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50 Shades of Zen Part 3: Physical Benefits of Meditation

By: Dave Asprey
March 30, 2015

50 Shades of Zen Part 3: Physical Benefits of Meditation

If you meditate, your body will thank you as much as your mind – starting with your heart.

This post is part 3 of our science of meditation series (read part one on your brain and part two on stress here).

It covers many of the diverse physical benefits of meditation including on your heart and cardiovascular system; blood pressure; and overall physical health markers.

Or, to get the short list of meditation hacks, read on here.

Physical Benefits of Meditation: Heart, Blood, And Beyond

Transcendental or mantra meditation is more effective than other relaxation techniques (e.g., muscle relaxation) or education on lifestyle modification (e.g., diet and exercise strategies) at reducing blood pressure and likelihood of death from heart disease and all other causes.[[xv], [xvi]

Meditation consistently proves effective at lowering blood pressure, sometimes more so than other non-pharmacological treatments.  And devoting just ten minutes twice a day to mindfulness meditation can significantly reduce blood pressure after 12 weeks of practice.[[xvii]]

Meditation improves other cardiovascular and metabolic disease risk factors as well.

Numerous studies have found improvements in blood lipid profiles and blood glucose control, and consequent reduced risks of diabetes and heart disease, with meditation practice of varying lengths and types.[[xviii], [xix]]

So, what’s happening here? Why does meditation have such a strong impact on your physical body?

These changes are largely the body’s way of giving thanks for freedom from stress! Psychological stress increases resting heart rate, elevates blood pressure, and causes widespread inflammation and oxidative damage in cells, artery walls, and body organs. [[xx]]

Stress hormones like epinephrine and cortisol contribute significantly to this damage. Cortisol wreaks general havoc in the body as it readies our organ systems for an attack from the unlikely wolf encountered in the woods—but for many sufferers of chronic disease living in modern society, the hormone never lets up.

Prolonged elevation of cortisol levels is linked to hypertension, hyperglycemia, abdominal obesity, increased appetite and cravings for sugary foods, and a suppressed immune system, among other abnormalities.[[xxi]]

In other words, stress damages the body in dozens of ways, and research frequently points to the stress-reducing effect of mediation as the predominant mechanism for its beneficial impact on physical health.[[xxii]]

Meditation vs. Stress and Inflammation

Inflammation is one of the big problems in your body that the Bulletproof Diet is designed to manage and reduce, and meditation helps with this too.

Stress and inflammation go hand-in-hand in when it comes to doing the body harm. Various forms of meditation, including mindfulness meditation, yoga, tai chi, and qigong, have been shown to reduce levels of inflammatory proteins and signaling factors implicated in chronic disease, notably the markers C-reactive protein, interleukin-6, and tumor necrosis factor-alpha.[[xxiii]]

These pro-inflammatory molecules can significantly weaken the immune system, and meditation counters this effect. Meditation also improves immunologic memory, prompting faster production of antibodies to combat viruses and prevent infection.[[xxiv]]

Meditation and Immune Function

It’s widely acknowledged that the brain and central nervous system play a large role in regulating immune function, especially in response to stress; thus meditation may again impact physical health via changes to stress-reduction pathways in the brain.

Of note: a randomized controlled trial linked changes in brain activation in an area associated with elevated immune activity directly to antibody levels to the influenza virus in a group of mindfulness meditation practitioners.[[xxv]]

Because of these improvements in physical health, meditation is now counted among the effective therapies for a wide range of diseases including cancer, heart disease, diabetes, and autoimmune disorders, for which the “classic treatment” is usually a host of semi-effective pharmaceutical drugs and resignation to an unhappy, sickly future.

A few minutes of meditation a day, or even several times a week, seems an easy investment in comparison.

Consistency Is Key

As the above information hopefully convinced you, at the very least a consistent daily meditation practice can go a long way toward upgrading your performance and managing your stress.

What other meditation hacks have you found?  Read mine here.

References

The sources below are referenced throughout 50 Shades of Zen Parts 1, 2, and 3.

[i] Luders E, Kurth F, Mayer EA, et al. The unique brain anatomy of meditation practitioners: alterations in cortical gyrification. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience. 2012;6:1–9. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22393318

[ii] Stanford University Vista Lab Teaching Wiki: Brain Gyrification and its Significance http://white.stanford.edu/teach/index.php/Brain_Gyrification_and_its_Significance

[iii] US Department of Health and Human Services, National Institutes of Health, National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health: Meditation: What You Need to Know https://nccih.nih.gov/health/meditation/overview.htm

[iv] US Department of Health and Human Services, National Institutes of Health, National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health: Meditation: What You Need to Know https://nccih.nih.gov/health/meditation/overview.htm

[v] Lazar, S., et al. Meditation experience is associated with increased cortical thickness.

