Scientists and health experts have been studying the benefits of meditation for decades – a mere ripple in the pond of this practice, which is centuries-old. Traditionally, meditation was practiced in Taoist China and Buddhist India as a spiritual exercise. Its practitioners hoped to achieve wisdom, enlightenment, and ultimately, nirvana.
Written records of meditation date back all the way to 1500 BCE, making it an ancient practice rooted in history and cultural establishment. While it’s been persistently practiced in the Eastern world, particularly amongst Monks and Yogis, it has recently made its way into Western culture as well.
Individuals of all ages are now practicing meditation as a way to cleanse the mind and body of the toxicity of day-to-day, fast-paced living. Fortunately, it has proven quite effective in this regard. Meditation has been shown to have countless benefits, including (but not limited) to:
- Decreased stress/cortisol levels
- Increased control over anxiety and panic attacks
- Improved self-awareness and mindful existence
- Reduced memory loss and improved prognosis in dementia patients
- Matured emotional intelligence and stability
- Improved quality and quantity of sleep
- Decreased blood pressure
This list of benefits effectively encapsulates meditation’s versatility as an emotionally and physically healing process. Meditation benefits virtually every region of the body, as well as nearly all major organs. Well-balanced organ health prevents the onset of various cancers and chronic pain, but it can often be so difficult to achieve. Meditation makes this easier, and it impacts each of our major organs in a different way.
The Impact of Meditation on Organs
1. The Heart
According to Harvard Health, individuals who practice meditation are significantly less likely to experience a heart attack or stroke. Especially in older individuals with an increased risk of cardiovascular problems, meditation can be an essential prevention method.
It can also be an essential facet to a bypass recovery regimen. When combined with diet and exercise, it can help cardiovascular patients regain their strength and supplement other parts of their recovery. This isn’t all that surprising considering meditation lowers heart rate, blood pressure, breathing rate, and adrenaline levels – all factors than can lead to heart disease if not controlled.
A statement published in the Journal of the American Heart Association delved even deeper into this topic, analyzing dozens of studies published over the last two decades in which meditation exponentially reduced the factors associated with heart disease.
The most important takeaway from this was that meditation not only helps heart function, but supports other heart-healthy behaviors necessary for improvement, such as adhering to a proper diet, getting sufficient sleep, and exercising on a regular basis.
In addition to all this, meditation was found to positively impact a measure known as heart rate variability (HRV), which represents how quickly your heart can make a minor change to the time between heartbeats. The higher the HRV, the healthier the heart. A 2013 study found that individuals who meditate for five to ten minutes daily have a better HRV than those who do not.
Use a stethoscope or blood pressure monitor before and after meditation sessions to track how it impacts your heart health, and consider keeping record of these numbers so that you can gradually witness your progress. You may even notice immediate improvements in heart rate and blood pressure after your meditation sessions.
2. The Lungs
It makes sense that a practice/exercise rooted in deep breathing would benefit the lungs. Meditation encourages diaphragmatic breathing, meaning that you breathe into your diaphragm. This is the lobe located below your rib cage, which should rise up and down when you breathe. Unfortunately, particularly when we’re stressed or not breathing consciously, we tend to take shorter, sharper breaths. As a result, we breathe into our chest more than our diaphragm.
Breathing into the chest too much can elevate your heart rate and lead to panic or anxiety attacks. Breathing into your diaphragm, however, improves lung air flow and ensures your body gets a proper oxygen supply. As your deep breathing exercises develop your lungs, they will also develop your lung capacity.
This is particularly pertinent for individuals with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). COPD is the third leading cause of death in the U.S. It’s a distressing condition which heightens anxiety and depression in its sufferers.
With COPD, sufferers deal with dyspnea, also known as labored or difficult breathing. A pilot study conducted in 2015 on the benefits of meditation for patients with COPD found promising results. The study consisted of 41 participants diagnosed with COPD, and required them to participate in eight weekly 60-minute meditation activities. In the end, participants reported significantly less dyspnea and anxiety sensitivity in response to their condition.
COPD can be a severely intrusive condition, hindering people’s ability to participate in regular day-to-day activities. Meditation’s ability to increase lung capacity and conscious breathing allows COPD sufferers to better regulate the dyspnea and panic that comes at onset.
3. The Brain
In addition to the heart, the brain perhaps sees the biggest benefits as a result of meditation. Specifically, meditation improves neuroplasticity, which is the brain’s ability to reshape itself and form new neural connections. In fact, some experts even believe meditation is to the brain as exercise is to the body. However, few no exactly what the benefits of this increased neuroplasticity are.
For one, improved connections in your brain, specifically in terms of awareness and consciousness, can better memory function. This is because meditation strengthens the prefrontal cortex and cerebral cortex, both of which are responsible for these functions.
This can prevent against the onset of dementia and similar age-related memory disorders. It boosts DHEA, a steroid hormone that enhances memory, mitigates depression, and supports your immune system.
The chemicals meditation causes your brain to release also have massive benefits. For starters, meditation releases endorphins, which behave as a natural painkiller. It also releases serotonin, which is a critical hormone in fighting depression, anxiety, insomnia, PMS, and other such conditions. Some health professionals even assimilate it with medications like Prozac or Zoloft, drugs responsible for limiting serotonin reuptake, thus allowing more of it to be present in the system.
