While most people associate meditation with religion, this simple and powerful practiced transcends religious beliefs. Meditation is like a short vacation away from the stresses of everyday life to allow you to center your mind and create a peaceful feeling. And, the research is showing that meditation is great for your health.
In one study published in Health Behavior News Service, scientists found that brain scans and blood tests showed positive effects of meditation. In this study of 48 employees at a biotechnology company, half were trained in meditation and practiced it for one hour a day, six days a week using guided meditations that had been prerecorded. The other half of the participants did not meditate. Dr. Richard J. Davidson at the University of Wisconsin found that the meditators had greater electrical activity in their brains than the non-meditators. Some of the effects of meditation continued for up to four months after the participants discontinued their meditative practice.
Other research shows improvements in mood, pain threshold, immune system activity, and bronchial and arterial smooth muscle tone. The studies also show a decrease in stress hormones and a reversal in the effects of chronic stress.
Daily practice offers the greatest benefits. Over time it becomes easier. By meditating on a regular basis you can train your mind to relax and release stress.
There are several ways to meditate: breathing meditation, walking meditation, sitting meditation, mindfulness meditation, guided meditation, and visualization. Choose the type that has the most appeal for you and best fits with your lifestyle and health goals.
Breathing meditation is one of the easiest and most convenient forms of meditation. It can be done anywhere at almost any time, even if you only have several minutes. It requires no special equipment other than your lungs. You can do a breathing meditation while you are waiting in a doctor’s office, grocery store lineup, or at your desk. You can use a regular reminder throughout the day to help you remember to breathe deeply. You could choose to take deep breaths on commercial breaks while watching television or at red lights while you are traveling.
Make time for meditation, even if it is on the bus ride home from work, or while you are sitting in your office, but try to practice it daily. The rewards are far greater than the time and effort it takes to meditate. Soon you will discover that meditation requires little or no effort at all.
Adapted from The 4-Week Ultimate Body Detox Plan by Michelle Schoffro Cook, PhD. Subscribe to my free e-mag World’s Healthiest News to receive monthly health news, tips, recipes and more. Follow me on Twitter @mschoffrocook and Facebook. Copyright Michelle Schoffro Cook, PhD.
In 1969, Katherine Splain, then a student at the College of New Rochelle, saw the dark side of drug use among her peers. So she sought a different — and legal — path on her inward journey.
“I had read that meditation was actually another way of achieving the kind of ‘high’ that you might experience if you did drugs,” said Ms. Splain, who is now 63.
She heard about a class in meditation being offered near the school, decided to visit and was impressed with the students she met. “There wasn’t a lot of peace in the world in 1969, but these people seemed very much at peace,” she recalled. “I said, ‘This looks good to me.’ ”
Forty-three years, one retirement and a second career later, Ms. Splain, who lives in Massapequa, N.Y., and goes by the first name Surabhi, is still practicing. And like many other meditators, she says she believes that it has not only expanded the boundaries of her consciousness, but that it has also had beneficial effects on her brain.
The role that meditation plays in brain development has been the subject of several theories and a number of studies. One of them, conducted at the Laboratory of Neuro Imaging at the University of California, Los Angeles, found that long-term meditators like Ms. Splain had greater gyrification — a term that describes the folding of the cerebral cortex, the outermost part of the brain.
Published in the Frontiers in Human Neuroscience journal in February, the study is the latest effort from the U.C.L.A. lab to determine the extent to which meditation may affect neuroplasticity — the ability of the brain to make physiological changes. Previous studies found that the brains of long-term meditators had increased amounts of so-called gray and white matter (the former is believed to be involved in processing information; the latter is thought of as the “wiring” of the brain’s communication system.)
It follows other studies examining possible links between meditation and physical benefits. In 2009, for example, a study presented at an American Heart Association meeting suggested that the mental relaxation produced by meditation has physiological benefits for people with established coronary artery disease.
The U.C.L.A. study, like previous ones, is inconclusive but intriguing. “You could argue that more folds mean more neurons,” said Dr. Eileen Luders, the recent study’s lead author, who practices meditation herself. “These are the processing units of the brain, and so having more might mean that you have greater cognitive capacities.”
The subjects — 28 men, 22 women — had a median age of 51 and had all been practicing meditation of various types for 20 years on average. The oldest subject was 71; the longest practitioner had been meditating regularly for 46 years.