Neuroreport. 2005 Nov 28; 16(17): 1893–1897. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1361002/

[vi] Taren, A., A., et al. Dispositional Mindfulness Co-Varies with Smaller Amygdala and Caudate Volumes in Community Adults. PLoS ONE 8(5): e64574, 22 May 2013. http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0064574

[vii] LeDoux, Joseph. The Emotional Brain, Fear, and the Amygdala. Cellular and Molecular Neurobiology, Vol. 23, Nos. 4/5, October 2003 http://www.ekmaninternational.com/media/4634/fearbrain%20amygdala%20joe%20ledoux.pdf

[viii] LeDoux, Joseph. The Emotional Brain, Fear, and the Amygdala. Cellular and Molecular Neurobiology, Vol. 23, Nos. 4/5, October 2003 http://www.ekmaninternational.com/media/4634/fearbrain%20amygdala%20joe%20ledoux.pdf

[ix] Desbordes G, Negi LT, Pace TW, et al. Effects of mindful-attention and compassion meditation training on amygdala response to emotional stimuli in an ordinary, non-meditative state. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience. 2012;6:1–15. http://www.tibet.emory.edu/documents/Desbordes_Provisional_amygdala.pdf

[x] Chen, K. W., Berger, C. C., Manheimer, E., Forde, D., Magidson, J., Dachman, L. and Lejuez, C. W. (2012), Meditative Therapies for Reducing Anxiety: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Randomized Controlled Trials. Depress. Anxiety, 29: 545–562. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/da.21964/full

[xi] Marcus, M. T., and Zgierska, A. Mindfulness-Based Therapies for Substance Use Disorders: Part 1 (Editorial). Subst Abus. 2009 Oct–Dec; 30(4): 263. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2818765/

[xii] Grecucci A, et al. Baseline and Strategic Effects behind Mindful Emotion Regulation: Behavioral and Physiological Investigation. PLoS One. 2015 Jan 15;10(1):e0116541.  http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0116541

[xiii] Goyal, M., et al. Meditation Programs for Psychological Stress and Well-being

A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis. JAMA Intern Med. 2014;174(3):357-368. http://archinte.jamanetwork.com/article.aspx?articleid=1809754#Abstract

[xiv] Tang, Y., et al. (2007). Short-term meditation training improves attention and self-regulation. PNAS, 104(43), 17152-17156. http://www.pnas.org/content/104/43/17152.long

[xv] Carly M. Goldstein, Richard Josephson, Susan Xie, and Joel W. Hughes, “Current Perspectives on the Use of Meditation to Reduce Blood Pressure,” International Journal of Hypertension, vol. 2012, Article ID 578397, 11 pages, 2012. http://www.hindawi.com/journals/ijhy/2012/578397/cta/

[xvi] Anderson JW, Liu C, Kryscio RJ. Blood pressure response to transcendental meditation: a meta-analysis. Am J Hypertens. 2008 Mar;21(3):310-6. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18311126

[xvii] Wright, L., B., et al. Impact of Stress Reduction Interventions on Hostility and Ambulatory Systolic Blood Pressure in African American Adolescents. Journal of Black Psychology May 2011 vol. 37 no. 2 210-233. http://jbp.sagepub.com/content/37/2/210.full.pdf+html

[xviii] Prakhinkit, S., et al. Effects of Buddhism walking meditation on depression, functional fitness, and endothelium-dependent vasodilation in depressed elderly. J Altern Complement Med. 2014 May;20(5):411-6. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24372522

[xix] Ray, I., B., et al. Meditation and coronary heart disease: a review of the current clinical evidence. Ochsner J. 2014 Winter;14(4):696-703. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4295748/

[xx] Ray, I., B., et al. Meditation and coronary heart disease: a review of the current clinical evidence. Ochsner J. 2014 Winter;14(4):696-703. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4295748/

[xxi] Maglione-Garves, C., et al. Cortisol Connection: Tips on Managing Stress and Weight. University of New Mexico, Exercise Science Department. http://www.unm.edu/~lkravitz/Article%20folder/stresscortisol.html

[xxii] Rosenkranz, M., A., et al. A comparison of mindfulness-based stress reduction and an active control in modulation of neurogenic inflammation. Brain Behav Immun. 2013 Jan;27(1):174-84. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23092711

[xxiii] Morgan N, Irwin MR, Chung M, Wang C (2014) The Effects of Mind-Body Therapies on the Immune System: Meta-Analysis. PLoS ONE 9(7): e100903. http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0100903

[xxiv] Davidson, R., J., Kabat-Zinn, J., et al. Alterations in Brain and Immune Function Produced by Mindfulness Meditation Psychosomatic Medicine. 65(4), July 2003, p 564–570 http://psycnet.apa.org/psycinfo/2003-07002-015

[xxv] Davidson, R., J., Kabat-Zinn, J., et al. Alterations in Brain and Immune Function Produced by Mindfulness Meditation Psychosomatic Medicine. 65(4), July 2003, p 564–570 http://psycnet.apa.org/psycinfo/2003-07002-015