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Everyday Meditation
Meditation 101 : The Benefits of Meditation

Meditation 101

The Benefits of Meditation

Excerpted from Everyday Meditation
by Tobin Blake

Meditation 101 SeriesThere are many great reasons to meditate. Modern science has been exploring meditation for decades, and what it has found is startling. Some things are obvious: During meditation, blood pressure and heart rate decrease, respiration slows, and alpha wave activity in the brain increases (indicating a peaceful state). In general, stress levels drop, an effect that alone could save consumers billions of dollars in health care costs annually. Some estimates suggest that over 90 percent of doctor visits are linked to unmanaged stress.

Besides the more generic effect of stress relief, it has been discovered that meditation also produces physical changes in the body. In one study, published in the journal NeuroImage, a group of UCLA researchers discovered that the hippocampus and areas within the orbito-frontal cortex of meditators were enlarged, indicating that the brain is physically affected by the practice. Talk about expanding your mind! The cortex is associated with higher human functions like decision making, positive emotion, and memory.

Other recent groundbreaking research delved even deeper into the biological effects of regular meditation. In collaboration with the Genomics Center at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, researchers at the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital discovered that meditation reaches straight to the root of our biological programming — our genes themselves. They reported significant differences in the expressions of more than 2,200 genes between meditators and nonmeditators. Some of these genes included those responsible for inflammation, the handling of free radicals, and programmed cell death, three killers that act as Father Time's right-hand henchmen when it comes to aging and disease. Herbert Benson, MD, the center's director, said of the findings, "Now we've found how changing the activity of the mind can alter the way basic genetic instructions are implemented." This is a powerful statement. For many years, researchers have pondered meditation's extraordinary healing effects, which were easily detectable through rudimentary experiments. Now we are finally digging below the surface effects of meditation and uncovering some of the deeper causes behind the physical health benefits. Somehow, meditation is reshaping the very building blocks of our bodies.

The horizon of emerging meditation research appears to be no less promising. We are learning more every day. For instance, in an interview on the national radio show Speaking of Faith, Doris Taylor, MD, cited preliminary research into meditation's incredible effect on stem cells. Taylor is a cardiac researcher best known for resurrecting the dead heart of a rat by injecting it with stem cells. These cells are now considered one of the primary keys to aging and disease. Basically, as our stem cells die off, we age, and stress literally destroys these cells. When it comes to slowing aging, then, stem cells are genetic gold. In essence, the younger your stem cells are, the younger, biologically speaking, you are. Meditation may be doing a couple of things here. For one, it slows the process of stem cell aging simply by alleviating stress; however, there appears to be more to the story than that. It turns out that meditation may increase the number of stem cells in the blood. During a preliminary study at the University of Wisconsin, researchers noted a significant spike in the number of stem cells in the bloodstream of an experienced meditator after just fifteen minutes of practice. Mind you, this was not a well-controlled, double-blind study meant for publication, but a casual investigation by a group of curious scientists. That said, the results were stunning. During the interview, Taylor, who was barely able to conceal her excitement, called it "the largest increase [of stem cells] I've ever seen."

This may help explain some of meditation's major impacts on our health. Regular practitioners can expect the following:

  • A 33 percent decrease in the chance of stroke
  • A 50 percent decrease in overall cancer rates
  • A decrease of up to 80 percent in the rate of heart disease — America's number one killer of both men and women

No medication currently on the market shows such remarkable and widespread healing effects, and this is to say nothing of the psychological benefits of the practice. While meditation is clearly good for the body, it's also great for the mind. People who meditate regularly report a greater overall sense of satisfaction with their lives and relationships, and lower incidence and severity of depression, anxiety, and panic attacks. This translates to real life as less pain and more joy. Simply put, meditation is the very best of natural medicine, and it has absolutely no negative side effects.

It's rare that anything in this world can offer so much and yet cost so little. In fact, there is no direct cost. To achieve the results that will lead you to a happier, healthier life, all that is needed is consistency. Your practice doesn't need to be perfect. Just do it, every day.

Next: Expanding Your Consciousness »

Updated 1/20/14