These days, everyone is talking about Meditation. Mindfulness, relaxation, being present, even meditation retreats where all you do for 24 hours is sit and breathe. Meditation moves us in a very profound manner. Why? There are many reasons, one of which relates directly to better health.
What is Meditation?
According to the NIH, meditation is: A mind and body practice that has a long history of use for increasing calmness and physical relaxation, improving psychological balance, coping with illness, and enhancing overall health and well-being. Mind and body practices focus on the interactions among the brain, mind, body, and behavior. There are many types of meditation, but most have four elements in common:
- A quiet location with as few distractions as possible
- A specific, comfortable posture, i.e.. sitting, lying down, or walking
- A focus of attention on a specially chosen word or set of words, an object, or the sensations of the breath
- An open attitude of letting distractions come and go naturally without judging them
What are the Health Benefits of Meditation?
One of my favorite authors, Chade-Meng Tan, who’s name I still can’t pronounce right, helped shape my belief that meditation ought to be a routine recommendation by your healthcare provider. The science is unequivocal: meditation leads to better mental clarity, slower heart rate, heightened awareness, healthier sex life, and a whole lot more. We used to tout exercise as a sport of fanatics or superheros. Years of research found the benefits of exercise so paramount, every doctor in town recommends 3-5 days per week of some form of cardiovascular activity. Now when someone says they don’t exercise, we look at them perplexed. How could you not exercise? How could you not meditate? I believe the integration of meditation into our daily lives will be similar to the trajectory physical activity has had in the field of medicine over the past 50 years.
Below are few recent examples of studies looking at the benefits of meditation on specific disease conditions.
- Prevention of acute upper respiratory infection : Barrett B, Hayney MS, Muller D, et al. Meditation or exercise for preventing acute respiratory infection: a randomized controlled trial. Annals of Family Medicine. 2012;10:337–346.
- Improvement in symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome in women: Gaylord SA, Palsson OS, Garland EL, et al. Mindfulness training reduces the severity of irritable bowel syndrome in women: results of a randomized controlled trial. American Journal of Gastroenterology. 2011;106(9):1678–1688.
- Lowering of blood pressure: Brook RD, Appel RJ, Rubenfire M, et al. Beyond medications and diet: alternative approaches to lowering blood pressure: a scientific statement from the American Heart Association. Hypertension. 2013;61 )6): 1360-1383.
- Reduction of back pain: Cherkin DC, Sherman KJ, Balderson BH, et al. Effect of mindfulness-based stress reduction vs cognitive behavioral therapy or usual care on back pain and functional limitations in adults with chronic low back pain: a randomized clinical trial. JAMA. 2016;315(12):1240–1249.
How does this all translate to better health? The mystery lies in the various compounds and neurotransmitters in your brain that are activated during meditation. Seasoned meditators show on brain imaging, a different pattern of brain activity. One that is more calm, and focused. I always like to pull from my patient stories; one in particular stands out in this discussion. Mr. J was a 27 year old man in a very competitive field of work, who experienced significant distraction and hyperactivity. Unable to perform to his full potential, he developed anxiety which he often relieved with alcohol. After a series of tests, we determined his condition was caused by Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, or ADHD. We wavered on a couple of options; 1) a stimulant which paradoxically reduces hyperactivity, like adderall 2) SSRI’s, neurotransmitter modulators used for mood disorders. Neither one of those options appealed to him. He did not want the latter for fear of loss of creativity which he greatly needed for his job. And he particularly did not like the alternate idea of going on an addictive substance for extended periods. I counseled him on behavior changes which can promote calm and stillness in the mind, such as meditation, exercise, and reducing alcohol. After one year of taking care of him, trying various medications and supplements, one pattern remained stable throughout. To cope with his affliction, he relied on what his meditation practice had given him more than any other external substance.
How to Start Meditating:
Meditation should become routine like exercise. The more you do, the better. Start with a 5 minute timer on a weekend morning, or a quiet afternoon. Sit, anywhere, anyhow- it’s all ok. Close your eyes or keep them open, and start focusing on your breath. As your thoughts fill your mind, see them for what they are, fleeting. Being that we are close to the sea, I liken these thoughts to waves that lap at the shore. There one moment, gone the next. The first time I tried this, 2 minutes felt like 20. After several days, 20 minutes went by like 2. Tan states you can start with even one breath per day. Remember to do one mindful breath per day.