What Happens When You Meditate Daily?
We benefit from a number of changes when we incorporate a daily meditation. Here are a few noticeable shifts to mention.
Meditation heals negative emotions
In the revolutionary book "How God Changes Your Brain," by Andrew Newberg and Mark Waldman, the authors explain how the brain is constantly mirroring. When you see someone angry – in person or on a screen – your brain begins to respond with anger, and this reaction affects your limbic system.
The limbic system helps regulate negative emotions and triggers the "fight-or-flight" mechanism in your brain. Many negatively valenced emotions tend to release stress-related neurochemicals into the brain which – if improperly managed – can lead to long-lasting psychopathologies (depression and anxiety disorders), cardiovascular disease, and other serious health problems.
Newberg and Waldman's book describe how research suggesting long-term contemplation and meditation on God, can alter the structure of our frontal lobes, allowing for better control of stress-related reactivity in the limbic system. The book emphasizes how such contemplation is also associated with the strengthening of brain circuitry related to prosocial behaviors, such as compassion and empathy.
Studies have shown the brains of longtime meditators exhibit a quiet limbic system and more active prefrontal cortex during meditation, suggesting meditation can regulate emotion. Interestingly, studies have also demonstrated that advanced meditators can have a very active limbic system while experiencing stressors like physical pain or hearing the cry of another individual suffering; yet, in comparison to healthy non-meditators, they don’t show limbic activation in anticipation of such stimuli, nor does such activation persist after the stimulus is removed.
These data suggest meditation can help develop equanimity — a balanced, even-minded way to experience and regulate negative emotions as they arise and persist, so one can maintain calm and stability through unpleasant thoughts and emotions without repressing, denying, or having aversion for them.
Meditation Protects from Stress and Disease
You may know or experience how stress causes or aggravates disease in the modern world. This is because stress can trigger biological changes in you that compromise your immune system. “One of the key scientific breakthroughs in the last decade is a better understanding of the role of cortisol, a major “stress hormone” produced by the adrenal glands that plays an integral part in how the body responds to stress" says Dr. Peter Van Houten, founder of the Sierra Family Medical Clinic.
"Cortisol is typically released within 15 minutes after [the] onset of stress and functions primarily as a natural anti-inflammatory for several hours. It mobilizes energy for the body to prepare for action [fight or flight], suppresses activity of non-vital organ systems, and decreases inflammation to allow for effective management of stress. What we’re learning, however, is that prolonged stress decreases our body’s sensitivity to the anti-inflammatory effects of cortisol. In response to stress and to protect the body from inflammation (and ultimately disease), the adrenal glands make more cortisol," Dr. Peter says.
"Although the body produces increasing levels of cortisol to fight inflammation during prolonged stress, research suggests even highly elevated levels of cortisol no longer decrease inflammation. The result is what one scientific researcher describes as “runaway inflammation,” a serious condition which promotes the development and progression of many diseases.”
A landmark study in 2008 involved two groups of people with HIV suffering from stress. One HIV group participated in an 8-week mindfulness meditation stress-reduction program; the other group did not. “The HIV virus attacks the cells known as CD4 T lymphocytes (often called CD4 T cells), which coordinate immune system activity when the body comes under attack by infection," Dr. Van Houten says. "The HIV virus slowly eats away at the CD4 T cells, gradually weakening the immune system. Psychological stress can accelerate CD4 T cell decline."
The group in the meditation stress reduction program showed no loss of CD4 T cells during the 8-week period. The control group, by contrast, showed significant declines in CD4 T cells and the study became the first to show how meditation affects the immune system. "The CD4 T cells are the “brains” of the immune system. Because of this study, we now know that meditation directly impacts the immune system’s most important cells—and prevents their decline,” Dr. Van Houten says.