Overall, meditation targets five key regions of the brain, each of which are responsible for different functions:
- Left Hippocampus: Responsible for cognitive function and memory, helps us learn. Meditation increases cortical thickness of the hippocampus, which increases gray-matter density.
- Posterior Cingulate: associated with wandering thoughts and self-relation, i.e. the ability to associate events and information with the self. With more meditation, the posterior cingulate strengthens, which improves focus (less mind-wandering) and solidifies self-awareness.
- Pons: Also known as the “bridge” between the medulla oblongata and the thalamus. Its constant production of neurotransmitters makes it responsible for some of the most essential physical functions. Meditation strengthens it, allowing us to improve our sleep and sensory input.
- Temporo Parietal Junction (TPJ): This is our sense of perspective. With more meditation, we improve this portion of our brain, allowing us to engage in more empathy and present moment awareness.
- Amygdala: This is the little corner of the brain where feelings of anxiety, fear, and stress are housed. Fortunately, with meditation, it becomes smaller, allowing our emotional responses (such as “fight-or-flight”) to become more stabilized.
4. The Stomach
Meditation can improve our digestive system in many ways. Perhaps the most obvious way in which it does so is by making us more mindful eaters. Meditation encourages us to relish sight, smells, and tastes, and appreciate our food as more than just nourishment. In this way, we become more careful eaters and are more likely to choose foods that are conducive to our overall gastrointestinal health.
Because meditation limits our anxiety and stress levels, it can naturally benefit our gut as a result too. We all know that feeling of stomach discomfort when we’re nervous, scared, or uneasy. In fact, our stomach is perhaps the first organ impacted by emotional distress. In conditions like Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) or Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD), anxiety is even believed to be the main culprit of stomach discomfort
Studies have found that regular meditation reduced expression of response genes that are linked to the onset of IBD and IBS. Stress can also induce acid reflux, heartburn, and ulcers. With meditation, it is highly likely these are less drastically expressed.
The deep breathing involved with meditation also elevates blood oxygen levels and improves circulation. With better circulation, the digestion process is significantly smoother. With a more efficient digestive system comes less bloating, gas, and abdominal cramps.
In a 2015 trial aimed at analyzing the effects of regular meditation on individuals with digestive problems, 19 patients participated in a 9-week meditation program. At the end of the trial, the patients experienced decreased symptoms and better eating habits.
5. Reproductive Organs
Although less studied in comparison to other organs and organ groups, some specialists believe that meditation does have some direct (and indirect) benefits for the reproductive organs. Specifically, they believe meditation can aid irregular menstruation and infertility.
Women with irregular or painful periods occasionally turn toward meditation to rebalance their cycle. Oftentimes, delayed periods are a result of mental, emotional, or physical stress. Similarly, lack of exercise and poor eating habits could be contributing to more painful cramps. Some women report getting their period back on track as a result of a healthy and consistent meditation practice to combat these circumstances.
Some women also report using meditation to tackle, and potentially even reverse, their Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS). A common endocrine disorder among women, this condition is associated with uncomfortable and intrusive side effects.
Due to meditation’s hormone-balancing abilities, some holistic doctors and patients believe it can restore the hormonal balance that is lacking among many PCOS patients. One woman even reported a significant decrease in the number of ovarian cysts her doctor found after she picked up a regular meditation practice.
Since meditation also helps better balance hormones, it can aid some women with infertility issues. Hormonal imbalance can cause a hindrance of the hormones responsible for conception. While this will not be the case for all women dealing with infertility, as it can result from various conditions and causes, it may be the case for some. Meditation could help relax and balance the body, better preparing it for conception and a healthy pregnancy.
Making Meditation a Habit
All in all, meditation will support the various organs in your body. The improved blood flow and circulation makes it an essential tool in treating all kinds of issues. Its main benefits appear to be rooted in its ability to quickly mitigate stress responses, a deeply valuable tool in our fast-paced world.
Despite widespread knowledge about meditation’s various benefits, however, many people still struggle to implement it as part of their daily routine. Meditation’s benefits typically cannot be felt unless it becomes a regular practice. For this reason, it’s important to find the right way to integrate it into your lifestyle.
Many people find that starting off with a meditation app helps. Meditation apps usually contain some free programs and come with built-in timers that remind you to meditate each day. They’re also usually built for beginners, and don’t require any sort of extensive commitment. Just five to ten minutes a day at the start should be enough.
Once you feel you’ve established meditation as a daily practice, you can begin increasing the time you spend meditating. Slowly work your way up to 10-15 minutes, but make sure you’re not forcing these longer meditations into a hectic schedule. If meditation feels like just “one more thing” on the schedule, this will make it exceptionally difficult to relax and garner its full benefits.
Perhaps even keep a journal to track how your symptoms have improved on a day-to-day basis since you began your practice. Be honest and patient with yourself. There are few immediate results with meditation, but when they do arise, they can be life-changing. Like medication, this practice needs to build up in your system before it can begin triggering noticeable results. Document your journey and watch the gradual progress unfold before your eyes.