Six ways meditation can boost health
YOU'RE WORTH IT
(your Australian Broadcasting Corporation)
Taking a bit of time out to focus your mind can seem an indulgence in today's fast-paced ever-connected world. But there's a growing body of evidence suggesting regular meditation has potent health benefits.
Meditation is a discipline that involves turning the mind and attention inward and focusing on a single thought, image, object or feeling.
While it's been practised in different cultures for thousands of years – usually as a way of finding inner peace and becoming closer to God – these days, it's definitely not just for the spiritual.
Meditation is increasingly used by stressed out students, overwhelmed parents, overloaded employees or anyone who wants a greater sense of feeling focused and calm (or increasingly, help with managing a health condition).
Much of the high quality research has centred on mindfulness – which involves focusing on sensations, such as the breath or feelings in different parts of the body, to help direct your attention onto the present moment. (Other common forms meditation include Zen Buddhist, Transcendental, Vipassana, and Sahaja.)
If you want to get the full benefits of meditation then you'll need to practice regularly. Here are six ways research suggests meditation may benefit health.
age-related brain loss
Longtime practitioners of mindfulness meditation have less age-related loss of brain tissue than those of who don't meditate, a study by US and Australian researchers showed earlier this year. The study used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to examine the brains of 100 men and women aged 24-77 – who had either been meditating for an average of 20 years or never before.
Both groups showed a decline in gray matter – the tissue where thinking occurs and memories are stored – with age. But longtime meditators experienced markedly smaller reductions in gray matter volume than those who did not meditate. While it's not proof meditation can stave off age-related declines in thinking, or diseases like dementia or Parkinson's, the researchers say their findings do add further support to the idea meditation is brain protective.
Meditation can improve
People over 55 with moderate sleep disturbances reported greater improvements in their sleep quality using mindfulness meditation compared with those who used a more structured program that focused on changing poor sleep habits and setting a bedtime routine, a US randomised clinical trial (a high quality study design) has found.
After six weeks, sleep disturbance scores dropped from 10.2 to 7.4 for the 24 people in the mindfulness group, compared with 9.1 for the 25 people who learned better sleep habits (known as 'sleep hygiene).
This suggests meditation could be an effective alternative to add to a "menu of appealing options" needed to "compete with the quick-fix" offered by sleeping tablets (which may pose health risks), said US sleep expert Professor Adam Spira of the findings.
Meditation can stop
the 'monkey mind'
Mindfulness meditation can decrease activity in brain regions responsible for our mind's tendency to drift from topic to topic ('monkey mind') – a habit that when poorly controlled has been linked with poor mental (and physical) health.
Mind-wandering is a common activity present in roughly 50 per cent of our awake life, but is also associated with lower levels of happiness, say the authors of a recent study at Yale University. This is presumed to be because our thoughts often tend towards rumination or stress.
The Yale researchers showed mindfulness meditation seems to reduce activity in the network of brain areas linked with wandering thoughts (known as the 'default-mode network'). This may partly explain why mindfulness has been accepted as a useful therapy for anxiety and depression for around a decade. It might also shed some light on the range of evidence suggesting meditation might help in the prevention or management of certain physical health conditions too.
It can help relieve pain
One of the more interesting studies examining the effect of meditation on pain found that advanced meditators report feeling less pain than non-meditators, yet show more activity in brain areas associated with pain.
This is puzzling at first glance. But it seems the meditators are simply better able to reduce the unpleasantness of the pain stimulation than others. Rather than blocking the experience, it seems they can avoid engaging in thought processes that make it more painful.
As Monash University expert Dr Craig Hassed puts it: "One of the things that happens with chronic pain, we know there's a hyper-vigilance for pain and a strong emotional reaction to pain when it's noticed." This leads to pain circuits in the brain firing off more messages with the same level of pain, increasing the person's suffering. "Mindfulness is probably helping undo that."
It improves concentration
A core benefit of meditation is that it improves attention and that means it improves concentration. It can even boost efficiency when multitasking as one landmark study showed.
A group who had received mindfulness training two hours a day for eight weeks were much more efficient at completing discrete tasks in a multitasking challenge than groups who hadn't been trained or who had been trained only in body relaxation. The mindfulness group stayed on task longer and switched between tasks less frequently. They also remembered what they did better than other study participants.
This fits in with other research showing mindfulness helps concentration on a physical level by helping our attention networks communicate better and with fewer interruptions than they otherwise would.
And another recent US study found links between mindfulness and better working memory and improved test scores in undergraduate students.
It can help addiction
Whether it's cravings for cigarettes, binge eating, alcohol or other drugs, there's evidence mindfulness (and other forms of meditation including Transcendental Meditation) can help. The technique works on multiple levels – by strengthening self control, helping us detach from the craving sensation, and being less stressed in the first place.
One recent study found that a 4-week mindfulness training programme was more effective as a treatment for addiction for smoking than the American Lung Association's 'gold standard' treatment. After four weeks on average, people saw a 90% reduction in the number of cigarettes they smoked and a third of smokers quit completely. The abstinence persisted even after four months for over 30 per cent of the quitters.