Meditation Reverses Chronic Pain
In a breakthrough study entitled, “Brain Mechanisms Supporting the Modulation of Pain by Mindfulness Meditation,” 15 non-meditators were guided through four, 20-minute sessions of mindfulness meditation over four days. The practice involved awareness of breath and the release of distractive thoughts. Before and after meditation training, a pain-producing heat device was placed on the skin of each participant’s right leg. The device was warmed to 120 degrees Fahrenheit — a temperature that most people would find painful.
Pain can be divided into an emotional (unpleasantry) or physical (intensity) component, and the study resulted in two important findings. The scans taken after meditation training showed a reduction in acute pain unpleasantry by 57% and pain intensity by 40%, suggesting both emotional and physical aspects of pain were reduced. It also found meditation significantly reduced activity in brain areas that register pain sensations, while the practice increased activity in areas associated with body awareness and attention regulation.
Acute pain is believed to involve a very specific network of brain structures referred to as the neurological pain signature (NPS). This includes many areas of the brain like the insula, hypothalamus, and dorsal anterior cingulate cortex. Psychological pain research has emphasized that activity in the NPS is heavily influenced by emotion and perceived threat of pain. In fact, many forms of chronic pain (e.g., chronic low back pain) are possibly triggered and exacerbated by feelings of increased unpleasantry, anxiety, frustration, and negative thinking patterns.
These maladaptive habits interfere with effective inhibition of the pain signals leading to dramatic changes in pain receptors; making them more hypersensitive, dysfunctional, and likely to sustain a cycle of chronic pain.
Mindfulness offers an approach to chronic pain that can leverage your biology, unravel negative thinking and shift emotional patterns that exacerbate daily pain. It may influence your approach to pain, inviting curiosity and acceptance rather than fear or denial. Science is beginning to demonstrate how a long-term mindfulness meditation practice can shift your neurobiology in support of improved pain management and pain-related symptoms. By focusing attention on the moment-to-moment sensory quality of the breath, research suggests you can reduce anxiety and negative self-talk which exacerbates pain.
Further studies have found meditation practices facilitate a capacity to experience pain without the evaluation of unpleasantness that traditionally accompanies and exacerbates pain at the neurobiological level.
Meditation Enhances Memory
Over the last 10 to 15 years, there have been a number of important scientific discoveries relating to the aging process — especially the discovery of telomeres and telomerase.
Telomeres are the protective caps on the ends of chromosomes and the health of the telomeres determines how quickly a cell ages. Telomerase is an enzyme produced by the cells, it protects the telomeres and keeps them healthy by preventing them from wearing down and shortening too quickly. Each time a cell divides, the telomeres open, and the cell makes copies of its chromosomes so the two new cells will have genetic material identical to the parent cell.
However, as cells repeatedly divide, the telomeres decrease in production and gradually shorten. This shortening of the telomeres reflects the cell’s aging process, making telomerase and telomeres very good indicators of a person’s overall health and biological age. Meditation can slow the process of aging by reducing the effects of stress on the body, which negatively affect telomere lengths and telomerase levels.
One study in 2000 examined 58 mothers, half of whom were the main caregivers for a chronically ill child. The other half (the control group) were caring for healthy children.
The mothers caring for chronically ill children had significantly shorter telomeres and significantly lower telomerase levels than the mothers of healthy children. The more stressed these mothers said they were, the lower their telomerase levels and the shorter their telomeres. Despite being the same age chronologically, some mothers were ten years older biologically, illustrating how feeling stressed doesn’t just damage our health – it also ages us.
In 2010, a three-month study entitled, "Shamantha Project" was conducted to research the effects of intensive mindfulness meditation on telomerase. All 30 participants attended group meditations twice a day and also practiced meditation individually, for a total of about six hours a day.
At the end of three months, the telomerase levels of the meditators were 30% higher than in the control group — a surprising and very significant increase. This study looked only at telomerase, not at telomeres, but we know that higher levels of telomerase improve telomere lengths.
If you'd like to see what happens when you meditate, try it!