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Why Mindfulness Meditation Makes Us Healthier

The Huffington Post     First Posted: 11/02/2011 10:08 am EDT   Updated: 03/07/2012 2:45 pm EST

Previous research on mindfulness meditation has shown that it aids in lowering blood pressure, improves immune system and brain function and minimizes pain sensitivity. A new review of past literature on mindfulness now breaks down what exactly it is about the practice that seems to have these beneficial effects.

Researchers defined mindfulness as "the nonjudgmental awareness of experiences in the present moment" in the Perspectives on Psychological Science study. They identified the four acting components of mindfulness meditation: regulation of attention, body awareness, self-awareness and regulation of emotion.

Each of these elements helps us in different aspects of our lives, according to the study. For example, regulation of attention may help us be extra-aware of our bodily state. And by being aware of our bodies, we are able to recognize the emotions we are currently experiencing, researchers said.

The findings "unveil the conceptual and mechanistic complexity of mindfulness, providing the 'big picture' by arranging many findings like the pieces of a mosaic," study researcher Britta Holzel, of Justus Liebig University and Harvard Medical School, said in a statement.

Previous research from Holzel has shown that mindfulness meditation can actually change the structure of the brain, especially in the brain regions responsible for sense of self, stress, memory and empathy.

In that study, published earlier this year in the journal Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging, researchers looked at brain images of 16 people who participated in an eight-week mindfulness stress reduction program.

For tips on using mindfulness in your day-to-day life, check out this blog post from HuffPost blogger Dennis Merritt Jones. And for fascinating facts about meditation, click through this slideshow:

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  • It Makes Your Brain Plastic

    Quite literally, sustained meditation leads to something called neuroplasticity, which is defined as the brain's ability to change, structurally and functionally, on the basis of environmental input. For much of the last century, scientists believed that the brain essentially stopped changing after adulthood. But research by University of Wisconsin neuroscientist Richard Davidson <a href="http://brainimaging.waisman.wisc.edu/publications/2008/DavidsonBuddhaIEEE.pdf" target="_hplink">has shown that experienced meditators exhibit high levels of gamma wave activity</a> and display an ability -- continuing after the meditation session has attended -- to not get stuck on a particular stimulus. That is, they're automatically able to control their thoughts and reactiveness.

  • It Increases Gray Matter

    A 2005 study on American men and women who meditated a mere 40 minutes a day <a href="http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1147167-2,00.html" target="_hplink">showed that they had thicker cortical walls than non-meditators</a>. What this meant is that their brains were aging at a slower rate. Cortical thickness is also associated with decision making, attention and memory.

  • It Can Be Better Than Sleeping

    In a 2006 study, college students were asked to either sleep, meditate or watch TV. They were then tested on their alertness by being asked to hit a button every time a light flashed on a screen. The meditators <a href="http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1147167-2,00.html" target="_hplink">did better than the nappers and TV watchers</a> -- by a whole 10 percent.

  • It's Better Than Blood Pressure Medication

    In 2008, Dr. Randy Zusman, a doctor at the Massachusetts General Hospital, asked patients suffering from high blood pressure to try a meditation-based relaxation program for three months. These were patients whose blood pressure had not been controlled with medication. After meditating regularly for three months, <a href="http://www.npr.org/2008/08/21/93796200/to-lower-blood-pressure-open-up-and-say-om" target="_hplink">40 of the 60 patients showed significant drops in blood pressure levels</a> and were able to reduce some of their medication. The reason? Relaxation results in the formation of nitric oxide which opens up your blood vessels.

  • It Can Protect Your Telomeres

    Telomeres -- the protective caps at the end of our chromosomes -- are the new frontier of anti-aging science. Longer telomeres mean that you're also likely to live longer. Research done by the University of California, Davis' Shamatha Project <a href="http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/2011/apr/24/meditation-ageing-shamatha-project" target="_hplink">has shown that meditators have significantly higher telomerase activity that non-meditators</a>. Telomerase is the enzyme that helps build telomeres, and greater telomerase activity can possibly translate into stronger and longer telomeres .

  • It Can Slow The Progression Of HIV

    A 2008 study on HIV positive patients found that, after an eight-week meditation course, patients <a href="http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/07/080724215644.htm" target="_hplink">who'd meditated showed no decline in lymphocyte content</a> compared with non-meditators who showed significant reduction in lymphocytes. Lymphocytes or white blood cells are the "brain" of the body's immune system, and are particularly important for HIV positive people. The study also found that lymphocyte levels actually went up with each meditation session. However, due to the small sample size -- only 48 volunteers -- it's harder to draw definitive conclusions.

  • Its Pain Relieving Properties Beat MorphIne

    Earlier this year, a study conducted by Wake Forest Baptist University found that <a href="http://www.physorg.com/news/2011-04-demystifying-meditation-brain-imaging.html" target="_hplink">meditation could reduce pain intensity by 40 percent and pain unpleasantness by 57 percent</a>. Morphine and other pain-relieving drugs typically show a pain reduction of 25 percent. Meditation works by reducing activity in the somatosensory cortex and increasing activity in other areas of the brain. This study also had a small sample size, making it harder to draw definite conclusions.

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