Growing evidence now suggests that as little as 15 minutes of meditation each day can have a host of positive effects on anything and everything from our stress and anxiety levels to our heart and stomach woes—often immediately.
Less pain is on the list of benefits of meditation. Just ten minutes a day of mindfulness meditation may reduce the need for painkillers by improving pain tolerance and decreasing anxiety levels, according to new research out of Leeds Beckett University. The study included 24 healthy university students who were randomly split into a control group and a meditation group. Participants were asked to put their hand in warm water for two minutes before removing it and placing it into ice water for as long as they could stand. They then either sat quietly for 10 minutes or meditated before doing it again. Both groups performed similarly the first time around, but the participants in the meditation group saw a decrease in anxiety about pain and a higher pain threshold and pain tolerance on the second go. “These results do show that a brief mindfulness meditation intervention can be of benefit in pain relief,” says Osama Tashani, PhD, Senior Research Fellow in Pain Studies at Leeds Beckett University in Leeds, UK, in a news release.
When it comes to the health benefits of meditation, heart health is high on the list—follow this path to a happy, healthy heart.
Research out of Maharishi University of Management in Fairfield, Iowa, TM’s hub, showed that practicing Mantra Meditation reduced risk of death, heart attack, and stroke among African Americans with existing heart disease—a group at high-risk for bad outcomes. These men and women’s were able to cut risk by close to 50 percent; they also lowered their systolic blood pressure (the top number in a blood pressure reading), when compared to their counterparts who received health education that did not include meditation.
TM is a specific type of mantra meditation that requires. Practitioners sit comfortably and close their eyes for 20 minutes, twice a day, while repeating a personalized mantra. “There is a huge body of research showing the benefits of mantra meditation on the heart and heart disease risk factors like blood pressure,” says John Butler, a certified TM teacher in midtown Manhattan. “We get really profound rest when we transcend through meditation, and this allows the body to rectify, heal, and normalize whatever is off,” he says. There can be dramatic results after just a few meditations. “When we give our nervous system the rest it needs, it starts to deal with the imbalances such as blood pressure or anything else that is off track.”
Yes, meditation can help us get better sleep without any of the side effects associated with sleeping pills. “When we have insomnia or trouble sleeping, there is some imbalance in our circadian rhythms,” explains Butler. Circadian rhythms tell our body that it is time to sleep or wake and are based on light and darkness over a 24-hour period. “Modern technology with all of its lights and devices have caused our natural circadian rhythms to get way out of whack so even when we lay down and deeply need to rest, we can’t.”
When we meditate, we get a deeper rest which allows our circadian rhythms to reset and become normalized. Some people report that sleep improves within a few days of starting to meditate daily.
Weight loss is one of the areas where research on the effects of meditation is not quite as robust, but anecdotally, the evidence is strong. “A lot of students tell me that their nervous eating goes way and they become more in touch with their bodies and gravitate toward what is good for them and away from what is not when they start to practice TM,” Butler says. There is some evidence that an increase in the stress hormone cortisol can sabotage weight loss methods. But “the fight or flight response that occurs when our bodies are primed for stress settles down and the restfulness kicks with TM,” he explains. “This produces blood chemistry changes, and levels of the stress hormone cortisol can drop 30 to 40 when people start to practice TM. It is the opposite of the fight- or- flight response.”
Fewer tummy troubles
More research is needed to draw definitive conclusions, but there is some evidence that regular meditation can reduce symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) such as cramping and diarrhea. In a small pilot study out of the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital and at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, 48 adults with either condition participated in a nine-week program focused on stress reduction and other healthy behaviors that included relaxation training to be practiced at home for 15 to 20 minutes each day.
And it worked. They not only felt better and had fewer GI symptoms and less anxiety, but there was also marked positive changes in genes involved with their stomach conditions. “Indeed, the relaxation response reduced the expression of a number of genes directly linked to the key inflammatory processes of IBD. While the mechanisms behind IBS are less well-defined, they most likely involve stress response, which also could be improved by relaxation response practice, “says study researcher Towia Libermann, PhD, in a news release.
While there are plenty of home remedies to help you regain your inner calm, meditation appears particularly effective. People with anxiety disorders who took a mindfulness meditation course showed a dramatic dip in stress hormones and inflammatory responses when exposed to a stressful situation, compared with their counterparts who took a stress management course that didn’t include meditation. Mindfulness involves focusing on the here and now, rather than fretting about the future or dwelling on the past. Stress was measured using a standard lab test—the Trier Social Stress Test—which assesses biochemical responses to the stress in blood or saliva that occur during a mock job interview followed by a math challenge performed before a panel of three judges. The meditators did better on the test after they took the course compared to how they fared before they learned mindfulness. These findings appear in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry.
