Meditation is becoming a more and more popular way of dealing with the stresses of everyday life. However, while we may feel that meditation and other relaxation techniques are doing us good, what is the evidence for this, and how does meditation work?
First, it is important to note that there are many different types of meditation practices that people use. Some follow Zen, while others adhere to transcendental meditation. Yoga is also a widely used method, and there are techniques such as OneTaste that take a sexual approach. However, they are not all the same. In fact, meditation techniques tend to fall into three groups, each of which has a specific influence on brainwaves and produces different physical and mental effects. For example, Zen affects the brain’s gamma waves and appears to help with concentration, while transcendental meditation affects alpha waves and reduces stress levels. However, in all cases there is clear evidence for the effects of meditation – it is science, not magic.
A recent study showed just how astonishing the health effects of meditation can be. In the study, 201 people with coronary heart disease were divided into two groups. One group was asked to take an educational class on the health benefits of good diet and exercise. The other group was asked to take a class on transcendental meditation – which has been shown to reduce stress levels. They then followed up with both groups for a period of five years. Compared to the group who received diet and exercise advice, those who attended the meditation class saw their risk of stroke, heart attack and death fall by a dramatic 48%. There can be no clearer evidence that meditation is on a firm scientific footing.
As well as seeing direct changes in the brain and better health outcomes, meditation researchers are unraveling the actual mechanisms through which meditation acts. For example, a study carried out at Harvard Medical School in 2008 showed that as little as eight weeks of meditation had a profound and positive effect on gene expression. According to the study, “Gene ontology and gene set enrichment analyses revealed significant alterations in cellular metabolism, oxidative phosphorylation, generation of reactive oxygen species and response to oxidative stress in long-term and short-term practitioners of daily RR practice that may counteract cellular damage related to chronic psychological stress.”
In addition to creating genetic changes, it has been well established that meditation can reduce stress levels, and thereby lower the incidence of stress-related diseases. One of the main ways it does this is by decreasing cortisol levels. Cortisol is one of the primary stress hormones, and is beneficial when we are in physical danger. However, when cortisol levels remain high for long periods of time due to psychological stress, a number of adverse effects occur. For instance, high cortisol levels can lead to chronic inflammation, which can in turn cause heart disease and arthritis. It is also associated with immune suppression, high blood pressure, loss of bone density and elevated blood sugar levels.