Meditation is probably best known for its ability to bust stress and support our overall mental health. And that’s so important, but it’s not all meditation can do for us. Any type of regular meditation or mindfulness practice may benefit our physical health too. “The take-home message? Practice,” says Valerie Knopik, PhD, a Yoga Medicine® Online instructor.
Here are four ways you may not realize that meditation is good for you.
Pain management. Meditation could help you become less sensitive and reactive to feelings of discomfort or pain. “Mindfulness meditation refocuses the mind on the present and increases awareness of one’s external surroundings and inner sensations. This allows a person to step back, reflect, and reframe experiences,” Knopik explains.
Brain scans indicate this shift, showing that meditation appears to activate parts of the brain involved in changing the context or meaning of pain as well as in regulating emotional responses to pain. So far studies found that meditation may reduce pain and improve the quality of life for those who experience low back pain, migraines and other headaches, and even fibromyalgia.
Improved immunity. There’s no substitute for washing your hands and practicing other good hygiene. However, meditation may give your immune system a boost. For one, meditation reduces levels of the stress hormone cortisol. Chronic high levels of cortisol lead to increased inflammation, and inflammation makes our immune system less effective to fight off infections, viruses, and other invaders. Stress can also disrupt our gut microbiota, “which we are learning plays an important role in our body’s anti-inflammatory response,” Knopik adds. No wonder, then, that meditation may support a healthy gut.
But that’s not all. Meditation directly decreases inflammation in the body and may increase levels of T cells (which help regulate our immune response) and telomerase activity. Telomeres are the structures at the end of chromosomes. Shorter telomeres are associated with chronic illness, so increasing telomerase activity may lead to longer, healthier lives, but more research is necessary.
Better sleep. Want to fall asleep faster, sleep for longer, and simply sleep better? Meditation may help. “Meditation helps us hone our natural ability to disengage from our thoughts. This is precisely what we need to do when we fall asleep,” explains psychologist Paul Greene, PhD, director of the Manhattan Center for Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy. Meditation also helps reduce worry and rumination—two things that can keep your mind going and going and going at night. And physically, mindfulness meditation triggers the relaxation response, helping to slow your heart rate and breathing and ease muscle tension. All of that can help you nod off quicker.
Heart health. Stress is linked to poor blood circulation and increased cholesterol, blood pressure, heart rate, and risk of stroke and coronary artery disease. Meditation not only reduces stress—it also appears to positively benefit all of these other factors. How? The practice appears to increase the activity of the parasympathetic nervous system (aka the “rest and digest” system) and decrease the activity of the sympathetic nervous system (the “fight or flight” system), explains Chayakrit Krittanawong, MD, lead author of a recent review. While more research is necessary to confirm meditation’s benefits for the heart, it really can’t hurt to give it a try.
Plus, you don’t need to meditate for hours a day and weeks at a time to see results. In a study published in the Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology in 2015, one group of employees did a three-minute breathing activity as well as one other brief mindfulness activity (such as a body scan or loving kindness meditation) every morning and evening for 10 days. At the end of the experiment, this group experienced longer and better quality sleep compared to a control group.
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.