) looked at the impact of mindfulness practices on blood pressure in people with hypertension, diabetes, or cancer. The analysis showed that for people with these health conditions, practicing mindfulness-based stress reduction was associated with a notable reduction in blood pressure.
A 2020 analysis of five studies of adults using opioids for acute or chronic pain (with a total of 514 participants) found that meditation practices were strongly associated with increased ability to tolerate pain. So while the pain was still present, there was an increased capacity to tolerate it. Relatedly, meditation may support reduction in opioid use.
Not surprisingly, sleep can be impacted by meditation. In a 2019 analysis of 18 studies with over 1,500 participants found that mindfulness meditation practices improved sleep quality more than education-based treatments. Here is to great sleep!
A 2018 analysis of 19 studies with over 1,000 participants found that mindfulness helped people lose weight and manage eating-related behaviors such as binge, emotional, and restrained eating. The results of the analysis showed that mindfulness treatment programs when combined with formal meditation and informal mindfulness exercises were especially effective methods for losing weight and managing disordered eating.
It makes sense that meditation would help with mood issues, such as depression and anxiety. In this 2018 analysis of 24 studies, mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) programs were correlated with a reduction in depression, anxiety, burnout, and stress and with improved quality of sleep and personal accomplishment.
While research on mindfulness meditation and brain health is still in the early stages, some small, initial studies have found that over time mindfulness meditation may lead to increases in gray matter density in the hippocampus and other frontal regions of the brain as well as increases in the anterior insula and cortical thickness. What does that mean? Simply put, the increases in gray matter and the left hippocampus aid in learning, cognition, and memory yielding improved retention of facts and more mindful behavior, while the gains in the anterior insula part of the brain and in cortical thickness benefit cognitive functioning, attention, and self-awareness.
Meditation also increases brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). BDNF plays an important role in nerve cell survival and growth, and participates in brain plasticity (the ability of the brain to grow and change, even after injury), which is essential for learning and memory.
Can meditation increase my lifespan?
The short answer is yes! The action of meditation on lifespan seems to arise from its impact on telomeres. Telomeres are protective caps at the ends of our genes, protecting them from the stress and strain of our environment. Think of them as the caps at the end of your shoelaces, protecting the laces from fraying. It has been shown that meditation impacts telomere length in a positive manner, and telomere length correlates with longevity. In short, meditation can contribute to a happy, long life!
Why else is meditation important?
In order to heal our physical conditions, we need to be able to activate our parasympathetic nervous system. All too often we live life with an over-activated sympathetic nervous system. The parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems are the two components of the autonomic nervous system. The sympathetic nervous system is the component that is responsible for “fight or flight”, while the parasympathetic nervous system is the component that is responsible for relaxation, repair, and digestion. Too much time in the sympathetic nervous system results in a lot of strain and breakdown in our bodies, and over time may result in such symptoms as gastrointestinal issues (constipation, difficulty swallowing food), heart rate abnormalities, dizziness, sexual dysfunction and more. Meditation can help us balance our sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems effectively, making us feel calmer and at ease.
Some final thoughts
Before embarking on a meditation practice, please consider the following:
Remember meditation or mindfulness is part of a comprehensive approach to feeling better. Just as one thing does not result in illness, there is no “magic bullet” that will allow for health to flourish.
Do consider a formal training program for meditation or mindfulness, especially if you have a history of trauma. For people with a trauma history, meditation may bring up a lot of emotions and memories. This is because staying busy can be a way to suppress emotions and memories, so when some people stop and get quiet for the first few times, emotional surges may be experienced. This was my experience. If you choose to attend a course, make sure the program has some support available after the official training is complete. The great news is that meditation can support us in healing our emotions and trauma and help us feel better in the long term.
While not everyone needs a course, if you are considering a training program, inquire about the instructor’s background, teaching methods, and support during the training and after the training. A simple online search for “meditation courses” will yield lots of options for you.
It is always a great idea to talk with your health care providers about any behavior changes you are doing, including meditation, so that they can support your efforts.
If you choose to explore meditation, may your practice be fruitful!
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