One of the most interesting things about mindfulness meditation is how its benefits seep beyond our brains and into our bodies. So not only does it help decrease stress and improve focus, but it can have an impact on your physical health as well. But how?
As it turns out, the connection has a lot to do with stress. According to a new study from Carnegie Mellon University, mindfulness impacts physical health via “stress reduction pathways” inside your brain.
A press release about the new research gets into the nitty gritty neurological details:
Creswell and Lindsay highlight a body of work that depicts the biological mechanisms of mindfulness training’s stress reduction effects. When an individual experiences stress, activity in the prefrontal cortex — responsible for conscious thinking and planning — decreases, while activity in the amygdala, hypothalamus and anterior cingulate cortex — regions that quickly activate the body’s stress response — increases. Studies have suggested that mindfulness reverses these patterns during stress; it increases prefrontal activity, which can regulate and turn down the biological stress response.
Given the correlation between stress and health issues like heart disease and depression, it stands to reason that meditation’s well-documented ability to keep a lid on stress can trickle down to the parts of the body that don’t respond well to stress.
The study, which its authors tout as “one of the first evidence-based biological accounts of mindfulness training, stress reduction, and health” comes at a time when the popularity of this type of “mind and body” health care is on the rise. Around 18 million U.S. adults practice meditation, according to a new study from the National Institutes of Health and Centers for Disease Control. The study says even more people (21 million, to be precise) practice yoga, a nearly 100% increase in popularity since 2002.
The benefits of mindfulness meditation just keep piling up. In one recent study, researchers demonstrated how the practice can help preserve neuron-packed gray matter in the brain, thus keeping us sharper as we age. In another study, meditation was shown to –specifically, it preserves the length of telomeres, the cap-like ends of chromosomes whose length is correlated with the prevalence of various diseases. By better understanding how the mental and physical effects of meditation are related, scientists can help forge more focused and specific treatments for various ailments related to stress.