Meditation: Why and How Does it Make Your Life Better?
Meditation: the ancient and mystical practice of sitting cross-legged and thinking about nothing. That’s the stereotypical description of a practice that dates back to various old civilizations, cultures and religions, and is hailed as an incredible natural aid to healing and treating a plethora of health issues.
Is any of it true?
It’s often easy to dismiss “natural medicine” as “natural scam” or “outdated”. However, research is slowly uncovering some truths behind the praise. Plus, how do you think it survived for litteral millenias?
Let’s go over a few of the backed up benefits and how meditation can improve your life in ways you probably haven’t imagined.
Meditation: one word, many practices
Now, I know the focus of this blog is science. But I think it would be beneficial to highlight the fact that there are many different types of it. Origins and cultural/religious aspects aside, if you type “meditation types” in your search bar, you’ll be faced with a bunch of disagreeing numbers: 5, 6, 7, 9, 12, 16… Mindfulness meditation, transcendental meditation, loving-kindness meditation…
I am unfortunately not qualified enough to know which number is correct. I’m pointing this out because this post will treat different forms indiscriminately under the name “meditation”. I will, though, link resources that may mention specific types.
The Benefits of Meditation
Everyone and their mother has heard that meditation reduces stress and increases happiness, but few actually know why and how.
The brain works with neurotransmitters. We discussed them previously: they are chemical messengers that travel from one neuron to another to, well, transmit messages. They have many different roles, whether “positive” (learning, happiness, reward, pleasure, relaxation, etc.) or “negative” (anxiety, alertness, etc.)
It just so happens that meditation affects many of them. And we’re going to go over a few.
How would this be a Manic Pharmacist post without mentioning dopamine? It’s been explained plenty of times, but it’s never enough:
Dopamine is the main “reward” and “pleasure” molecule. It’s also responsible for other things: cognitive function, motor function, associative learning, etc. Basically, it’s VERY important.
And guess what meditation does? This study had participants undergo a PET scan while meditating. The tracer used competes with endogenous dopamine in the basal ganglia. Regarding the basal ganglia, we quoted Surgeon General in this post, saying: “[…] dopamine bursts in the reward circuitry in the basal ganglia are like a carrot that lures the brain toward rewards […]” Since it competes with dopamine, higher 11C-raclopride binding meant less dopamine binding, and vice versa.
The results: they found that “11C-raclopride binding in ventral striatum decreased by 7.9%. This corresponds to a 65% increase in endogenous dopamine release”!
Serotonin is called the “happiness” neurotransmitter. When in deficit, it can cause a mood disorder called depression. It also has a few other functions, such as appetite and being the precursor of melatonin, the neurotransmitter responsible for regulating sleep-wake cycles, to cite a few.
It seems that meditators have been found to have higher levels of serotonin breakdown metabolites in their urine, suggesting a linked rise in its release. That might make it a good aid to help alleviate symptoms of depression and improve sleep quality (because of the melatonin).
Gamma aminobutyric acid, or GABA, is a neurotransmitter that, upon binding with its receptor, provides us with a feeling of relaxation. It is the main inhibitory neurotransmitter, actually. By reducing neuron excitation, it does its job of “calming the nerves”, literally.
This study has found that “the process of meditation apparently increases activation in the prefrontal cortex (PFC) and stimulates the reticular nucleus of the thalamus, implicating the production and delivery of the inhibitory neurotransmitter gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA).” Therefore, meditation increases the levels of GABA in the brain and the feeling of relaxation.
This neurotransmitter is different from the one above in that it is in charge of the “fight-or-flight” response. While that type of response is essential in some situations, it can sometimes go haywire in settings where it has no business being activated. Norepinephrine is produced by the locus coeruleus.
And, well, what do you know! It has been found that the breathing technique used in meditation may help regulate the activity of the locus coeruleus!
That would explain why breathing exercises help with anxiety.
Happy Rest of the Body
Obviously, the benefits go far beyond just mental health. Some of them are kind of obvious from the previous posts, but others might strike you as new and pretty useful.
Research has found that meditators seemingly have better blood pressure from higher levels of nitric oxide in their body.
Nitric oxide is, according to the linked article, “a molecule made in the body that (among other things) helps relax and widen blood vessels, keeping blood pressure under control.” Since higher levels were found in meditators’ breath, it makes sense to say that meditation reduces blood pressure.
But wait! That’s not all. We’ve discussed how breathing affects the activity of the vagus nerve. The vagus nerve is part of the parasympathetic system and, among other things, slows your heartbeat down when it’s going a little bit above speed limit. Because slow, controlled breathing activates it, it therefore brings your pulse down when you’re stressed. And while it’s not always the case, an elevated pulse may be associated with high blood pressure; the opposite can also be true.
Stress (and Blood Sugar)
Cortisol is the most famous “stress hormone” and responsible for fight-or-flight-essential mechanisms. Among those mechanisms: increasing blood sugar for more energy and alertness.
Well, first of all, the relaxing effects of meditation are associated with significant drops in serum cortisol. That study was conducted on medical students, whom we know are put under chronic and intense stress conditions (take it from a pharmacy student…)
Meditation has also been linked to lower levels of postprandial (after a meal) blood glucose, most likely because of the associated stress reduction.
Slowed Cell Aging
Telomeres are short DNA “caps” protecting the ends of chromosomes in eukaryotic cells. Shortened telomeres are signs of cells aging and nearing apoptosis (programmed cell death). A study has revealed that expert meditators had significantly longer telomeres than individuals who do not meditate. Another reason to start ASAP.
Telomere length is protected by an enzyme called telomerase. Of course, it’s activity also appears to be affected by meditation.
Reduction in Cravings and Snacking
Meditation increases dopamine, which, when lacking, can make us feel bored and snackish. Furthermore, the mindful state it puts us in helps us differentiate between actual hunger and simple cravings, and direct our attention elsewhere if it’s the latter. It helps reduce reactivity to food cues, specifically unhealthy, high-reward foods, with that decentering and redirecting ability. While it is not exactly meditation (but still mindfulness), a mindfulness-based eating programme can help reduce emotional eating in obese patients as well as imnprove their wellbeing.
It’s no secret that reduced stress improves skin appearance. That, and we did mention that it reverses skin aging through longer telomeres.
In patients with mild to severe psoriasis undergoing ultraviolet phototherapy or photochemotherapy, an experiment had a group of them undergo therapy while listening to audiotaped meditation instructions. The results indicated that it increased the rate of skin clearing after the procedure.
The Bottom Line
Have we gone over all the benefits? Definitely not. Those were just a few of the proven and probable ones. Whatever you’re going through in life, be it positive or negative, I encourage giving it a try. Meditation, especially mindfulness, is not necessarily just sitting cross-legged in a spot and observing your thoughts. It can also be immersing yourself in whatever you’re doing, being fully present in the moment. If unwanted thoughts creep in, don’t fight them. They’re the passengers, you’re the bus drivers. They’ll eventually get off, and while they may try to tell you where to go, you decide.
That being said, if you are not in a state where you can manage to do that and those thoughts are too loud, I strongly encourage seeking professional help if it’s a possibility.
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