There is growing evidence to show that meditation can make you healthier and happier. For example, mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) is sometimes used to treat depression, and brain imaging technology suggests meditation actually changes your brain in a number of beneficial ways.
MRI scans have shown that long-term meditation can alter the structure of your cerebral cortex, the outer layer of your brain. Additionally, brain regions associated with attention and sensory processing have been shown to be thicker in those who meditate.
Previous studies have linked meditation to benefits such as improved attention, memory, processing speed, creativity and more. Recent research also suggests that meditation helps counteract age-related loss of brain volume.
In short, meditation can be viewed as a form of brain exercise that strengthens it and keeps it “younger” longer. Other studies reveal the benefits of meditation are not limited to your brain; it also has anti-inflammatory effects and affects gene expression — all of which can boost overall physical health and longevity.
Long-Term Meditation Tied to Reduced Loss of Brain Volume
One of the most recent studies1,2 in this field looked at 50 long-term meditators and 50 control subjects between the ages of 24 and 77. Among the controls, advancing age correlated with a loss of brain volume, as expected.
Those who meditated, however, were found to suffer less age-related brain atrophy. As reported by GMA News:3
“People who reported meditating for an average of 20 years had higher brain volumes than the average person …
[T]he study's senior author told Reuters Health that the team of researchers expected to see more gray matter in certain regions of the brain among long-term meditators. ‘But we see that this effect is really widespread throughout the brain,' said Dr. Florian Kurth …
[T]he meditators' brains appeared better preserved than average people of the same age. Moreover, the researchers were surprised to find less age-related gray matter loss throughout the brains of meditators.”
How Meditation Increases Productivity
Meditation expert Emily Fletcher4 gives lectures and interviews on the differences between two popular styles of meditation, and how they affect your brain.
She also discusses the similarities between meditation and caffeine. Both have the effect of energizing you and boosting your productivity, but meditation accomplishes this without the adverse effects associated with caffeine.
As explained by Fletcher, caffeine is similar to the chemical adenosine triphosphate (ATP), produced by your brain throughout the day. Adenosine makes you sleepy, and caffeine effectively blocks the adenosine receptors in your brain, thereby disallowing your brain from recognizing how tired it is.
While this may not be harmful in and of itself in the short-term, caffeine also stimulates more neural activity in your brain, which triggers your adrenal glands to release the stress chemical adrenaline.
Eventually (whether you're drinking lots of coffee or not), remaining in a chronic state of “fight or flight” that adrenaline engenders can lead to any number of stress-related disorders.
Meditation, on the other hand, energizes you and makes you more productive without triggering an adrenaline rush. According to Fletcher, meditation provides your body with rest that is two to five times deeper than sleep.
Meditating for 20 minutes also equates to taking a 1.5-hour nap, but you won't have that “sleep hangover” afterward. Instead, you'll feel awake and refreshed and, as she says, “more conscious.”
Meditation de-excites your nervous system rather than exciting it further. This makes it more orderly, thereby making it easier for your system to release pent-up stress. It also makes you more productive.
She notes that many are now starting to recognize meditation as a powerful productivity tool. Contrary to popular belief, taking the time to meditate can actually help you gain more time than you put into it, through boosted productivity. In a previous interview,5 Fletcher stated:
“… I hear so often people say, Emily, I want to meditate, I've tried to meditate but I can't stop my mind from thinking. You don't understand my brain. It's so crazy. Everyone's mind is crazy. We have like 75,000 thoughts a day, and the only time the brain actually flat lines is when we're dead.
The point of meditation is not to stop your mind from thinking. The point of meditation is to be a stress relieving tool, and the way that we do that in this style is that we de-excite the nervous system which creates order and we give the body very deep rest. The body wants to thank us for that, and it thanks us by dissolving our stress.”
Benefits of Meditation Beyond Brain Health
Stress is a well-recognized culprit that can promote ill health across the board, and the ability of meditation to quell stress is an important health benefit. Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University recently published a study claiming they've found the biological mechanism by which mindfulness affects physical health.
In a nutshell, meditation impacts your biology and physical health via “stress reduction pathways” in your brain. As explained in a press release:6
“When an individual experiences stress, activity in the prefrontal cortex — responsible for conscious thinking and planning — decreases, while activity in the amygdala, hypothalamus and anterior cingulate cortex — regions that quickly activate the body's stress response — increases.
Studies have suggested that mindfulness reverses these patterns during stress; it increases prefrontal activity, which can regulate and turn down the biological stress response.
Excessive activation of the biological stress response increases the risk of diseases impacted by stress (like depression, HIV and heart disease). By reducing individuals' experiences of stress, mindfulness may help regulate the physical stress response and ultimately reduce the risk and severity of stress-related diseases.”
Such effects may explain why meditation can help to relieve stress-related diseases such as:
Sleep disturbances and fatigue
Gastrointestinal distress and irritable bowel syndrome
Respiratory problems such as emphysema and asthma
Mild depression and premenstrual syndrome (PMS)
Other research, such as that at the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine,7 has sought to quantify the benefits of the relaxation response by assessing gene expression before and after meditation, and have compared effects of short- and long-term meditation routines.
