The concept of the mind having influence over the body has been debated for centuries and has been the subject of interest in fields ranging from biology to psychology. Currently, we no longer question whether mind influences the body; instead we have begun to explore the tools that can be used to facilitate this interplay. Meditation is one such tool.
Yoga and meditative practices have long been associated with positive effects on heart rate, blood pressure, LDL cholesterol, and decreased the levels of salivary cortisol (the stress hormone). These findings are consistent with a calmer response of the hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal (HPA) axis and the sympathetic nervous system (SNS), which are often on high alert given our hectic lifestyles. Besides the positive effects on the HPA axis and SNS, these practices have also been reported to have favorable immune and endocrine outcomes (1).
Meditation and the Immune System
“The immune system is a sense organ, a sixth sense, if you will, that completes our ability to be cognizant not only of the universe of things we can see, hear, taste, touch and smell but also the other universe of things we cannot. These would include bacteria, viruses, antigens, tumor cells and other agents that are too small to see or touch, make no noise, have no taste or odor” (2).
It seems that meditation can shape our sixth sense in more ways than one. Meditation has a significant influence on the immune system. Several studies have linked meditation with decreased inflammation levels and better immune system response (3, 4). One meta-analysis concluded that meditation practices such as Yoga, Tai Chi and Qi Gong are associated with better anti-viral immunity and decreased inflammatory markers likely linked to its effects on the sympathetic nervous system (4).
In a 2009 study (5), 80 women undergoing treatment for breast cancer who were trained in guided imagery and relaxation techniques displayed an altered immune system functioning, including increased natural killer cells and lymphokine activated killer cells. The increase in these types of immune cells increases the body’s ability of to fight off tumors. Similarly, another study found that HIV patients had stronger natural killer cell counts after a month of mindfulness meditation training relative to controls, whose counts went down (6), again showing improved immune system function.
Meditation and Stress
The benefits of mindfulness meditation for anxiety disorders were featured in a recent article on Science Daily. The clinical trial led by a Georgetown University Medical Center researcher included 89 patients with generalized anxiety disorder. Participants were asked at short notice to give a speech to an audience and their stress response was measured.
They were then divided into two groups: one took an 8 week mindfulness based stress reduction course (intervention group), the other (control group) took an 8 week Stress Management Education course, which included general tips on the importance of good nutrition, sleep habits and other wellness topics. After the 8 weeks participants were asked, once again at a short notice, to give a speech to an audience (deja vu nightmare!).
It was found that participants in the meditation group had lower levels of stress hormones (ACTH) and inflammatory proteins (IL-6 and TNF-α) than the control group. In fact, the control group actually had even higher levels of stress hormones and inflammatory proteins the second time around.
Another study conducted with clinical patients that had finished medical treatment for breast cancer or other chronic illness found that increases in mindfulness were significantly related to decreases in depressive symptoms, perceived stress, medical symptoms, and increases in sense of coherence (7). Similarly, a study conducted with US veterans suffering from PTSD revealed that Sudarshan Kriya yoga (breathing-based meditation) was associated with reductions in PTSD scores anxiety symptoms, and respiration rate while the control group did not improve (8).
Meditation and Aging
Another unglamorous effect of stress is accelerated aging – but worry not, meditation, again, comes to the rescue. Stress interferes with the structure of our cells partly by accelerating the aging process; meditation was shown to counteract this effect (3).
Telomeres are protective DNA sequences at the ends of chromosomes that ensure genomic stability during cellular replication, but shorten with each cell division (or under conditions of oxidative stress); once they’re too short the cells stops diving and dies. Telomerase is the cellular enzyme primarily responsible for maintaining telomere length – the more telomerase activity, the better preserved are the telomeres (9).
Stress shortens telomeres, which not only accelerates aging, but may also leads to a whole other host of diseases (9, 10). One study looking at the effects of meditation on psychological parameters, such as Purpose of Life and Neuroticism, as well as physiological parameters, such as telomere size and telomerase activity, found that participants who engaged in meditation had greater stress resilience and a brighter outlook compared to control subjects, as well as greater telomerase activity (10).
Furthermore, a systematic review of several studies concluded that meditation techniques had preliminary positive effects on attention, memory, executive function, processing speed, and general cognition in older adults (11).
Whether young or old, ill or healthy, everyone can benefit from the perks of meditation. It’s a simple practice that takes only a few minutes and can significantly improve overall health and well-being, while costing absolutely nothing.
Even better, the empowering feeling of regaining control of our bodies and minds that is elicited by meditative practices can be, in and of itself, a powerful remedy. We often look for extraneous solutions when it comes to our health when, generally, the solution lays dormant inside of us – waiting to be awakened.