The Health Benefits of Meditation

Young multiracial or Latina woman meditating at home with online meditation lesson

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Meditation is the practice of focusing your mind or clearing your thoughts for a period of time for spiritual purposes or as a way to evoke relaxation. Meditation has gone mainstream as a helpful tool to prioritize mental health, since it can help calm your thoughts and refocus your mind to help reduce stress and improve mindfulness.

Here are the research-backed ways that meditation can improve your health.

Reduces Stress

Reducing stress is often the primary goal of meditation. When stressed, your body goes into fight or flight mode, increasing the hormone cortisol as a stress response. However, research shows that people who meditate can lower their levels of cortisol.

Research also says people feel more relaxed after meditation. A 2017 review on stressed college students found mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR)—a form of mindfulness meditation and yoga—helped reduce anxiety and stress. In addition, an 8-week study found that people who used a mindfulness meditation app had more success in decreasing work-related stress than those who didn't meditate.

Helps Manage Anxiety

Similar to its effect on stress, meditation can help manage anxiety symptoms. A review of more than 3,000 participants found that mindfulness meditation practices helped reduce severe anxiety in cancer patients.

A small study also found women practicing meditation like yoga helped reduce anxiety and depression symptoms. Another eight week study found mindfulness meditation helped people with generalized anxiety disorder minimize anxiety symptoms.

Helps Reduce Depression Symptoms

Meditation can also be a tool to help people dealing with depression. A review of depression treatments found mindfulness meditation was small to moderately effective at improving depressive symptoms. However, meditation wasn't an adequate replacement for other treatments. Research also shows people with depression who meditate have fewer symptoms of depression than those who don't. 

Meditation may help reduce depression symptoms because of its effect on inflammatory chemicals. When stressed, your body releases cytokines that can alter your mood, eventually leading to depression. A review found meditation can help decrease cytokine levels, which may help reduce depression symptoms.

Helps You Sleep 

Stress, anxiety, and depression can all make it difficult to sleep, which increases your risk of developing a mood disorder. Meditation can not only help reduce stress and anxiety, but it can also help improve your sleep. A 2019 review found meditation helped improve the sleep quality of people struggling to get enough sleep. In addition, a smaller study of participants with insomnia found mindful meditation mildly improved wake time and sleep quality.  

Research shows mindfulness-based meditation treatments also helped people sleep longer and improved their insomnia symptoms, compared with those who did not meditate. Additionally, researchers found that people who practice mindfulness-based therapy for insomnia were more likely to be in remission or have improved symptoms after six months.  

Improves Positive Thinking

Because meditation promotes mindfulness, it can also help improve self-love and positive thinking. Research shows that people who practiced meditation had fewer negative thoughts when shown negative images.

Another review of 22 studies found that people who meditated reported more compassion toward others and themselves. However, a smaller study of 100 adults found practicing a loving-kindness meditation was more effective in boosting positive feelings when people spent more time in weekly sessions.

Improves Self-Awareness 

Meditation can force you to look deep inside yourself. This may help you become more aware of yourself and your interactions with others. A 2018 review of people practicing tai chi—a more physical form of meditation—found that people felt more confident in their abilities and overcoming challenges.

Meditation can also teach you to recognize self-destructive or catastrophic thinking and learn how to make your thinking more constructive. In addition, research shows mindfulness meditation can also help boost creative problem-solving.

Helps You Focus 

If you need to focus on work or school, meditation can help you clear your mind and focus on the task at hand. Research shows that people who have never meditated can improve focus and attention after a 10-minute meditation session. 

A review of mindfulness-based programs in K-12 schools also found that mindfulness practices helped students improve attention and productivity by focusing on their breath or learning to calm agitated thoughts.

Helps Treat Disordered Eating

Meditation may also help you be more mindful about your eating patterns, which may help people manage disordered eating. A 2017 review found meditation helped overweight adults and adults with obesity manage eating behaviors, anxiety, and depression symptoms. 

Other research found mindfulness programs helped people manage emotional, binge, and restrained eating behaviors.

Helps Addiction Recovery

While research is limited, meditation may help people recovering from substance use disorders. A 2018 review found using mindfulness-based practices with other substance use disorder treatments helped significantly decrease craving levels. These mindfulness-based practices also helped participants avoid future substance use.

Another review found behavioral therapy and health education were still more effective in treating substance use relapse than mindfulness-based relapse prevention (MBRP). However, MBRP helped significantly decrease withdrawal symptoms and cravings in people with alcohol use disorders.

Boosts Immune System 

While researchers are still figuring out exactly how meditation affects the chemical processes in your brain, studies have found meditation causes some bodily functions that may help boost your immune system.

Cytokines, inflammatory response chemicals caused by stress, can also cause your immune system to attack itself, making you sick and increasing your risk of autoimmune disorders. Since meditation helps reduce this stress response, it likely helps ward off the adverse health effects of cytokines. Another small study in Translational Psychiatry found that people who meditated had positive changes in genes related to wound healing, inflammation, and fighting viral infections. 

Helps Pain Management

Meditation's effect on pain has been widely studied and appears to be an effective tool for reducing pain. Why meditation helps pain is still debatable, but it may have something to do with how stress and mindset can increase pain perception. 

A 2020 report found that mindfulness-based stress reduction reduced chronic pain. Another review found that people who meditated felt less pain and were better at coping with pain than folks with similar types of pain. 

Decreases Blood Pressure 

High blood pressure can make it more difficult for the heart to function and increase your risk of heart attack or stroke. Researchers theorize that meditation may help reduce blood pressure by relaxing nerve signals that create blood vessel tension and make the heart work harder.

A 2020 review found mindfulness stress-reduction practices helped reduce blood pressure in people with diabetes, hypertension, or cancer. Other research found that transcendental meditation was more effective at lowering blood pressure in older participants and those with high blood pressure. However, the American Heart Association noted that while meditation may benefit heart health, we don't know how it specifically affects blood pressure. 

Reduces Memory Loss

People with age-related memory loss may benefit from meditation to improve clarity and focus. Researchers have found meditation mantra method called Kirtan Krya has helped improve testing performance in people with age-related memory loss. Meditation has also increased memory, attention, and quick thinking in older people.

Meditation may help memory loss inside the body by changing the ratio of amyloid-beta proteins linked to dementia. Still, more research is needed to fully understand how meditation affects the brain and memory.

A Quick Review

Meditation can help your body and mind by reducing your stress and anxiety, and improving your sleep. Luckily meditation is extremely accessible and can even be free. If you're new to meditation, using meditation apps or trying yoga can be an excellent place to start.  

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