A slew of scientific studies suggest that mindfulness meditation offers some powerful holistic health benefits. And while researchers caution that no one study should be interpreted as a prescription for treatment, mindfulness is increasingly being considered a viable complement to conventional health care. Here are just some of the ways it can help you:
1. Stay Focused
Learning to sustain one’s attention through mindfulness seems to improve overall ability to focus and maintain attention during everyday tasks. In a 2012 study in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, researchers evaluated individuals with no previous exposure to meditation. Some of them received three hours of mindfulness-meditation training and were asked to meditate for 10 minutes each day for up to 16 weeks. During tasks that involved attention to detail, those who meditated showed more control over executive functions involving attention than non-meditators. The research suggests that even “low doses” of meditation training can significantly change neural function related to processing conflicting stimuli.
2. Manage Anxiety and Depression
In a 2014 meta-analysis, Goyal and his partners at Johns Hopkins found that mindfulness meditation might be on par with antidepressants in treating depressive symptoms. In a 2014 study in the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, researchers examined 15 participants with no prior meditation experience. Over the course of just four days of mindfulness-meditation training, participants experienced significantly less anxiety. Essentially, mindfulness meditation reduces anxiety by improving mood and enhancing cognitive control mechanisms.
3. Reduce Stress
Research suggests that mindfulness-meditation training not only reduces stress and anxiety following a stressful episode, but that practicing it can actually help mitigate stress in the moment. In a 2013 study, Kirk Warren Brown, PhD, a psychologist at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, and colleagues reported that mindful individuals showed lower brain arousal in response to highly unpleasant images compared with controls. This suggests that mindfulness changes how stress-related emotion centers in the brain are activated. As a result, not only do these brain areas get less active when provoked, but the reaction may be easier to regulate because it’s not so strong, says Brown.
4. Ease Pain
In a 2011 study, Wake Forest researcher Zeidan and his colleagues showed that after just four days of mindfulness-meditation training, meditating during episodes of pain reduced the unpleasantness by 57 percent and participants’ pain-intensity ratings by 40 percent. The researchers also identified specific brain regions that appear to be involved in the experience of pain and how it is modulated through meditation. By altering the context for pain via cognitive control and emotional regulation, meditation may change the way we perceive pain (i.e., viewing it as fleeting).
5. Boost Gray Matter
By spurring the growth of gray matter in various brain regions, mindfulness may improve learning, memory, and emotional regulation, several studies over the last decade have shown. In a 2011 study published in the journal Psychiatry Research, for instance, researchers scanned the brains of participants who had little or no previous experience with mindfulness training. The study participants then completed an eight-week MBSR course, and researchers scanned their brains again. Individuals who took the meditation course showed significant increases in gray matter.
6. Fight Alzheimer’s
Mindfulness might slow the brain degeneration that leads to Alzheimer’s disease. In a pilot study published in 2013, Rebecca Erwin Wells, MD, at Wake Forest and her colleagues reported that in adults with mild cognitive impairment (a transitional stage between normal aging-related memory loss and full-blown dementia), participants who practiced mindfulness meditation showed less atrophy, or shrinking, in the hippocampus, a brain region that is altered in neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s, compared to the control group. The study also revealed that an area of the brain called the default mode network, which is involved in activities like daydreaming and thinking about the past and the future, shows greater neural connectivity in meditators than non-meditators. Larger studies are still needed to confirm these early-but-promising results, says Erwin Wells.
Mindfulness meditation may help boost immune function. In a 2012 Annals of Family Medicine study of adults aged 50 or older, researchers showed that mindfulness meditation is about as effective as exercise for reducing the occurrence of acute respiratory infection, which includes colds and seasonal flu. This bolstered previous studies which showed that mindfulness meditation can help fight illness by reducing stress and therefore helping to support a healthy immune response.