When you meditate, you’re taking the time to stop, breathe, and ground yourself in the present moment—which can have serious health benefits, including for your immune system.
“Meditation is a mindful practice that allows us to be in the present. When we focus too much on the past, we are more susceptible to depressive experiences—and when we focus too much on the future, anxious feelings are likely to arise,” says Dr. Catherine Jackson, licensed clinical psychologist and board-certified neurotherapist at Optimal Neuroholistic Services. “Meditation allows us to train our brains to focus more and more on the present—and, by doing so, reduce stressors that negatively impact the immune system.”
But how, exactly, does meditation help support healthy immune function?
Meditation helps reduce levels of cortisol—also known as the “stress hormone”
One of the biggest ways meditation can help boost your immune system is by lowering cortisol—also known as the stress hormone.
“Too much stress leads to the body producing too much cortisol—and when the body experiences stress for too long it becomes chronic, leading to an overactive production of cortisol which results in inflammation,” says Jackson.
“When people are chronically stressed, their cortisol levels are high and this can put their immune functioning at risk,” says Nicole Avena, PhD, Assistant Professor of Neuroscience at Mount Sinai School of Medicine and Visiting Professor of Health Psychology at Princeton University. “Meditation can help people to relax and reduce anxiety, which can reduce cortisol levels…[and] can help to improve our immune response.”
Meditation can help your body move from “fight or flight” to “rest and digest”
Meditation can also help shift the body from the sympathetic nervous system—also known as “fight or flight” mode—to the parasympathetic nervous system. “Meditation induces the parasympathetic system, which is the ‘rest and digest’ system,” says physician and lifestyle medicine coach Kathy Tsapos Parmele, MD. “It induces a wide variety of biochemical changes by decreasing the gene expression of proteins related to inflammation and improving the expression of genes related to immune response.”
When your body is in rest or digest mode, you’ll also feel more calm—which, in turn, can help reduce stress and provide additional benefits to your immune system.
“Physiologic changes include decreases in oxygen consumption, blood pressure, heart rate, and respiratory rate,” says Tsapos Parmele. “These salutary effects impact the entire organism in that they reduce the inflammatory stress cascade that leads to immune dysfunction.”
Meditation has been shown to positively affect gut health—which supports healthy immune function
The digestive system plays a large role in immunity. The ways meditation impacts the body (for example, by lowering stress hormones) can help support a healthy gut—which, in turn, can support a healthy immune system.
“Decreased stress responses improve gut function through the GI-neuronal axis. A large part of our immune system lives in the gut as part of GALT (gut-associated lymphoid tissue),” says Tsapos Parmele. “Meditation decreases sympathetic nervous system activation, which in turn reduces cortisol and norepinephrine release, decreases intestinal permeability—[also known as] leaky gut—and reduces inappropriate activation of the immune system that otherwise leads to autoimmune disorders.”
How often do you have to meditate to experience the immune-strengthening effects?
Clearly, carving out time to meditate can have a huge impact on your body’s immune response. But how often do you have to meditate in order to enjoy those immune-boosting effects? “The key is to reduce stress, and just one meditation session can have a ripple effect of calming you, which can help reduce your current state of stress,” says Avena.
While one session can be all it takes to start driving immunity-boosting effects from your meditation practice, “the more you meditate, the better the response,” says Tsapos Parmele. “In our central nervous system, practicing any new activity results in neuroplasticity—growth of new neural connections that tie together and become more robust the more often you practice. In the same way, the more you meditate, the more those neural connections tie together and are able to more quickly achieve a parasympathetic state, leading to improved immune function and decreased inflammation.”
Just make sure not to get carried away; the important thing is that you actually start meditating—not that you meditate every day or create a “perfect” practice. “Many of us get really excited to start and take on too much too fast. Or we get overwhelmed or intimidated at the thought of meditating, especially if it’s new,” says Jackson. “Start with what’s comfortable for you and ditch the need to feel like you have to do it perfectly. Should your mind wander, gently bring your attention back to the focus of your meditation when you notice you’ve drifted off. The more you practice this, the better you will become with it and the more benefits you will reap.”
This information is for educational purposes only and is not intended as a substitute for medical diagnosis or treatment. You should not use this information to diagnose or treat a health problem or condition. Always check with your doctor before changing your diet, altering your sleep habits, taking supplements, or starting a new fitness routine.