Medical

The Benefits of Meditation to Health and Wellbeing

Over the last decade, there has been a significant increase in the interest in the beneficial effects of meditation, particularly in the scientific community.

Meditation is a practice of quiet contemplation to reflect inward and be anchored in the present moment. There are many variations on how meditation is practiced but all have been shown to result in benefits, none have been shown to cause serious harm. Benefits are seen to the mind, body and spirit.

The Mind

Meditation promotes wellbeing by fostering cognitive and emotional functioning. The resulting positive affects achieved during meditation, extends in to daily life. Improvements in memory, concentration, attention and problem-solving skills as well as emotional regularity are well documented.

Roughly half a million people in the UK are suffering from work-related stress, depression or anxiety in 2016/17 leading to 12.5 million working days lost. This leads to lost output for employers and the self-employed of £33.4 — £43.0 billion per year, and lost tax/ national insurance revenue to the public purse of £10.8 — £14.4 billion per year. Clearly, there is a significant effect on the British economy, however there is a serious impact on the individual’s health and wellbeing. Stress increases the risk of mental health problems and is a risk factor for many diseases. Meditation relieves stress in a safe and effective manor.

Insomnia is a serious problem. Lack of sleep is linked with worse health and reduced lifespan. It also can cause daytime somnolence which increases risk of accidents and reduces productivity in work. Meditation improves the quality of sleep by calming our thoughts and keeping us relaxed for longer.

Concentration is improved with regular meditation. This is because our ability to focus is developed. We then have a clear thinking pattern and are not disturbed by random thoughts. If we are better at concentrating we are much more efficient and productive. I believe this is one of the main ways meditation leads to better time management and so the old adage of ‘not enough time to meditate’ does not make sense.

Meditation also promotes happiness. This is because gratitude is focused upon and meditation brings perspective on one’s fluctuating feelings. Meditation encourages to look for the positive in a situation and learn from difficult experiences. It can also reduce depressive and anxiety symptoms.

Addictions have been shown to lessen with regular meditation. The need for escapism and an instant reduction in stress is reduced and so a detachment is developed from the addiction.

The Body

Meditation triggers the parasympathetic nervous system also known as the ‘rest and digest’ or ‘feed and breed’ system. This reduces breathing rate, blood pressure, heart rate, encourages healing and digestion. It also takes us out of the ‘fight or flight’ response which is controlled by the sympathetic nervous system. Professor Herbert Benson was one of the first scientists to show that meditation relieves stress by triggering a measurable relaxation response. His findings show meditation neutralises the ‘fight or flight’ response, inducing the relaxation response.

More and more research is being published showing the beneficial effects on the body right down to a cellular level. It has been proven that meditation can make our cells live longer in a healthier state. It also reduces the amount of inflammation we have in the body and improves our immune system function. This means we are less likely to develop disease and also fight off infections quicker. It can therefore lead us to live a longer, healthier life. Again, ‘not enough time to meditate does not make sense when meditation is the only thing that can make us live longer so ultimately, give us more time!

The skin is much better with meditation. The British School of Meditation actually state that meditation can make you look up to 10 years younger. This does make sense when we know that more stress make our cells die sooner so we age quicker and meditation is protective from this process.

There is also evidence that meditation reduces heart disease by reducing blood pressure and cholesterol. It also reduces pain in chronic pain conditions and benefits have been shown in cancer suffers and so the NHS often encourage meditation for patients with these conditions.

Obesity is serious problem in the UK with weight-related diseases becoming more prevalent. The hormone Cortisol is released in response to stress. Cortisol causes a craving for food, particularly fat and sugary carbohydrates. This in turn leads to more food intake and resulting weight increase. Most people will have heard of this as ‘comfort eating’. Cortisol levels are reduced with regular meditation and so leads to better weight control.

Brain imaging has proved that meditation changes the structure of the brain. Growth is seen in the areas involved in executive functions, emotion regulation, attention and memory. This is promising for those who are at risk of age-related cognitive decline as it suggests that meditation can slow this.

The Spirit

Regular meditation can enhance one’s sense of being spiritual and connected to source energy. Although can be a secular practice, it is often part of many religious practices. It can lead to a sense of enlightenment. With experience, meditators can be feel a deeper connection to their surroundings and in their relationships with others. A sense of ‘oneness’ is felt. It brings a sense of purpose in life and increased self-actualisation.

A greater understanding and awareness of one’s thoughts is developed and so these can be steered to more constructive patterns. Meditation also deepens the capacity for love and compassion. It enriches life and allows us to truly experience it. The benefits of meditation are vast and only a few are described here. The scientific community are publishing more evidence to prove the positive effects on the human body and so it is hoped that this will encourage more people to practice regularly.