Dr. Luders and her team used M.R.I. scans to measure the features of the subject’s brains and compare them to a control group of nonmeditators.
A striking finding of the study was that the degree of cortical gyrification appeared to increase as the number of years practicing meditation increased.
“We used to believe that when you were born, your brain would grow and reach a peak in the early 20s and then start shrinking,” Dr. Luders said. “It was thought there was nothing we could do to change that.” Her research suggests that there might be. As a meditator for four years, Dr. Luders understands the degree of mental discipline involved. “People ask, ‘What do you do? Just sit there with your eyes closed?’ It’s actually hard work, because you have to make a constant mental effort.”
Others caution that the results of these experiments do not necessarily mean that meditation conclusively caused the adaptations in the brain or that the increased folds meant improved cognitive performance for these older adults.
“I don’t think there’s enough evidence yet to say that,” said Dr. Josephine P. Briggs, director of the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, a part of the National Institutes of Health. But she said that challenging the brain was often cited as a good way to maintain cognitive health as people age, and meditation is indeed such a challenge.
“This is an example of learning a new mental skill,” she said. And “it’s something that with practice people can get better at.” (She also noted that other studies had shown that meditation could be beneficial in pain relief).
In the 2009 study presented to the heart association, researchers followed about 200 high-risk patients for an average of five years. Among the 100 who meditated, there were 20 heart attacks, strokes and deaths; in the comparison group, there were 32. The meditators tended to remain free of disease longer and also reduced their systolic blood pressure. That study was conducted at the Medical College of Wisconsin in Milwaukee, in collaboration with the Institute for Natural Medicine and Prevention, a research institute based at the Maharishi University of Management in Fairfield, Iowa. The institute’s director, Dr. Robert H. Schneider, suggested that the stress reduction produced by the meditation could cause changes in the brain that cut stress hormones like cortisol and damp the inflammatory processes associated with atherosclerosis.
Ms. Splain’s practice of meditation has, over the years, deepened into something far more than a way to flex her cognitive muscles. In 1970, she became a devotee of the Queens-based Indian spiritual leader Sri Chinmoy, a vegetarian and a marathon runner, and later worked for the United Nations. Now a devout Buddhist, she is planning a trip to Tibet next year for the culmination of an intense, seven-year course of spiritual enlightenment that involves mediating three hours a day.
In 2005, at age 57, she embarked on a rigorous graduate program in the interdisciplinary approach to schooling known as Waldorf education. Working full time and taking classes at night, she finished the program at Sunbridge Institute in Spring Valley, N.Y., in three years. She retired from her United Nations job in 2008 and teaches in the early childhood program at the Waldorf School of Garden City on Long Island. She credits the discipline developed through four decades of meditation for her ability to handle the intellectual workload of graduate school — and begin a second career at age 60.
“The mentor of our master’s program acknowledged the challenge of doing this while working full time,” she said. “But when I was able to hand in an 80-page thesis well ahead of the class, he attributed it to the fact that, quote, ‘She’s a meditator.’ ”
Breathing is something most of us don’t usually think about. If we’re still alive and breathing, we must be doing it right, right? Wrong.
Let’s start with the disadvantages of rapid, upper chest breathing. Things I see in my physical therapy practice every day. Like neck pain, low back pain, anxiety, poor sleep, cold hands and feet. And headaches. Especially headaches. In all my years of practice, I have never, not once, met someone suffering from headaches who breathed well. (Most of my clients with headaches have a similar story: headaches for years, poor sleep, cold hands and feet, tight neck muscles–all related to upper chest breathing).
Let’s get to the good news…
What are the advantages of breathing well, that is, slow, diaphragmatic breathing? There are SO many advantages that I can’t even begin to list– much less describe– them all here. Let’s start with three important ways breathing well is related to feeling well, as in, less pain.
Diaphragmatic breathing promotes the relaxation response. One of the the ways it does this is by activating the vagus nerve (which lies close to the diaphragm, so when we breathe deeply and the diaphragm moves up and down, the vagus nerve is stimulated). 75% of the parasympathetic (rest and repair) nervous systems’s fibers come from the vagus nerve, so the vagus nerve is a VERY big player in the relaxation response. So much so, that slow, deep breathing is one of the most efficient, non-medication ways we have of going from the state of “fight or flight” (where most of us tend to hang out) to the much more healthy “rest and repair.” When our bodies are in a relaxed state our brains are considerably less likely to perceive input as threatening, and so pain signals are significantly turned down. Research has shown that decreasing anxiety can decrease a pain level of 7/10 to 3/10. Definitely significant.
