When we talk about wellness and the mind/body connection, we often think of the importance of exercise and healthy eating for good physical and mental health. But did you know that one of the most helpful activities for promoting total wellness dates back thousands of years? It’s the ancient practice of meditation, and its use is showing surprising results among 21st century researchers.
Because of its benefits, an increasing number of physicians are prescribing meditation as part of their patients’ healthcare routines. Clinics and hospitals across the nation now integrate meditation and related mind/body techniques into their clinical practice.
Physical Health Benefits of Meditation
The daily practice of meditation has been associated with improvements in a variety of health problems, including hypertension, insomnia, irritable bowel syndrome, and chronic pain. Just 20 minutes twice each day is sufficient.
Over 500 research studies have been conducted to determine the effect of regular meditation on health problems. Current research is examining more long-term effects and looking at the role of meditation in preventing chronic diseases and increasing longevity.
Mental Health Benefits of Meditation
Because of its relaxing effects upon the mind and body, meditation has long been used to reduce stress and anxiety. Meditation appears to help activate the parasympathetic nervous system. As it slows the release of stress hormones as well as heart and breathing rates, it improves the body’s overall relaxation response.
Research now shows that meditation can also reduce depression in affected individuals. In one study of family caregivers, it was found that research participants who meditated had lower levels of depression than those who only listened to relaxing music.
Additionally, meditation may increase brain alertness. Meditation appears to improve people’s cognitive abilities, including attention and memory. Research using medical imaging has demonstrated that meditation improves the functioning of certain circuits in the brain, as well as potentially reducing shrinkage in older adults’ critical brain centers.
At the National Institutes of Health, the Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine has provided funding for several new studies to determine the effect of meditation on many health conditions. It is anticipated that further research will bring new findings on the best types and frequency of meditation, along with other practice issues.
Most clinical practices today use meditation techniques based on Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction. This type of meditation was developed by the University of Massachusetts’ medical school and utilizes yoga, stretching exercises, and mindfulness meditation. Mindfulness meditation pays close attention to breathing techniques while the individual sits in a restful posture.
Whatever the approach, making a commitment of no more than 40 minutes each day may be a small price to pay for improved physical and mental health.