Among their findings, they discovered that meditation has anti-inflammatory effects. In one study,8,9 participants who participated in both short and longer-term meditation, saw increases in antioxidant production, telomerase activity and oxidative stress. The researchers noted that benefits appear to be dose-related, with changes even after one session.
Two Styles of Meditation
According to Fletcher, there are two common styles of meditation:
1. Mindfulness, a directed-attention, waking state practice in which you keep bringing your attention back to the now. It's a practice of single-tasking, originally developed for monks, who remain focused on the present moment in all activities.
Besides improving your focus and boosting your mental cognition, mindfulness training has also been found to reduce levels of stress-induced inflammation,10 which could benefit people suffering from chronic inflammatory conditions like rheumatoid arthritis, inflammatory bowel disease, and asthma. It also helps relieve feelings of stress and anxiety.
2. Self-induced transcendence is a nondirected style of meditation, in which you access a fourth state of consciousness that is different from waking, sleeping and dreaming. Transcendence-style meditation, which is what Fletcher teaches, strengthens your corpus callosum, the bridge between your two brain hemispheres.
Your left brain is in charge of the past and the future, language, math and critical thought, while your right brain is in charge of “right now,” intuition, inspiration, connectedness, creativity and problem solving.
By strengthening the connection between your right and left hemispheres, you gain access to more creative problem solving, and increase your productivity without adding stress.
Fletcher discusses the value of using a fitness tracker that tracks your sleep, noting that meditation can significantly improve the quality of your sleep. A fitness tracker can help you gauge your progress. I'm a major fan of this type of technology, as it can be very difficult to change a behavior unless you're able to track it your progress.
When I first started using a fitness tracker, I was striving to get eight hours of sleep, but my Jawbone UP typically recorded me at 7.5 to 7.75. I have since increased my sleep time, not just time in bed, but total sleep time to over eight hours per night.
According to Fletcher, meditation may actually boost the quality of your sleep to the point that you don't need to sleep as long, as you can become more fully rested in a shorter amount of time when you're not waking up in the middle of the night.
Slowing your breathing through meditation and/or using the Buteyko breathing technique also increases your partial pressure of carbon dioxide (CO2), which has enormous psychological benefits.
Biofeedback devices such as the emWave211 can also help personalize your interventions and improve progress toward toning your parasympathetic nervous system. I find that using this breathing technique with the Muse device I describe below really helps me to meditate more effectively.
My Experience With Meditation
I have tried to meditate unsuccessfully off and on for over 25 years. I suspect that many of you have had similar experiences. The biggest challenge is to know if you are doing it correctly. You can watch all the videos you want but, ultimately, you're left to navigate the course to relaxed brain waves unguided. That is where Muse (a subscription guided meditation) plays such an important role, as it provides you real-time feedback on how well you are doing.
If you wanted access to this technology a few years ago, you would have needed a literal closet full of equipment costing over $10 thousand. But now for a tiny fraction of that cost, along with your smartphone or tablet, you can get a personal tutor to guide you on how to meditate.
The audio feedback consists of waves and wind. Your goal is to calm your mind so there is the least amount of sound. You will know you are successful when you start to hear birds. It took me several sessions to hear the birds but once you get the hang of it, it is pretty easy. A great 12-minute session will allow you to collect over 100 birds.
I made a game out of it and sought to get 10,000 birds, which I did after about six months of use. You can start out slow and put your toes in the water by meditating for three minutes once or twice a day.
If you have more time and are motivated, you can even do 20-minute sessions, but for most people, 12-minute sessions once or twice a day is enough. I picked up my Muse last summer and it took me a few months to get the hang of it, but that was largely because I did not have anyone telling me how to do it.
Once I got into the groove, I was really surprised to receive an email from the founder of Muse, asking me questions about my use. He had no idea I run a health website, but merely contacted me because I was in the top 100 users in the world. I later learned after talking to him that I was in the top 10 users based on my amount of time spent in a deep meditative state.
My interest in increasing my sleep to eight hours per night occurred shortly after I got my Muse, and they merged very nicely. Now, I find that if I wake up early and can't go back to sleep, I will meditate for up to an hour as it provides many of the same benefits of sleep. If you are unable to fall back to sleep, this is a great option.
Also, I find my best meditation time is in the morning, right after I awaken, as I can get into the deepest states of relaxation at that time. Applying the Buteyko breathing also really helps to calm the mind and get into deep states of relaxation.
Stress Less, Accomplish More
Emily Fletcher of @zivameditation, is my friend and meditation teacher. She's written a book, “Stress Less, Accomplish More: Meditation for Extraordinary Performance,” and I believe this is the thing that will finally get you to stick to meditation.
In these pages, she's put her 12 years of experience training over 20,000 high performers, with the goal of teaching you a type of meditation designed for people with busy minds and busy lives. The book is USA Today best seller and made it to No. 7 out of all books on Amazon. It's changed a lot of lives and, perhaps, it will change yours. Get it >> bit.ly/slamthebook.
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