The ancient practice of meditation—particularly mindfulness meditation—has recently surged in popularity. In fact, in the U.S. about 8 percent of adults and 1.6 percent of children have tried it already. This is because the health benefits of mindfulness meditation are incredibly impressive … and supported by scientific studies.
This article explores the health conditions and diseases it may help with.
The ancient practice of meditation—particularly mindfulness meditation—has recently surged in popularity.What is Mindfulness Meditation?
There is a range of different meditation styles, but the most popular are:
- Focused Attention (Vipassana)
Most techniques emerged from a religious or spiritual context, but most now practice outside of these traditional settings.
Mindfulness is a specific approach that can be used alone or with other meditation techniques.
It’s most commonly defined as “paying attention in a particular way, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally.”
Mindfulness meditation is the most well-studied in health research. Scientific literature may also refer to it as Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction or Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy, which are types of mindfulness training.
I’ll refer to it as mindfulness in this article from here on.
Summary: Mindfulness is a form of meditation that is the most well-studied in health literature. It’s an ancient practice that emphasizes presence of mind and focus.
Reducing Stress is the Secret Sauce
Mindfulness appears helpful in a wide spectrum of health conditions.
It’s not understood why, but stress reduction appears to be the common link.
Stress is associated with decreased activity in the prefrontal cortex, thought to be problematic. Mindfulness allows for conscious thinking in the prefrontal cortex, which may reverse this pattern of brain activity under stress (2).
Under high stress there are high levels of catecholamine release in brain, which weaken prefrontal cortex function.National Center for Biotechnology InformationIt makes sense then that those who regularly practice mindfulness tend to have lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol. At least, that’s what early research indicates (3, 4).
For these reasons most experts suspect the ability of mindfulness to reduce stress is the key reason to its benefits.
Summary: Mindfulness appears to reduce stress and markers of stress. This is important as many health conditions are worsened by stress.
Mindfulness Meditation For Anxiety and Depression
Mindfulness has a direct effect on mental health.
Evidence is strongest for anxiety (General Anxiety Disorder) and depression, two of the most common mental health conditions worldwide.
Anxiety causes chronic, excessive, and often uncontrollable worry.
Studies show mindfulness can help.
In one clinical trial of 89 patients with anxiety, one group undertook an 8-week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program (MBSR), while the other group received 8 weeks of stress management education.
Members of both groups who participated in just one or more sessions showed symptom improvement, assessed by the Hamilton Anxiety Scale.
However, the MBSR group showed much greater improvement than the stress management group when additional anxiety symptom scales were used (5).
Change in symptom scores for three anxiety measures after Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction. The lower the number the better.Other studies have found similar benefits, particularly when mindfulness is used alongside anxiety medication (6).
Clinical depression is complex disorder characterized by low mood and avoidance of usual activities.
Conventional care includes medication and psychotherapy. Unfortunately, many patients relapse with this protocol or are do not comply with medication regimens (7).
Research suggests that mindfulness can help prevent relapse for those who do not wish to use maintenance antidepressants.
In one study (7):
- One group of 28 patients with major depressive disorder in remission received maintenance antidepressants.
- The second group of 26 patients gradually discontinued antidepressants while receiving an 8-week Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) program.
- The third group of 30 patients gradually discontinued medications while receiving placebo pills under clinical supervision.
Compared to the placebo group, the mindfulness and antidepressant groups showed equally reduced likelihood of relapse. Keep in mind the mindfulness group were weaned off antidepressants.
Proportion of unstable remitters who survived without relapse during maintenance/follow up. M-ADM = maintenance antidepressant pharamacotherapy, MBCT = taper + Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy and PLA+CLIN = taper + pill placebo and clinical management.Data from several studies suggests mindfulness and antidepressants are comparable for treating mild to moderate symptoms of depression (8).
This certainly does not suggest those with depression should discontinue medications. However, mindfulness does show promise as an alternative, and certainly as therapy alongside antidepressants.
Summary: Studies indicate it’s useful for managing anxiety compared to conventional stress management practices. It may also be an effective alternative to antidepressants for those at risk of depression relapse.
Mindfulness Meditation and Weight Loss
Obesity rates worldwide have more than doubled in the past 36 years.
Research is now heavily focused on prevention and treatment strategies.
It can also increase awareness of hunger and satiety cues, a concept known as mindful eating (12).
A very large observational study showed a relationship between mindfulness and reduced risk of being overweight or obese. Although it was not able to prove that mindfulness causes lower body weight (13).
Average weight change by group condition among overweight versus obese participants. Mindfulness dramatically reduced cortisol awakening response in obese but not overweight subjects.It makes sense that mindful eating is beneficial for weight loss given our modern, fast-paced, fast food lifestyles.
Summary: Research has shown a link between mindfulness and healthy body weight, but more research is needed.
Mindfulness Meditation and Metabolic Risk Factors
Metabolic syndrome is a group of symptoms that raise risk for cardiovascular disease and diabetes.
