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Health Benefits of Meditation

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Updated January 29, 2013

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

Although meditation is often practiced for spiritual purposes, the benefits of meditation also include greater physical and mental relaxation. Due to these calming effects, meditation is thought to protect against a number of stress-related health problems.

What Does Meditation Involve?

The goal of meditation is to focus your attention and calm your mind. In general, meditation is best practiced in a quiet place with few distractions.

There are many different types of meditation, each of which involves different techniques. Transcendental meditation, for instance, entails repeating a word or phrase (known as a "mantra"), while tai chi is considered a form of moving meditation.

Learn how to practice mindfulness meditation, a form of meditation that involves focusing your mind on the present.

Why Do People Meditate?

According to some proponents, the benefits of meditation may include the following:

Benefits of Meditation

According to the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, it's not yet fully understood how meditation might influence health. It's thought that meditation may reduce activity in the sympathetic nervous system (which is responsible for increasing heart rate and breathing rate when you're under stress) and stimulate activity in the parasympathetic nervous system (which is responsible for slowing heart rate and breathing rate).

The available scientific data suggest that meditation may offer these health benefits:

1) Heart Disease Prevention

Practicing meditation may help boost heart health and reduce your risk for cardiovascular disease, according to a research review published in 2004. The review indicates that meditation practice may help lower blood pressure, as well as lessen psychosocial stress.

2) Pain Management

A number of studies show that meditation may help enhance pain management. For instance, one study published in 2010 found that a brief training in mindfulness meditation significantly reduced sensitivity to pain. Another 2010 study suggests that meditation may increase thickness in certain brain regions involved in regulating pain and emotion. Earlier research indicates that meditation may also help ease pain in people with chronic pain-causing conditions, such as fibromyalgia and low back pain.

3) Better Memory

In a study published in 2009, scientists discovered that practicing meditation was linked to improved performance on tasks designed to test visual memory. According to the study's authors, the findings suggest that meditation may show promise in the treatment of memory loss (a problem common among people with Alzheimer's disease).

4) Treatment of Depression

Meditation may help improve mood in people with depression, a pilot study published in 2009 shows. In researching 28 people with depression, scientists found that those treated with mindfulness-based cognitive therapy in combination with their usual treatment had a greater decrease in depressive symptoms (compared to those receiving conventional care alone).

Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy is a healing approach that pairs mindfulness meditation with cognitive behavioral therapy.

What You Need to Know Before You Meditate

Due to the lack of science behind meditation's health effects, it's important not to rely solely on meditation for the treatment or prevention of any health condition. Individuals with any type of chronic condition should consult their doctor before beginning a meditation practice.

Sources

Barnhofer T, Crane C, Hargus E, Amarasinghe M, Winder R, Williams JM. "Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy as a treatment for chronic depression: A preliminary study." Behav Res Ther. 2009 May;47(5):3.

Grant JA, Courtemanche J, Duerden EG, Duncan GH, Rainville P. "Cortical thickness and pain sensitivity in zen meditators." Emotion. 2010 10(1):43-53.

Kozhevnikov M, Louchakova O, Josipovic Z, Motes MA. "The enhancement of visuospatial processing efficiency through Buddhist Deity meditation." Psychol Sci. 2009 May;20(5):645-53.

Lush E, Salmon P, Floyd A, Studts JL, Weissbecker I, Sephton SE. "Mindfulness meditation for symptom reduction in fibromyalgia: psychophysiological correlates." Journal of Clinical Psychology in Medical Settings 2009 Jun;16(2):200-7.

Morone NE, Lynch CS, Greco CM, Tindle HA, Weiner DK. "'I felt like a new person': the effects of mindfulness meditation on older adults with chronic pain: qualitative narrative analysis of diary entries." The Journal of Pain 2008 Sep;9(9):841-8.

Walton KG, Schneider RH, Nidich S. "Review of controlled research on the transcendental meditation program and cardiovascular disease. Risk factors, morbidity, and mortality." Cardiol Rev. 2004 12(5):262-6.

Zeidan F, Gordon NS, Merchant J, Goolkasian P. "The Effects of Brief Mindfulness Meditation Training on Experimentally Induced Pain." J Pain. 2010 11(3):199-209.

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