Diaphragmatic breathing also improves oxygenation. Of course it does. Seems obvious. But did you know that the lower parts of our lungs are about 7 times more productive in oxygen transport than the higher parts? So when we breathe using our diaphragms (and thus the lower lobes), we get much more oxygen to all of our cells, including the cells in our hands and feet (they’re warmer–a nice fringe benefit), and our nerve cells (less pain). And all healthy cells need oxygen. Only pathogens (unhealthy cells) don’t.
Lastly, diaphragmatic breathing stimulates lymphatic drainage. Our lymphatic system has been compared to a sewage system (yuck!). It removes toxins, wastes and abnormal cells. The lymphatic system doesn’t have any pumps, so it relies on muscle contraction and deep breathing to keep it moving. Using our diaphragms to breathe stimulates the cleansing of lymph nodes, increasing lymphatic drainage. This increases the rate of toxin elimination (including the byproducts of inflammation, which cause pain) by as much as 15 times!
Meditation produces powerful pain-relieving effects in the brain, according to new research published in the April 6 edition of the Journal of Neuroscience.
“This is the first study to show that only a little over an hour of meditation training can dramatically reduce both the experience of pain and pain-related brain activation,” said Fadel Zeidan, Ph.D., lead author of the study and post-doctoral research fellow at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center.
“We found a big effect — about a 40 percent reduction in pain intensity and a 57 percent reduction in pain unpleasantness. Meditation produced a greater reduction in pain than even morphine or other pain-relieving drugs, which typically reduce pain ratings by about 25 percent.”
For the study, 15 healthy volunteers who had never meditated attended four, 20-minute classes to learn a meditation technique known as focused attention. Focused attention is a form of mindfulness meditation where people are taught to attend to the breath and let go of distracting thoughts and emotions.
Both before and after meditation training, study participants’ brain activity was examined using a special type of imaging — arterial spin labeling magnetic resonance imaging (ASL MRI) — that captures longer duration brain processes, such as meditation, better than a standard MRI scan of brain function. During these scans, a pain-inducing heat device was placed on the participants’ right legs. This device heated a small area of their skin to 120° Fahrenheit, a temperature that most people find painful, over a 5-minute period.
The scans taken after meditation training showed that every participant’s pain ratings were reduced, with decreases ranging from 11 to 93 percent, Zeidan said.
At the same time, meditation significantly reduced brain activity in the primary somatosensory cortex, an area that is crucially involved in creating the feeling of where and how intense a painful stimulus is. The scans taken before meditation training showed activity in this area was very high. However, when participants were meditating during the scans, activity in this important pain-processing region could not be detected.
The research also showed that meditation increased brain activity in areas including the anterior cingulate cortex, anterior insula and the orbito-frontal cortex. “These areas all shape how the brain builds an experience of pain from nerve signals that are coming in from the body,” said Robert C. Coghill, Ph.D., senior author of the study and associate professor of neurobiology and anatomy at Wake Forest Baptist.
“Consistent with this function, the more that these areas were activated by meditation the more that pain was reduced. One of the reasons that meditation may have been so effective in blocking pain was that it did not work at just one place in the brain, but instead reduced pain at multiple levels of processing.”
Zeidan and colleagues believe that meditation has great potential for clinical use because so little training was required to produce such dramatic pain-relieving effects. “This study shows that meditation produces real effects in the brain and can provide an effective way for people to substantially reduce their pain without medications,” Zeidan said.
Funding for the study was provided by the Mind and Life Institute in Boulder, Colo., and the Center for Biomolecular Imaging at Wake Forest Baptist.
Science and meditation are two things that one might initially regard as having no more in common with each other as Chinese calligraphy and Italian pasta. Science, however, has recently examined the eastern tradition to answer the longstanding question: how does meditation work? Is anything actually happening or is it “all in the head?”
The effects of meditation on human cognition and physical health have become the subject of numerous scientific studies in the past decade. Results are linking meditative practice to improved memory, concentration and self-control, and the lowering of stress, blood pressure and other psychological conditions.
For example, UCLA researchers are exploring the connection between meditation and resistance to age-related brain atrophy. Assistant professor Eileen Luders states that: “Meditation appears to be a powerful mental exercise with the potential to change the physical structure of the brain…. it might not only cause changes in brain anatomy by inducing growth but also by preventing reduction. That is, if practiced regularly and over years, meditation may slow down aging-related brain atrophy, perhaps by positively affecting the immune system.”
