Meditation is the practice of conscious repetition and awareness. Constantly bringing your moment’s attention back into focus is what allows you to transcend the thinking mind and trigger a biological response of relaxation.
This is a very effective way to calm down and ease tension associated with an overactive mind.
With many benefits attributed to meditation as a daily practice, psychological, emotional, and spiritual influences are often discussed.
But another fascinating aspect of how meditation can have a positive impact on lifestyle and wellness is that practicing focused attention and concentrated awareness through meditation can produce physical changes to the brain, and cellular function of the body.
In meditation, the physiology endures positive change as every cell in the body is provided with the opportunity to release and reenergize.
Here is a breakdown of some of the physical benefits of meditation.
Increases levels of serotonin responsible for mood and behavior
Meditation has been shown to increase natural levels of serotonin (a neurotransmitter that regulates mood and behavior). This brain chemical also helps speed up the body’s natural healing process — allowing the body to rejuvenate and reenergize much more effectively. Low levels of serotonin have been linked to depression, insomnia, migraines, and other ailments associated with chronic stress.
Meditation helps the brain release serotonin naturally by inhibiting activity in the stress-producing regions of the brain: the amygdala and the right prefrontal cortex. Meditation also strengthens activity in the relaxation and happiness response of the brain: the left prefrontal cortex.
Physical Changes to the Brain
The structure of the brain begins to thin with age. Meditation has been shown to help reverse this pattern.
A team of researchers at Harvard University found that mindfulness meditation actually strengthens the structure of the brain. An 8 week session of mindfulness meditation increased thickness in the hippocampus — an area of the brain that governs memory and learning.
There was also a decrease in cell activity in the amygdala — responsible for overcharged reactions such as fear and anxiety. At the end of the study, the participants said there was marked improvement in how they felt.
Meditation is one of the most powerful ways to strengthen the prefrontal cortex. This area of the brain is responsible for decision making, judgment, thought analysis and regulating our behavior.
While meditating, we are constantly bringing our focus back into the presence of the moment. Each time the mind wanders and is intentionally brought back into awareness, the prefrontal cortex is activated and strengthened. Meditation has been shown to greatly improve willpower and concentration. This is a prime example of a phenomenon referred to in neuroscience as neuroplasticity (the brain’s ability to change).
Heart and Blood Pressure
Mental and physical stress causes high blood pressure and constricted blood cells. This prolonged strain can lead to depression, burnout, and can sometimes lead to harmful addictions. Controlled breathing allows the body to produce increased levels of nitric oxide — a compound that helps open up constricted blood vessels, and ultimately causes a reduction in blood pressure.
“Think of meditation as a 20- or 30-minute vacation from the stress in your life,” says Richard A. Stein, professor of medicine and director of the exercise and nutrition program at New York University’s Center for Prevention of Cardiovascular Disease.
The Relaxation Response
In a study at the Benson-Henry institute for Mind Body Medicine in Boston, hypertension patients were instructed to try a “relaxation response” technique — a meditation method developed by cardiologist Herbert Benson.
After three months of practice, 40 of the 60 patients were able to reduce their medications thanks to reduced blood pressure and healthier circulation.
The relaxation response corresponds to a part of the brain called the hypothalamus, which – when triggered – sends out neurochemicals which counteract the hyper activity in the nervous system due to stress and agitation. This release of neurochemicals has been said to be responsible for the experience known as spiritual or inner peace.
Dr. Herbert Benson describes it as: “A physical state of deep rest that changes the physical and emotional responses to stress and is opposite of the “fight or flight response.”
Telomerase is an enzyme that prevents and may even reverse premature aging in cells. This enzyme, however, is suppressed when we are even just a little bit stressed. Consistent meditation has been shown to increase telomerase activity by 30 percent, according to a 2010 research finding by the Shamatha Project.
Enhanced Immune System
Meditation is shown to induce electrical activity in the prefrontal cortex, the right hippocampus, and the right anterior insula parts of the brain. All of these aspects of the brain are directly involved in the regulation of the immune system. Through these specific connections, instructions to the nervous system and immune function are being transmitted.
According to a controlled study, it was found that individuals who practiced mindful meditation on a weekly basis had a much higher concentration of antibodies than those who did not. The significance of antibodies in the fight against viruses and bacteria within our bodies cannot be taken for granted.
Another study conducted at the UCLA revealed that patients with HIV, who practiced meditation had a reduced rate of CD-4 cells loss. These cells are a type of white blood cell that fights infection and their count indicates the stage of HIV or AIDS in a patient. Though this relationship is yet to be fully understood, the results are compelling.
Decrease in Stress and Muscle Tension
The most common physical benefits are reduced stress and muscle tension. Accumulated stress will eventually lead to overactive muscle contraction. The subtle muscles that control our breathing and bodily function can become strained, tired, and even bruised. Drawing attention to different areas of the body by controlling breathing and calming the mind will help relax those tired muscles at micro level.
This process is also associated with the relaxation response. As the the mind falls into a state of cohesive awareness through breathing and focused attention, the body is released into a deep relaxation. This allows for the cells in the body to release tension and for the muscles to heal.
As the cell walls are allowed to expand, proper circulation and oxygen flow is able to nourish and replenish these tired and stressed muscles. This will ultimately result in more energy and an overall sense of wellbeing that can be felt throughout the entire body.