You are considered to have metabolic syndrome if you have three or more of the following symptoms:
- A waist circumference greater than 102 cm (40 inches) in men and greater than 88 cm (35 inches) in women.
- High triglycerides
- Low HDL cholesterol
- Elevated fasting glucose (sugar)
- High blood pressure.
Observational studies have shown that metabolic syndrome is less common among those who use mind-body practices, including mindfulness (16).
Smaller clinical studies have explored the cause-effect relationships between mindfulness and metabolic risk. Interestingly, improvements to metabolic risk were seen in studies that showed no significant reduction in body weight (15).
In one study of 194 obese adults, the first group received diet and exercise advice, and the second received that same advice plus an all-day mindfulness retreat.
Compared to the first group, the mindfulness group showed significantly improved cholesterol and triglycerides after 12 months, and better fasting glucose levels after 18 months (15).
Changes in weight, fasting glucose, and triglyceride/HDL ratio for mindfulness and control groups from baseline to 18 months. Lower values are better for all 3 measures.Other studies have shown mindfulness may improve blood pressure in those with hypertension, as well as exercise capacity and heart rate in those with heart disease (17, 18).
Summary: Mindfulness appears to improve certain metabolic risk factors, even without weight loss. In particular triglycerides, cholesterol ratios, blood sugar levels and blood pressure.
Mindfulness Meditation and the Gut Microbiome
The human body is full of bacteria.
These bacteria make up the human microbiome, mostly located in the large intestine or “gut.”
Very small, early studies on humans have shown a correlation between psychological stress, stress hormones, and changes in microbial composition (20).
In theory then, mindfulness based stress reduction could be a way to help prevent negative changes in the microbiome.
Increased stress seems to dramatically alter the types of bacteria in a mouse’s gut, which has been observed multiple times.
Interestingly, this shift in bacteria does indeed increase inflammatory marker levels in the blood, which has huge implications for many common health conditions.
Summary: Research has linked psychological stress to changes in the microbiome, which could theoretically contribute to illness. But more human studies are needed to determine if mindfulness can help maintain a healthy microbiome.
Mindfulness Meditation and Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)
Considering the potential benefits of mindfulness on each of those triggers, it makes sense it helps with IBS management.
In one study of 43 IBS patients, the group who received mindfulness training showed significantly greater reductions in IBS symptoms than the group who received standard medical care (26).
These benefits were still noticeable after 6-months.
Summary: Small studies indicate that mindfulness may help relieve IBS symptoms. This makes sense given the suspected triggers of IBS are stress and psychological-related.
Mindfulness Meditation and Pregnancy
Small studies have shown that mindfulness may lessen pregnancy-related stress.
In one study of 74 pregnant Indian women, participants who received twice-weekly mindfulness sessions for 5 weeks showed significantly reduced perceived stress than the control group (32).
This suggests mindfulness could very well be beneficial in reducing day-to-day perceived stress during pregnancy, but much more research is needed.
Summary: A small study shows that mindfulness reduces perceived stress in pregnant moms at 12 weeks gestation. More research is needed though.
Mindfulness Meditation and Cancer
In 2012, there were 14.1 million new cases of cancer worldwide.
The number of new cases per year is expected to increase 68% by 2030.
Mindfulness has been shown to significantly improve symptoms and side effects from cancer and its treatment. This includes stress, anxiety, depression, vitality, fatigue, and sleep levels (33, 34, 35, 36, 37).
Newer studies suspect that mindfulness may also help to treat cancer progression in the first place. In particular, markers of cancer activity in breast cancer.
In one study of 128 stage I to III breast cancer patients who had completed standard medical treatment:
- One group of 53 patients attended eight, 90-minute mindfulness-based educational sessions, plus a 6-hour mindfulness retreat.
- The second group of 49 patients attended a 90-minute group supportive-expressive therapy (SET) sessions once a week for 12 weeks.
- The third control group of 26 patients attended single 6-hour stress management session.
Compared to the mindfulness and SET groups, the control group had significantly shorter telomeres following the intervention.
Although it could have exciting implications for cancer treatment, it’s important to remember this is an emerging area of research. Mindfulness should not replace standard cancer care, but instead be used alongside it.
Summary: There is potential that mindfulness can positively influence cancer progression, or at least breast cancer. At a minimum, mindfulness appears to improve certain cancer symptoms and treatment side effects.
Mindfulness Meditation For Beginners
The potential health benefits of mindfulness meditation are very impressive.
It’s a harmless practice that can only be good for us.
If you are a beginner looking to explore the benefits of mindfulness, many free resources are available online.
I personally use Headspace, which is a guided meditation app for beginners available on iPhone and android. It’s free for 10 sessions, and is a great way to understand what it’s all about.
