Studies show that mindfulness is ultimately an effective, low-cost way to manage (and maybe even improve) physical and mental health and well-being.

Meditation is an ancient practice that encourages people to redirect their focus and attention. Although there are many different approaches to meditating, most have their roots in Eastern spiritual and religious traditions.

Western researchers began to explore the health effects of mindfulness meditation in the late 1960s. From there, the literature grew exponentially, kick-starting the development of secular programs such as Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), of which meditation is a central component.

A regular meditation practice is now a common activity in North America, and for good reasons. Decades of research show that meditation is an effective complementary therapy for health conditions such as high blood pressure, cancer symptoms, and chronic pain. It’s also believed to improve mental health, lower stress, and contribute to the holistic health and well-being of an individual.


Meditation for Better Mental Health

Much of the research on the benefits of meditation is related to mental health. Individuals often face barriers to traditional mental health care, such as therapy and medication, while meditation is easy to access and comes at a relatively low cost.

Further, some research has shown that mindfulness meditation can be just as effective as antidepressants in the treatment of anxiety and comes with significantly fewer side effects.

One review of 45 studies that included almost 3,500 young adults (20 to 29 years of age), found that mindfulness interventions, of which meditation was a core component, showed a significant reduction in depression compared to control groups (individuals assigned to a waitlist, for example). Depression scores fell further when the researchers analyzed group mindfulness practice.

There has also been a growing number of studies examining whether meditation can help reduce work stress and burnout. In a review of various interventions to treat burnout among physicians and nurses, meditation and mindfulness led to an increase in self-care behaviours and a significant reduction in emotional exhaustion, stress, and burnout.

There’s an App for That

With the advent of mobile-based meditation apps, science is now assessing whether these platforms are as effective for mental health as meditating alone or in a group setting. Apps can further reduce barriers to the practice for individuals who can’t travel to a group session, and they are generally a low-cost option.

A review of 10 studies and 958 university students found that mobile mindfulness meditation (using a smartphone and app) decreased stress and anxiety. In another review of 34 trials, mindfulness meditation apps showed similar results for stress and anxiety, in addition to reduced depression and improved psychological well-being.

Meditation for Addiction Recovery

For many people, meditation can help with addiction recovery through the practice of grounding techniques for stressful situations, a greater awareness of triggers, and the improved ability to curb cravings.

Individuals with substance use disorders find meditation helpful because they become aware of how automatic their thoughts, cravings and behaviors are in relation to the substance. In a trial comparing hypnosis, mindfulness meditation, and education for substance use among veterans with chronic pain, the researchers found that both hypnosis and meditation (compared to education) significantly reduced people’s daily cannabis use at three- and six-month follow-ups.

Where Does It Hurt?

Chronic pain is a debilitating condition that can greatly impact a person’s quality of life. Researchers are becoming increasingly aware of how social determinants of health (for example, your race, income, or neighbourhood) connect to the experience of pain, and trials have explored how meditation can tap into one’s lived experience and ultimately reduce pain.

A review of 60 trials on mind-body therapies for adults using opioids for pain found moderate to large improvements in pain outcomes for people who participated in meditation, more so than guided imagery or relaxation. Two reviews of meditation for low back pain found that the practice lowered pain intensity and one noted significant improvements for quality-of-life ratings.

Better Brain Health

It’s estimated that by 2030, 78 million people worldwide will be living with dementia, making this a pressing issue for people’s overall health and well-being as they age.

In one of the first studies to explore cognitive outcomes in adults randomized to mindfulness-based programs, the researchers found that across all categories of cognition (including factors such as attention, executive function, and memory) mindfulness-based programs had a positive impact. The review included studies of both older and younger adults, with around 40 percent who were already diagnosed with psychiatric or neurological disorders. When the researchers limited their analysis to healthy adults, they found that mindfulness programs significantly outperformed the comparator groups (which included waitlists, no treatment or other active interventions that didn’t include mindfulness).

Parkinson’s is another progressive neurological disorder that can impact a person’s movement, thinking and behavior. Nearly 90,000 people in North America have the disease, a number much higher than previously estimated. In a small review of nine studies, mindfulness and meditation therapies improved a common Parkinson’s disease rating score and the participant’s cognitive function. However, the study found no effect for other disease symptoms, such as activities of daily living, depression, anxiety, and pain.

Immune Function

Science has discovered that meditation may decrease levels of inflammatory chemicals in the body.

In one study, researchers identified 25 immunity and infection biomarkers in both healthy and COVID-19 patients from 13 countries. They included any study that used yoga, meditation, or pranayama (intentional breathing)—or a combination of these practices—and found favorable changes in more than two dozen biomarkers.

For specific autoimmune conditions like psoriasis, recent evidence of six trials on mindfulness and meditation showed marked improvement in the participants’ skin condition.

Heart Health

Some of the earliest studies on the benefits of meditation were for hypertension—an important risk factor for cardiovascular disease. One study reviewed 30 years of evidence for the MBSR program, and found promising results, particularly for a reduction of diastolic blood pressure (BP). Another study showed that meditation could lower both systolic BP (the pressure in your arteries when your heart beats) and diastolic BP (the pressure in your arteries between beats).

Another review found that all types of meditation reduced systolic BP, but focused attention meditations also reduced cortisol and open monitoring meditations (being aware of all bodily sensations and external stimuli) reduced heart rate. Both of these measures are considered markers of physiological stress on the body.

Does Meditation Change the Brain?

Recent research has called into question past findings that meditation changes the structure of our brain. Structure includes grey matter volume or density, which play key roles in memory, emotional regulation, and decision-making.

However, functional changes in the brain may be a more important measure to consider, as those changes can influence how well our brains perform certain actions. One study revealed that focused attention meditation impacts three key regions in the brain’s networks: default-mode, salience, and executive control. These networks relate to our sense of self, communication and behavior, and problem solving.

For people who have experienced a brain injury, meditation may improve a range of symptoms, including cognitive performance and self-related processing (how we relate to the notion of our ‘self’, which is an important aspect of how we relate to others).

Meditation Can Make a Difference

The evidence across a wide range of mental and physical health issues has found that meditation is a beneficial component of treatment and can complement more traditional therapies. However, many researchers suggest that bigger and better trials are needed, especially for underserved populations who often face worse health conditions and are less likely to practice meditation.

Taken together, hundreds of studies show that the practice of meditation is a safe, effective, and low-cost way for individuals to manage (and potentially improve) their overall health and well-being.

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