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The ancient practice of meditation is enjoying a resurgence. Its proven health benefits have been discovered by such unlikely advocates as military programs and corporations.
Meditation used to be confined to the mysterious and ascetic world of Buddhist monks. But now meditation is going mainstream.
Military programs incorporate meditation to treat soldiers with post-traumatic stress disorder and substance abuse. Corporations offer meditation as part of their wellness programs.
Part of the reason for this new popularity of meditation is a wealth of scientific research attesting to its amazing range of healing properties. Here are just 11 proven health benefits of a regular meditation practice.
1. Relieve Chronic Pain
In a randomized study published in The Journal of Pain German researchers compared an 8-week jyoti meditation practice with a home exercise program. Jyoti meditation focuses on a candle flame or lamp, and seeks to feel the light in the heart spreading throughout the body.
In the study 89 patients with chronic neck pain were assigned either to weekly 90-minute jyoti meditation or to a home-based exercise program. The meditation training significantly reduced pain compared to the exercise program. The authors concluded that "meditation may support chronic pain patients in pain reduction and pain coping."
2. Reduce Stress
In a recent small study people who practiced loving-kindness meditation were found to have lower stress levels and lower heart rates. They also had higher levels of nitrates in their blood which helps lower blood pressure. And when non-meditators started a loving-kindness meditation they saw their stress levels fall significantly and their relaxation levels rise significantly.
Loving-kindness meditation is a Buddhist practice of developing compassion, unselfish kindness, and unconditional love for one's self and for others.
3. Slow Aging
Telomeres are protective caps at the end of each strand of DNA. Their length serves as a marker of accelerated aging. Every time a cell divides telomeres get shorter indicating more aging. Harvard researchers measured telomeres in a group of 37 people. They found that women who practiced loving-kindness meditation had significantly longer telomeres than control participants who did not meditate.
One way meditation works is by increasing the activity of telomerase, an enzyme that protects and lengthens telomeres. In a study from the Center for Mind and Brain at UC Davis, researchers investigated the effects of a 3-month meditation retreat on telomerase activity. Thirty retreat participants meditated for about six hours per day for 3 months. The control group consisted of 30 people on the wait-list for the retreat center. At the end of the month the telomerase activity in the meditators was significantly greater than in the controls.
The researchers found that telomerase activity was directly and indirectly increased as a result of an increase of perceived control (associated with decreased stress) and a decrease in neuroticism (associated with increased subjective distress) in the retreat participants. The meditators also increased in their mindfulness and sense of purpose in life.
4. Reduce Symptoms of PTSD
A recent study shows that transcendental meditation can relieve PTSD and anxiety disorder. Researchers from the Dwight David Eisenhower Army Medical Center's Traumatic Brain Injury Clinic at Fort Gordon, Georgia looked at 74 active-duty service members with PTSD or anxiety disorder. [i]
Half of the service members practiced transcendental meditation in addition to their regular therapies. The other half did not. Transcendental Meditation (TM) doesn't focus on breathing or chanting, like some other forms of meditation. Instead, it encourages a restful state of mind beyond thinking using repetition of a mantra.
After regularly practicing TM, soldiers began to report that they felt less irritable, slept better, and their relationships were improving.
At the end of one month 83.7 percent of the meditators had stabilized, reduced or stopped their psychotropic drugs compared to only 59.4 percent of the controls. Among the meditators only 10.9 percent increased their drugs compared to 40.5 percent of the controls. In addition, the non-meditators experienced about a 20 percent increase in their symptoms compared to the meditators.
The authors believe that TM takes users from a level of active thinking to a state of inner quietness that reduces levels of stress hormones. It also slows the sympathetic nervous system, which drives the so-called fight-or-flight response. They believe a regular practice of TM provides a habit of calming down and healing the brain.
5. Reduce Blood Pressure, Heart Attack and Stroke
According to a scientific statement issued by the American Heart Association, transcendental meditation significantly lowers blood pressure.[ii]
The AHA cited a randomized, controlled trial for the secondary prevention of cardiovascular disease among 201 black patients.[iii] During an average follow-up of 5.4 years, all-cause mortality, heart attack and stroke were significantly reduced by 48% in the TM group.
In another study of postmenopausal women, researchers compared long-time practitioners of transcendental meditation with non-meditators. The TM practitioners had one-third the cortisol levels of non-meditators. And the number of months they had been meditating was inversely correlated to their risk of cardiovascular disease.
6. Improve Sleep
Researchers in India studied 30 men who practiced cyclic meditation twice a day for about 23 minutes each time. Cyclic meditation combines yoga postures with supine rest. This combination is based on ancient texts and is considered easier for beginners to practice.
They found that on the nights following the meditation practice the men exhibited significantly more slow-wave sleep, less rapid-eye-movement sleep, and fewer numbers of awakenings during the night. The meditators also reported feeling more refreshed the next morning.
7. Relieve symptoms of schizophrenia
A study in the Journal of Clinical Psychology found that loving-kindness meditation by individuals suffering from schizophrenia-spectrum disorders may reduce negative symptoms such as the inability to feel pleasure, lack of motivation, and asocial behavior. Researchers believe loving kindness meditation may also enhance positive factors such as hope and purpose in life.
8. Improve heart and lung function
Brazilian researchers tested meditation in a randomized study of 19 patients with congestive heart failure. The meditation group listened to a 30-minute meditation audiotape twice a day. After 12 weeks the meditation group had better quality of life and heart/lung function.
9. Alleviate depression
In a randomized trial of 91 fibromyalgia patients with depression symptoms, half the patients received an 8-week course in Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR). MBSR is a combination of meditation and yoga developed by Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center.
In the fibromyalgia study those receiving the MBSR training significantly reduced their depression symptoms.
10. Reduce headaches
A randomized study in the journal Headache reported that migraine sufferers who participated in an 8-week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program had 1.4 fewer migraines per month than controls. In addition, their headaches were less severe.
11. Treat Addictions
The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine reported a study on qigong meditation by 248 participants in a short-term residential addiction treatment program. Qigong meditation blends relaxation, breathing, guided imagery, inward attention, and mindfulness to elicit a tranquil state.
The meditation group had a higher treatment completion rate of 92% compared to 78% for another group that practiced Stress Management and Relaxation Training (SMART). The meditators also reported greater reduction in their cravings, anxiety, and withdrawal symptoms.
For more on the therapeutic benefits of sitting and breathing, visit Green Med Info's page on meditation.
[i] Vernon A. Barnes, John L. Rigg, Jennifer J. Williams. "Clinical Case Series: Treatment of PTSD With Transcendental Meditation in Active Duty Military Personnel." Military Medicine, 2013; 178 (7): e836 DOI: 10.7205/MILMED-D-12-00426
[ii] Brook RD et al., "Beyond Medications and Diet: Alternative Approaches to Lowering Blood Pressure. A Scientific Statement from the American Heart Association." Hypertension, 61:00, 2013.
[iii] Schneider RH, Grim CE, Rainforth MV, et al. "Stress reduction in the secondary prevention of cardiovascular disease: randomized, controlled trial of Transcendental Meditation and health education in blacks." Circ Cardiovasc Qual Outcomes. 2012;5:750–758.