1. Bhakti Yoga- It is the path of devotion, compassion, love, emotion and service to God and others. It is path of devotion to someone/something superior or higher than yourself. It helps to reduce your ego, increase your spirituality, develop a tangible relationship and connect you to the divine. You will experience the emotions like love, devotion and compassion at points along the journey. It is the path of divine love and makes yogi motivated by the power of love and sees God as the embodiment of it. In bhakti yoga, a yogi surrenders himself to God through worship, prayer and ritual and it is a process of connecting to God through chanting, worship, prayer or singing. It is also a way to connect you to God or a greatest power and it opens the heart and helps let go of preconceived ideas. The bhakti yoga develops love for God and creation and appealing to the emotional by nature.
2. Karma Yoga- It is about doing actions. It is the path of action and remembering the levels of our being while fulfilling our actions in the world. A karma yogi needs to be selfless and do actions without thought of gain or reward. Everyone have their duties in the world in the role of wife, daughter, sisters, father, colleague, teachers etc. We should do our duties to the best of our abilities without thought of gain or reward or appreciation. Nobody can live without doing actions. We should do our duties in the right attitude, right motive, do best, and follow the discipline of the job. There are a hierarchy of our duties-
* Duty towards society.
* Duty towards family.
* Duty towards yourself.
3. Raja Yoga- It is the path of self-discipline and practice. A raja means king who acts with self-confidence, independence and assurance and a raja yogi is independent and fearless. It is about controlling the mind to get all eight stages of raja yoga. Raja yoga is also known as ashtanga yoga and its eight stages are-
* Yama – Self-control.
* Asana – Physical exercises.
* Niyama- Discipline.
* Pranayama – Breath exercises.
* Pratyahara – Withdrawal of the senses from external objects.
* Dhyana – Meditation.
* Dharana – Concentration.
* Samadhi – Complete Realization.
4. Gyan Yoga (Jnana Yoga) – It is the path of acquiring knowledge from a variety of different sources. After getting knowledge from the credible sources put it in practice. It uses the mind to inquire into self-nature. The sources can be classes, lectures, reading, seeking the company of wise peoples etc. Before this yoga you needs have integrated the lessons of the other yogic paths. We use our knowledge and power to analyze to grow that improves our awareness. We have to ready to distinguish between true and untrue.
Meditation is becoming more and more common in the west as people start to realise the benefits that it can bring. A lot of people that I have spoken to seem to feel a little lost when they try meditation for the first time. They are unsure of what meditation is about, how to do it or how it could help them. Many people simply just don’t know where to start.
Meditation is one of the easiest and most accessible methods around to rejuvenate your mind, body and spirit. It can boost your energy levels and relieve a tired and over worked mind. The main aim is to empty your mind of all thoughts. This may sound ridiculously simple but you might be surprised at how much your brain resists. Luckily though there are a few tips and tricks that can help you along the way towards this bliss like state.
Meditation can be done anywhere but when you first start out it may be easier if you can find a calm, quiet place where you won’t be disturbed. Somewhere where you feel relaxed and comfortable. Some people think that you need to sit on a hard floor crossed legged in the lotus position to meditate properly. Many people do do this but it’s not necessary. A comfy chair that supports your back and lets you relax fully can often make the process much easier.
Once you are comfortable it’s time to start emptying your mind. One of the easiest ways I’ve found to do this is to concentrate on my breathing. As you slow down and focus on your breathing your body will naturally begin to relax and unwind too. Be careful you don’t hyperventilate though. The first few times I tried to meditate I made myself dizzy and had terrible headaches. That’s not really the result you are aiming for. Try to relax and breath normally, feel the air as it passes through your nose and mouth. Feel your chest rise and fall as your lungs inflate and deflate. Most of all just try to relax and enjoy the experience.
Mantra’s are also a good way to empty your mind. By continuously repeating a phrase over and over again it leaves little room for other thoughts to intrude. Many people use ancient sanskrit phrases like “OM”, this is a particularly good one to use because as well as giving you something to focus on; the low vibrational sound of the world also helps you to relax. Other people prefer to use more modern positive thoughts or affirmations as their mantra’s. These work just as well and give your self esteem a little boost too.
However you choose to empty to your mind you’ll probably find that the odd stray thought will still creep in. This is ok, don’t feel frustrated by this. Simply recognise that the thought is there then bring your focus back to your meditation. Be patient will yourself. Meditation developes over a period of time. The more you practise the easier you will find it is to slip into that meditative state.
Lots of guru’s suggest that you spend anywhere from 15 minutes to an hour a day meditating. Many people feel intimidated by this length of time. It’s often difficult to keep your mind focused for so long without it wandering off to plan your shopping list or worry about your bills. Don’t let these times scare you. If 15 minutes is too long, try 5 minutes, or even a minute without any thoughts interrupting you. Any meditation at all is beneficial. Soon you’ll come to crave these minutes and will find it easier and easier to meditate. The most important thing is to do it as regularly as possible. If you can, set aside a specific time each day that is yours and yours alone, for quiet, uninterrupted meditation.
That’s about it, everything you need to know to get you started, now it’s up to you, just relax and have fun.