General Health Friday August 31, 2012

The Health Benefits of Meditation

Though more often associated with the realm of spirituality than that of medicine, many studies suggest that meditation offers a number of very real health benefits to its practitioners, from helping you to get a good night’s sleep, to making you feel more content and less stressed. Find out more about the benefits of unwinding and the science behind it:

Brain Activity

Recent studies conducted in Britain looked at the brain waves of subjects while at rest and when actively meditating and concluded that a lower proportion of activity than normal occurred in the frontal lobes of the brain during meditation. This is the area of the brain that is associated with feelings such as pain, self-awareness and egotism. By the same token, during meditation activity was seen to increase in the posterior positions within the brain, which are, conversely, linked with feelings of benevolence and altruistic impulses.

This chimes with the well-known example of Richard Matthieu (both a leading Buddhist and renowned scientist) who was once in a famous experiment conducted by the University of Wisconsin. The experiment showed the levels of activity in the parts of his brain understood to be the origin of happiness and positive thoughts exceeded the normal parameters by a factor of several hundreds.

In addition, research undertaken with the help of MRI scans found that after 8 weeks of meditating for a short time each day, participants in the study were subject to an increase in activity in the hippocampus and a reduction of action in the amygdala. The former is a centre in the brain key to memory and learning, the latter is tied to emotions such as fear and anxiety.

Fighting Disease

A study lead by Dr Herbert Benson of Harvard University found that genes capable of fighting disease were activated by partaking in meditation. It is thought that this is due to the role that stress related chemicals like adrenalin and cortisol play in raising our the heart rate and blood pressure, which in turns weakens immunity. The relaxing effect of meditation helps to counter our tendency to enter the biological ‘fight or flight’ mode, which stress induces. As Dr Jane Flemming explains: “In survival mode, heart rate rises and blood pressure shoots up. Meanwhile muscles, preparing for danger, contract and tighten. And non-essential functions such as immunity and digestion go by the wayside.''

Research undertaken at Ohio State University found that regular practised relaxation of the muscles seemed to reduce the recurrence of breast cancer and increased the number of ‘killer cells’ in the body, increasing the capacity to fight tumours, viruses and infections.

Hormones

Mediation can play a positive role in regulating our hormonal balance. For example, the hormone melatonin, which is pivotal in ensuring we sleep restfully, but has also been found to help stave off insomnia, depression and other related conditions, is found in higher levels in those who meditate.

On top of this the production of serotonin, a lack of which can also cause depression and sleep problems, and eating disorders has also been found to increase with regular meditation. On a chemical level, serotonin plays an important part in feelings of happiness.

Will Kurtz writes on a wide range of health topics for Casa Health, where you can go for advice on everything from vaccines to depression.

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