According to research, meditation reduces high blood pressure and high cholesterol levels. David Goding investigates its far-reaching health benefits.
The science of meditation is at once very simple and incredibly complex. On a basic level it requires little more than inner calm and focus though it provides us with a wealth of lasting mental and physical benefits. In fact, meditation may well be the third cog in the wheel of health — along with diet and regular exercise — that provide us with ultimate health and wellbeing.
A recent US meta analysis of 20 individual studies conducted by Connecticut University found that regular meditation produced slower heart and breathing rates, improved blood flow and decreased the chance of suffering from depression and mental health issues.
These benefits are widely acknowledged to have a multitude of healthy flow-on effects, including the ability to lower cholesterol levels, blood pressure and blood glucose levels, improve respiratory function and even reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease.
In stimulating the nervous and immune system response, meditation has also been shown to reduce the symptoms of asthma and reactions to allergens.
“Regular meditation helps you to develop coping mechanisms that enable you to deal with obstacles in life,” says Jenny Petridis, Meditation Facilitator from Prana House.
“Physically your body becomes a lot more relaxed. You don’t realise how much tension you hold in your body and most of the time we don’t breathe correctly. As well as having psychological benefits, the practice of meditation initiates changes in physiological functioning, including reduction in heart rate, oxygen consumption and stress hormones.”
The ability of meditation to reduce stress has seen its introduction to hospitals in cases of chronic or terminal illness, where it is used to reduce complications, promote immune system functions and an improved attitude by the patient. In short, reduced stress means improved health.
How meditation affects the body
Meditation has been shown to have a direct effect on the two major players of the autonomic nervous system, which regulates the functions of organs and muscles throughout the body, including the heart and the digestive system.
Firstly, it works by reducing the activity in the sympathetic nervous system. This is the part of the autonomic nervous system responsible for the ‘fight-or-flight’ response when stressed — causing heart rate and breathing to go up, blood vessels to narrow and muscles to tense up.
The effect of meditation on blood pressure is measurable and the benefits to our heart health significant. Muscle tension drops to almost nil during meditation. As pain is often tension related this results in considerable pain relieving benefits.
Secondly, meditation increases the activity in the parasympathetic nervous system, the part responsible for the ‘rest-and-digest’ response — causing heart rate and breathing to slow, blood vessels to dilate improving blood flow as well as stimulating the digestive process.
A 25-year US study conducted by the Office of Alternative Medicine of the National Institutes of Health found that that the longer people meditated, the greater the benefits. They found that subjects that had meditated regularly for five years were physiologically 12 years younger than the non-meditating subjects. Those that had meditated for less time were physiologically only five years younger than the control group.
Backing this up is a separate study conducted by Dr David Orme-Johnson, a research psychologist at Iowa’s Maharishi International University, that found that regular meditators over the age of 40 visited their doctor 73.7 per cent less than non-meditators, had 87.3 per cent fewer admissions to hospital for heart disease and 55.4 per cent fewer admissions for tumour related illness.
How meditation affects the mind
Meditation has also been shown to significantly calm brain waves leading to a generally more relaxed and less anxious state of mind. EEG analysis shows that brain activity during meditation is actually very similar to that during sleep.
This has been shown to improve cognitive function and offer significant benefits for conditions such as depression, anxiety, headaches, stress, ADHD and insomnia.
Meditating before bedtime has been shown to be one of the most effective remedies for breaking the pattern of sleeplessness and offers a very real alternative to sleeping drugs. This is particularly relevant when you consider that lack of sleep is not only on the rise throughout the Western world but is now the number one reason people visit their GP.
When creative visualisation or guided imagery is used on top of this the results can be even more powerful.
“Setting out the positive intention in meditation really enables you to feel that you are the creator of your world,” says Petridis.
“This kind of visualisation is commonly used in the sporting arena. If you visualise yourself winning that race, you start to feel that you are actually winning the race. You are rewiring the brain and it’s as if your brain is tricking your body into doing it.”
The technique, once perfected, can be used for all manner of purposes, from simply going into your day with a positive outlook and purpose to achieving physical healing, depending on your focus. As a mental rehearsal it can be used before a stressful or potentially painful event such as surgery or childbirth in order to relieve anxiety and pain.
Meditation is probably the best ‘self-help’ therapy you can do. Though some people find meditating a lot easier than others, everyone can achieve a meditative state with practice, at least to some degree.
“A lot of people say they can’t meditate but in most cases it’s about finding out what works for you, what resonates,” says Petridis.
There’s no right or wrong or strict rules you need to follow, you don’t even necessarily have to sit still. You could meditate while gardening or going for a walk.”
Petridis says that a lot of people get put off by the perceived seriousness and levels of concentration involved.
“A lot of people are intimidated with meditation and think they have to sit in a certain posture and there can be nothing going on in their mind,” she says. “You need to think to yourself that it’s going to be fun. Look around and see what entices you and when you do go to a meditation class don’t take it so incredibly seriously, just relax and enjoy it. Stick with it and don’t be hard on yourself and you’ll find that it will naturally happen.”
To start with, Petridis suggests setting aside 15 minutes three times a week for the practice of meditation.
“Everyone can find 15 minutes to meditate,” she says. “Find a quiet space, take some time out and concentrate on doing some deep, even breathing. Before you know it you’ll become addicted to it and you’ll probably end up increasing the amount of time you spend meditating.”
To obtain information on Buddhist centres and activities in your area go to www.buddhanet.net For information and locations of Transcendental Meditation go to www.tmprogram.com.au
For information about visualisation meditation go to www.createyourday.com.au