While meditation is known to make you feel relaxed and at peace with the world, did you know that your quiet time on the mat is actually physically changing your brain?
This explains why meditation is such a transformative experience for so many people. As we’re controlling our own thoughts through meditation, we’re also changing the structure of our grey matter.
Brain and body changes
Meditation has been proven to produce the following results in your brain and body:
Slows the aging process
Aging typically brings to mind outward signs like crow’s feet or 11 lines (also known as frown lines), but we also see signs of aging at the cellular level.
Telomeres are stretches of DNA at the end of our chromosomes that protect our genetic data and make it easier for cells to divide. Telomeres have been compared to the plastic cap at the end of your shoelace. In the same way the cap stops your laces from fraying, telomeres keep chromosome ends from fraying. Telomeres get shorter every time a cell divides, and when they get too short, the cell dies. Short telomeres are associated with aging, dementia and a higher risk of death.
Research published in a July 2012 issue of Archives of Neurology (now known as JAMA Neurology) indicates that shortened telomeres are associated with an increased risk of developing dementia. Fortunately, there may be something we can do to increase the length of telomeres: meditate. An August 2013 issue of Brain, Behavior, and Immunity associated longer telomeres with women who meditate.
We don’t often think of what happens in the brain when we’re feeling down, but there are biochemical reactions that take place. Stress and depression trigger the brain to release cortisol, but a continual flow of cortisol can trigger Major Depressive Disorder (MDD).
Meditation has been proven to reduce cortisol levels in many studies, including one published in a 1991 Physiology and Behavior paper. In this study, researchers found significantly reduced cortisol levels in the group of 20 to 25-year-old males who meditated, versus those in the same age group who didn’t meditate.
Since meditation decreases cortisol levels, we shouldn’t be surprised that it also reduces symptoms of depression.
A 2011 Clinical Psychology Review study found that mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT), including meditation, was at least as effective against MDD as anti-depressant medication.
An August 2004 Cognitive Therapy and Research study also indicates that mindfulness meditation can combat symptoms of depression. In this study, participants being treated for depression and anxiety took an eight-week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) course. The goal of this course was to reduce unhealthy thinking that leads to dysfunctional beliefs. At the end of the course, those participating in the mindfulness program had a significant reduction in depressive symptoms compared with people who didn’t take the program.
Improves concentration and focus
Possibly, some of the best news about meditation and overall health is that you don’t need years of practice to spark change. A 2010 Consciousness and Cognition study shows that you can significantly improve your working memory, executive functioning and visuospatial processing with just four days of meditation practice.
Even in the early days of your practice, when you feel like you’ll never master the art, you’re actually making a difference.
After just four sessions of meditation training, people who were brand new to meditation experienced mood improvements, as well as an increased working memory and executive functioning.
This is promising news for anyone who may be having trouble focusing at work or school.
This news may also be encouraging for anyone who’s new to meditation. Even in the early days of your practice, when you feel like you’ll never master the art, you’re actually making a difference. Could it be that the simple act of trying to meditate is healing in itself?
Helps with overcoming addiction
During recovery, urges and cravings run rampant. This is one of the biggest challenges a recovering addict has to overcome.
If someone could boost their natural ability to control their impulses, this would have obvious benefits. Fortunately, research indicates that we may be able to do just that through meditation.
The area of your brain that’s responsible for self-control and happiness is called the prefrontal cortex. Studies have found that meditation may actually increase the size of a person’s prefrontal cortex. This was confirmed in a 2005 Neuroreport study that measured the brains of 20 participants via magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).
The prefrontal cortex plays another role in addiction. It also happens to get hyper-stimulated when a person is intoxicated. Now, imagine if we could replicate that hyper-stimulation without drugs or alcohol. This is possible with meditation.
A 2005 study led by Harvard neuroscientist Sara Lazar, Ph.D., showed that people who meditated had increased activity in their prefrontal cortexes. Therefore, by meditating, people in recovery could possibly get that pre-frontal cortex stimulation they crave in a healthier way.
Increases grey matter
People who meditate have significantly more grey matter in those regions of the brain associated with happiness. A 2009 NeuroImage study looked at the MRI data for 44 subjects and found substantially larger amounts of grey matter in the right-orbitofrontal cortex of meditators’ brains. This part of the brain is believed to represent emotion and reward in decision-making, and increasing the size of certain areas of your brain may help you maintain a positive outlook.
One impressive study found that eight weeks of meditation not only immediately reduced anxiety, but the results seemed to last three years after the initial course. This study, published in General Hospital Psychiatry, shows that meditation provides lasting and significant reductions in anxiety symptoms.
Positive changes at all levels
Whether you’re just beginning a meditation practice or have been practicing for years, your brain will be showing signs of your work. This has obvious benefits for your health and longevity that should be present in direct proportion to the amount of inner peace meditation has brought to your life.
Meditators of all levels can enjoy a reduced amount of anxiety and depression, an increased brain size, better powers of concentration and a more youthful glow.