When you see an alternative medicine treatment or herbal supplement claiming widespread benefits, you have good reason to be skeptical. There is one notable exception that may seem even more magical and mystical than any of the others. It costs nothing, is completely safe and is perhaps the oldest remedy for ailments of both the mind and the body. It is meditation.
There are many types of meditation. Research suggests that whichever type you choose–transcendental meditation, mindfulness, guided visualization, yoga – the biological effects are similar. The major benefits apparently lie in harnessing the combined power of mind and body – an ancient concept that still holds true.
Nearly all forms of meditation start with the same advice: take a deep breath and relax. Any relaxation helps, but the deep relaxation that is triggered by meditation activates the parasympathetic nervous system which in turn can produce many positive physical effects, affecting digestion, fertility, memory and the immune system.
REDUCING STRESS: Stress hormones such as adrenalin and cortisol create a fight or flight syndrome, increasing your heart rate and raising your blood pressure. Your muscles tighten and blood vessels contract–all having a negative effect on your cardiovascular system.
Deep relaxation, by contrast, lowers heart rate and blood pressure while stimulating release of growth hormone and antidepressant neurochemicals such as serotonin.
DEPRESSION, ANXIETY: By reducing stress, meditation offers help against a range of mental and emotional issues, particularly anxiety and depression.
More than 20 years ago, researchers found that the brains of subjects with major depression showed shrinkage in an area known as the hippocampus. The more days spent in depression, the greater the shrinkage.
Later studies found that persons who meditated regularly tended to develop greater density of grey matter in this area of the brain. Again, the longer the time spent meditating, the greater the size of the hippocampus, according to a 2007 German study.
EASING PAIN: Pain affects the mind as well as the body, creating nagging thoughts and fears and often amplifying the physical pain.
As an alternative therapy, mindfulness directly faces and explores pain sensations as they come and go, observing with the mind’s eye what is happening to painful body parts.
In clinical studies, mindfulness meditation has reduced chronic pain in patients by 57 percent – and up to 90 percent in highly accomplished meditators.
FIGHTING DISEASE: Perhaps because of its ability to bring about relaxation and reduce stress, meditation has also been found to have a positive effect on the immune system.
A study at Harvard Medical School found that persons who practiced yoga and other forms of meditation over an extended period had more active disease-fighting genes than persons in a control group who did not meditate.
Herbert Benson, M.D., author of The Relaxation Response recommends spending some time every day seeking deep relaxation. This can be done through mindfulness, visualization, progressive muscle relaxation, breathing techniques, prayer, tai chi, qi gong, yoga or any other form of meditation.
He suggests sitting quietly in a comfortable position, closing your eyes, breathing deeply through your nose and become aware of your breathing. As you breathe out, say the word “one” silently to yourself. (Any word or mantra will do. It should have a soothing sound and preferably have no meaning or association that will stimulate unnecessary thoughts.)
Continue for 10 to 20 minutes, then sit quietly for several minutes – first with your eyes closed and later with them open.
Don’t worry about whether or not you are successful. Remain passive and let deep relaxation occur when it will. Some who meditate spend years studying ancient Eastern religions or learning a certain form of meditation from a master. You can choose that path if you wish, but you can also teach yourself some simple techniques and gain the discipline of mind and body that comes with meditation.
This information was submitted by Northeastern Vermont Regional Hospital in St. Johnsbury and is meant to complement, not replace, the advice and care you receive from your healthcare provider.