Meditation may reverse some of the reactions in our genes that cause depression and other illnesses, according to a review of 18 studies that included 846 participants and followed them for more than 11 years. In a nutshell, a stressful event kick starts our body’s ‘fight-or-flight’ response which in turn increases production of a molecule called nuclear factor kappa B (NF-kB). NF-kB calls on genes to produce inflammation-causing proteins. Inflammation is linked to a host of diseases and conditions including heart disease, certain cancers and psychiatric disorders like depression. But, the study found, that people who practice mind-body interventions such as meditation or mindfulness exhibit a decrease in production of NF-kB and related inflammation markers. For some of these reasons, Arcari offers daily drop-in meditations to people being treated for cancer at her hospital. “When we stop focusing on the infusions, tests and scans and really move out of our thinking mind, there is an innate sense of inner peace.”
Meditation may help us keep our thinking caps in prime shape as we age. Risk of memory and cognitive problems tends to increase with advancing age and is largely marked by deterioration of the gray matter in the brain (that’s the part responsible for processing information), but meditation may help prevent this deterioration. In a study of 100 people (half who had meditated for anywhere from four to 46 years and half who had never done so), high-resolution magnetic resonance brain scans showed that meditators had lost significantly less gray matter in numerous brain regions than non-meditators of the same age. In fact, Mantra Meditation is now included in the Bredesen Protocol developed by Dr. Dale Bredesen, MD, professor of Neurology at UCLA to prevent and reverse the effects of cognitive decline associated with Alzheimer’s disease. Here’s more of what you can do to prevent Alzheimer’s.
Enhanced coping skills
Patience is a crucial skill for a calm and centered life. Some of us are better at waiting than others—especially when it’s for something that may be life-changing. People who practice mindfulness tend to cope with such wait-and-see stress better than others and are more likely to maintain an optimistic mindset throughout, according to research in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.
These benefits seem to be most pronounced among these who tend to be less optimistic about outcomes before they start to meditate.
Sharper competitive edge
Sure, getting loud and fired up is a great way to prepare for competition—But quiet-time can work as well: Research shows that athletes who completed a six-session program based on mindfulness replete with recommendations to continue the practice at home were more likely to report being in the zone when on the field or court, rate their own performance as better, and also experience less sport-related anxiety. These benefits of meditation lasted long after the mindfulness sessions were over and well into the athletic seasons. The program is now the basis of a new book called Mindful Sport Performance Enhancement: Mental Training for Athletes and Coaches.
This is one of the primary benefits of any form of meditation, says Patty Arcari, PhD, RN, program manager of meditation and mindfulness programs at the Leonard P. Zakim Center for Integrative Therapies at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. “The brain has been called the master organ of the stress response,” she explains. “Meditation takes the focus away from our brain and causes us to bring attention to another point of focus so our mind doesn’t engage our body in stress physiology.” This is true no matter what form of meditation that you practice, she says. The difference between the various techniques is what you focus on instead of your negative thoughts. “With transcendental meditation (TM), it’s a mantra. With guided imagery, it is visualization and with deep breathing meditation, the focus is on your breath not your mind,” she says. Just 10 to 15 minutes a day is enough to take the edge off, but more is better, she adds.
Fewer addictive behaviors
Addiction comes in many forms, from opioids to food— “Meditation techniques are effective in minimizing addictive behaviors,” says Doron Libshtein, the founder of The Mentors Channel, an online resource that allows visitors to trial various meditation or anti-stress programs before deciding which works best for them.
Meditation requires individuals to manage their negative thoughts and relax the body, which helps reduce the stress that often triggers addiction to any substance whether food, alcohol, drugs or cigarettes, he explains. “For beginners with addiction, start by setting aside 15 to 20 minutes per day to follow your breath,” he says. “Try using four counts on your inhale and eight counts on your exhale,” he says. “Your breath shouldn’t be strained in any way, so if you need to work up to eight counts, that’s just fine.” Libshtein also recommends a new wearable stress monitor and mobile app—the WellBe. The bracelet measures your pulse and when it shoots up, indicating stress, you will receive a text message with salient advice on how to de-stress, which may take the bite out of a powerful craving.