Here’s a listing of additional study results:
* M.R.I. brain scans taken before and after participants’ meditation found increased gray matter in the hippocampus, an area important for learning and memory. The images also showed a reduction of gray matter in the amygdala, a region connected to anxiety and stress.
* High-risk patients who meditated cut their risk of heart attacks, strokes and deaths from all causes roughly in half compared with a group of similar patients who were given more conventional education about healthy diet and lifestyle. The meditators remained disease-free longer and reduced their systolic blood pressure.
* Meditation reduces stress, due to brain changes that cut stress hormones like cortisol and dampen the inflammatory processes associated with atherosclerosis.
* Students at risk of hypertension that practiced meditation reduced their systolic blood pressure by 6.3 millimeters of mercury and their diastolic pressure by 4 millimeters of mercury on average.
* Meditators have demonstrated superior ability at detecting fast-changing stimuli, like emotional facial expressions. Mediation may also increase concentration levels by helping to control brain phenomenon such as the attentional blink.
* Researchers found that when meditators heard the sounds of people suffering, they had stronger activation levels in their temporal parietal junctures, a part of the brain tied to empathy, than people who did not meditate. Distressed sounds elicited stronger empathetic responses than the positive and neutral noises, and the brain activity in these regions was much stronger in the seasoned meditators.
* Meditation increases the thickness of the cortex in areas involved in attention and sensory processing, such as the prefrontal cortex and the right anterior insula. The finding is in line with studies showing that accomplished musicians, athletes and linguists all have thickening in relevant areas of the cortex.
* Mindfulness meditation holds promise for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which provokes intrusive thoughts, emotional numbness and hypervigilance. It could also lead to decreased activity in an area of the brain implicated in a range of neurological disorders, potentially even slowing down the onset of dementia.
* Scans taken after meditation training showed that every participant’s pain ratings were reduced, with decreases ranging from 11 to 93 percent. At the same time, meditation significantly reduced brain activity in the primary somatosensory cortex, an area that is crucially involved in creating the feeling of where and how intense a painful stimulus is.
An interesting debate ignited by the studies has been the suggestion that the personal beliefs of the researchers are directly influencing results by distorting scientific objectivity. These arguments were played out in a similar context during the early 20th century when psychoanalysis was causing a stir.
As science pushes forward, age-old beliefs have become increasingly threatened, marginalised and retired. It has been easy for many to imagine that all spiritual practices, meditation included, may eventually go the same way. Yet here is one example where science – far from dismantling a social practice – may, in fact, give it new life by informing and invigorating it’s processes.
When Subhana Barzaghi was a midwife she taught breathing and meditation techniques to relieve the pain caused by contractions.
“Most of us have a habitual reaction to pain – an aversion that we react against,” Subhana, who is now a meditation teacher at North Sydney’s Bluegum Sangha, explains.
“Meditation teaches us to observe rather than get caught up in the strong sensations we are experiencing. We learn to stop labeling and therefore stop reacting. In this way, instead of tightening up against it and resisting, which causes further tension, we start to soften into it. As we do this, the pain can begin to soften and subside.”
Recently, the 5000 year old intuitive teachings of meditation were given the backing of science. A report from the Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center states that meditation can be more effective than morphine.
“This is the first study to show that only a little over an hour of meditation training can dramatically reduce both the experience of pain and pain-related brain activation,” said Fadel Zeidan, PhD, lead author of the study and post-doctoral research fellow at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center. “We found a big effect – about a 40 per cent reduction in pain intensity and a 57 per cent reduction in pain unpleasantness. Meditation produced a greater reduction in pain than even morphine or other pain-relieving drugs, which typically reduce pain ratings by about 25 per cent.”
In the study, 15 volunteers, who had never previously meditated, were taught mindfulness meditation techniques over four 20-minute sessions. Mindfulness meditation teaches the individual to focus the attention on an object, such as the breath.
“This concentration brings the awareness to the present moment, allowing the individual to experience what’s going on at a subtle level, ” Subhana explains. “As the mind stops jumping around like a 24-hour TV channel, we develop our sense of calm and begin to cultivate equanimity and serenity. In this way, we enhance our own natural relaxation response.”
