The Health Benefits of Mindfulness

An Asian woman practicing mindfulness by a window
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Mindfulness refers to the practice of constantly drawing your attention back to the present moment. Being mindful means that you’re grounded and aware of your emotions, thoughts, sensations, and surroundings without judgment or agenda.

You can develop mindfulness through mindfulness meditation, which involves focusing your attention on your own breathing and learning to neutrally “observe” your thoughts and feelings as they come up. However, mindfulness practices are also sometimes incorporated into therapeutic approaches, such as mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) and mindfulness-based cognitive behavior therapy (MBCT).

Mindfulness has gained greater attention in recent years, thanks to a growing body of research about its wide-ranging physical and psychological benefits. Recent studies suggest that mindfulness can help to boost cognitive function, relieve symptoms of anxiety and depression, and even lower the risk of heart disease.

Here are some of the potential health benefits of mindfulness, and how it may help to improve your overall well-being.

Decreased Anxiety

Mindfulness techniques–such as focusing on your breaths, practicing “loving kindness” to increase compassion, and “scanning” to locate areas of tension in the body–can help you learn to manage stress and anxiety more effectively. Studies have shown that people report fewer anxiety symptoms, worries, and fears after undergoing mindfulness-based stress reduction.

In fact, practicing mindfulness regularly may even alter the structure and function of your brain. This is explained by the principle of neuroplasticity, which holds that the nervous system can change and adapt over time in response to input.

One 2020 review of functional MRI (fMRI) studies conducted on people who meditated regularly discovered changes in neurological activity in key areas of the brain associated with anxiety and emotional control.

Fewer Unwanted Cravings

Early research indicates that mindfulness techniques can help to curb addictive and/or compulsive behaviors, especially when combined with other kinds of psychotherapy. Here are a few recent findings about the link between mindfulness and addiction:

  • One review reported that mindfulness-based approaches have been found to reduce drug and alcohol use and relapses among people with substance use disorders (SUDs). Mindfulness meditation is also associated with decreased stress, improved mood, and fewer cravings for the drug of choice. 
  • A 2020 study found that mindful eating was associated with a lower risk of binge eating among college students.
  • According to a 2017 study, brain scans of smokers who underwent mindfulness training showed less stress reactivity in the amygdala–a part of the brain involved in conditioned fear. These participants were more likely to quit smoking after receiving treatment.

These outcomes may be related in part to the effects of mindfulness on self-control and emotional regulation. “While mindfulness may not reduce cravings, it can help people be aware of a craving and then choose whether they will…indulge [it],” Dr. Amy Saltzman, MD, a board-certified physician of integrative medicine, told Health. “Being in the present moment allows us to notice our cravings and impulses before we act on them.”

Lower Blood Pressure

While mindfulness is often associated with improving mental health, it has many potential physical benefits as well. 

According to a 2019 randomized controlled trial, practicing mindfulness can lower both systolic and diastolic blood pressure among people with hypertension (high blood pressure). Multiple studies have linked mindfulness meditation to a decreased risk of hypertension and various related conditions, from coronary heart disease (CHD) and high cholesterol to type 2 diabetes.

Some researchers believe that mindfulness can help you become more aware of the mind-body connection. Over time, this may lead you to adopt healthier eating habits and engage in more physical activity. Others believe that mindfulness techniques can lower the body’s levels of cortisol (the “stress hormone”), which plays a role in regulating blood pressure and blood sugar.

Better Sleep

Poor sleep quality is often associated with stress and anxiety. In fact, up to 60% of people with insomnia also have a comorbid mental health condition, such as depression or anxiety. 

It’s no surprise, then, that practicing mindfulness during the day can help you get a better night’s rest. In turn, people who practice mindfulness may have better energy and focus during their waking hours after their sleep quality improves.

Studies indicate that mindfulness-based stress reduction can help to relieve the symptoms of insomnia and sleep loss. According to two recent studies on lucid dreaming among people who meditate, mindfulness techniques may also help to cut back on nightmares, night terrors, and other sleep disruptions. This may be because awareness of the present moment helps your brain “switch off” more easily instead of constantly scanning for threats.

Improved Cognitive Function

Mindfulness has a positive effect on many aspects of cognitive function, including memory, concentration, and processing speed. According to a 2021 review, even brief mindfulness breathing exercises can improve short-term working memory. By focusing your attention more directly on what’s right in front of you, you can stop your mind from wandering and sharpen your thoughts.

What’s more, early research suggests that mindfulness-based interventions can help to prevent cognitive decline among older adults. This may be because mindfulness slows down the effects of neuroinflammation, which is often involved in the onset of Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia.

Greater Ability to Cope With Pain

If you have chronic pain, mindfulness techniques may help to ease your symptoms. A 2020 study, found that mindfulness-based stress reduction was effective in reducing the severity and frequency of headaches among people with chronic migraines. Similarly, one 2017 review suggested that mindfulness meditation could serve as an effective complementary form of pain relief for people with fibromyalgia. 

This may be because mindfulness helps to distract you from the pain itself and focus your mind on other thoughts. Mindfulness meditation may also help you learn to relax your muscles instead of holding tension in your body, which can contribute to chronic pain. Practicing radical acceptance of physical pain can also sometimes make it feel less severe.

Fewer Symptoms of Depression

People with depression may find that mindfulness techniques can improve their overall quality of life and sense of personal well-being. Research suggests that mindfulness-based cognitive therapy reduces the risk of relapse among people with major depressive disorder (MDD) and helps to curb emotional distress. It’s especially effective for people with comorbid symptoms of depression and anxiety.

Many people with depression get mentally “stuck." Staying present and mindful can help you focus what’s going on right now rather than regretting the past or worrying about what’s to come. It can also keep you in the driver’s seat of your own mind rather than losing control of your negative thoughts. A 2019 study reported that mindfulness was particularly helpful in curbing the effects of rumination—the tendency to focus on problems rather than positive solutions–among people with symptoms of depression.

Stronger Immune System

Your body’s immune response provides essential protections against infection, illness, and inflammation–and mindfulness may help give it a boost. “Studies have demonstrated that mindfulness can enhance antibody response to the flu vaccine and increase CD4 counts in patients with HIV," added Dr. Saltzman.

Similarly, a 2019 review reported that mindfulness-based stress reduction was associated with faster recovery and activation of T-cells (cancer-fighting white blood cells) among people with breast cancer. When used alongside other cancer treatments like chemotherapy and radiation therapy, research indicates that mindfulness techniques can promote healing, curb stress, and reduce inflammation.

A Quick Review

The practice of mindfulness can benefit both physical and mental health. Research suggests that mindfulness meditation and mindfulness-based psychotherapy can help with depression, stress, anxiety, insomnia, memory loss, hypertension, and chronic pain, in addition to slowing down cognitive decline and boosting immune function. 

Mindfulness isn’t a cure-all, and it isn’t right for everyone in all situations. However, it can be a helpful adjunct therapy alongside other, more conventional forms of medicine. Talk to your healthcare provider about how to start a mindfulness practice that can help you relieve stress and stay more grounded in the present moment.

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