Why Meditate?

Today’s Guest Post is provided by Holly Peek, an MD/MPH student at Tulane University and host of Holly on Health, a radio show, newspaper column, and social networking sites focused on health and medical issues for Generation Y. Her blog can be found at www.hollyonhealth.com.

Imagine yourself sunbathing on a warm and sunny tropical beach. As you sit in the soft warm sand, you notice there is no one around you; just you and the steady soft roar of the waves crashing in the crystal blue ocean. You are deeply relaxed and absorbed in the moment of your own breath and the sound of the waves. No thoughts enter your mind except a deep focus on yourself and your surroundings.

Sound like a vacation you could use? What if I told you that you can have this relaxing mental reprieve free of charge and at any time of the day. Although it may not be the same as hopping a plane to a remote tropical island, the practice of meditation can give you a similar sense of relaxation and may be just what your stressed mind and body needs.

Meditation is an ancient eastern practice with a history that dates back more than 5,000 years. For centuries, eastern medicine practitioners have preached the healing power of meditation. However, according to recent medical research, the power of meditation may go far beyond the benefits of mental relaxation and stress reduction by improving the immune system, increasing volume in specific areas of the brain, and even improving cardiovascular health.

Over the past decade, several studies have indicated that the practice of meditation can improve depressive moods, sleep disturbances, stress responses, and anxiety. However, it has not been until recently that advancements in neuroimaging have allowed researchers to postulate why and how meditation actually works within the brain. A 2011 study published in the journal Psychiatric Research: Neuroimaging looked at brain MRI images of healthy individuals before and after they participated in an eight week meditation program. When comparing the brain images of those that participated in meditation practice with a non-practicing control group, volume increases in areas of the brain involved in learning, memory processes, and emotion regulation were seen. This neuroimaging study helped to show the morphological changes that can occur within the brains of meditation practitioners, which correlates to improvements in mood, memory, and concentration.

Research has also emerged involving the role of meditation in immunity, in particular in the treatment of cancer patients. Several studies have found that participation in a meditation program is associated with significant improvement in mood disturbances, stress symptoms, quality of life, and sleep quality in cancer patients. Studies have also looked at levels of cortisol (a marker for stress within the body), inflammatory markers, and natural killer cells (cells that essentially destroy harmful cells within the body) in cancer patients who have participated in a meditation intervention. These studies concluded that cortisol levels and inflammatory markers decrease while natural killer cells increase in patients who practice meditation. These improvements in inflammatory markers and immunity continued for up to a year after the meditation intervention. Based on the evidence, The Society of Integrative Oncology has strongly recommended that meditation can be used in conjunction with traditional chemotherapy and radiation therapy in the treatment of cancer patients.

There has also been research to support improvements in cardiovascular health with a meditation practice. Studies have indicated that the practice of meditation may produce clinically meaningful changes in blood pressure. Although much of the research surrounding meditation in medicine is fairly new, we should expect to see more studies supporting these type of benefits in the future.

So how can you become involved? When first starting, meditation may be frustrating because it can be difficult to clear your mind and focus on one thought or object without “daydreaming.” That’s why it is important to find a class or a coach who can guide you in beginning your meditation practice. Just like you wouldn’t start a new sport without a lesson, it’s important to seek guidance with your meditation. Several yoga and pilates studios around the city offer meditation classes. Dr. Indranill Basu Ray, a cardiologist at Tulane University as well as a meditation practitioner, offers free meditation classes to the community (listen to his interview here).

A few minutes of meditation every day can be a great new habit for you to start this new year! It is a healthy way to exercise both your mind and body. As increasing research is being published on the health benefits of meditation practices, you can be participating in the cutting edge of medicine by simply relaxing your body and mind.

If you enjoyed this article, check out Holly’s take on Yoga! If you are looking for a book to get you started, I recommend The Power of Now.

Do you have any personal experiences with meditation? Share your thoughts below.