During the study, participants had their brain activity measured, with an arterial spin labeling magnetic resonance imaging (ASL MRI), both before and after meditation, while they were subjected to a pain-inducing heating device – heated to 120 farenheit or almost 50 degrees celsius – over five-minute periods.
The scans found that after meditation, participant’s pain was reduced by as much as 93 per cent. They also showed that activity in the somatosensory cortex – the region of the brain associated with pain response – which was rapid prior to meditation, was significantly diminished afterwards. Movement in the anterior cingulate cortex, anterior insula and the orbito-frontal cortex however, was increased after meditation.
“These areas all shape how the brain builds an experience of pain from nerve signals that are coming in from the body,” says Robert C Coghill, PhD, senior author of the study and associate professor of neurobiology and anatomy at Wake Forest Baptist. “Consistent with this function, the more that these areas were activated by meditation the more that pain was reduced. One of the reasons that meditation may have been so effective in blocking pain was that it did not work at just one place in the brain, but instead reduced pain at multiple levels of processing.”
As a result of the study, Wake Forest recommended meditation be used as standard clinical practice to deal with pain.
This scientific endorsement came as a welcome, but not unexpected result for those in the profession.
“With guidance from a trained practitioner, mindfulness meditation allows you to achieve a level of focus and concentration where you are deeply calm and even blissful,” Subhana says. “Certainly, this shifting of mind and body state at times of intense stress has the power to be stronger than drugs.”
Studies have shown that meditating regularly can help relieve symptoms in people who suffer from chronic pain, but the neural mechanisms underlying the relief were unclear. Now, MIT and Harvard researchers have found a possible explanation for this phenomenon.
In a study published online April 21 in the journal Brain Research Bulletin, the researchers found that people trained to meditate over an eight-week period were better able to control a specific type of brain waves called alpha rhythms.
“These activity patterns are thought to minimize distractions, to diminish the likelihood stimuli will grab your attention,” says Christopher Moore, an MIT neuroscientist and senior author of the paper. “Our data indicate that meditation training makes you better at focusing, in part by allowing you to better regulate how things that arise will impact you.”
There are several different types of brain waves that help regulate the flow of information between brain cells, similar to the way that radio stations broadcast at specific frequencies. Alpha waves, the focus of this study, flow through cells in the brain’s cortex, where sensory information is processed. The alpha waves help suppress irrelevant or distracting sensory information.
A 1966 study showed that a group of Buddhist monks who meditated regularly had elevated alpha rhythms across their brains. In the new study, the researchers focused on the waves’ role in a specific part of the brain — cells of the sensory cortex that process tactile information from the hands and feet.
For this study, the researchers recruited 12 subjects who had never meditated before. Half of the participants were trained in a technique called mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) over an eight-week period, while the other half were told not to meditate.
The MBSR program calls for participants to meditate for 45 minutes per day, after an initial two-and-a-half-hour training session. The subjects listen to a CD recording that guides them through the sessions.
The first two weeks are devoted to learning to pay close attention to body sensations. “They’re really learning to maintain and control their attention during the early part of the course. For example, they learn to focus sustained attention to the sensations of the breath; they also learn to engage and focus on body sensations in a specific area, such as the bottom of the feet, and then they practice disengaging and shifting the focus to another body area,” says Catherine Kerr, an instructor at Harvard Medical School and lead author of the paper.
The researchers did brain scans of the subjects before the study began, three weeks into it, and at the end of eight weeks. At eight weeks, the subjects who had been trained in meditation showed larger changes in the size (amplitude) of their alpha waves when asked to pay attention to a certain body part — for example, “left foot.” These changes in wave size also occurred more rapidly in the meditators.
The study is a “beautiful demonstration” of the effects of meditation training, and of the ability to cultivate an internal awareness of one’s own bodily sensations, says Clifford Saron, associate research scientist at the Center for Mind and Brain at the University of California at Davis, who was not involved in the research.
Subjects in this study did not suffer from chronic pain, but the findings suggest that in pain sufferers who meditate, the beneficial effects may come from an ability to essentially turn down the volume on pain signals. “They learn to be aware of where their attention is focused and not get stuck on the painful area,” Kerr says.
The subjects trained in meditation also reported that they felt less stress than the non-meditators. “Their objective condition might not have changed, but they’re not as reactive to their situation,” Kerr says. “They’re more able to handle stress.”
The researchers are now planning follow-up studies in patients who suffer from chronic pain as well as cancer patients, who have also been shown to benefit from meditation.