Meditation is an ancient practice that has been used for centuries to achieve a state of calmness and clarity. While it was commonly associated with certain religious practices, it has made its way into everyday Western culture, with increasing amounts of research showing it has several positive health benefits.
Herbert Benson, MD, is an internationally known physician, and is Director Emeritus of the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine at Mass General. He was one of the first Western physicians to incorporate spirituality and healing into medicine, and defined the relaxation response in his best-selling book in 1975. His research over the past 40+ years has indicated that meditation and the relaxation response can head to improvements in blood pressure, stress, insomnia and overall wellbeing.
If you decide to pick up meditation, here are five health benefits you might receive:
The pons is a part of the brain stem, and it plays a large role in sleep and REM sleep. A Mass General study led by Sara Lazar, PhD, used brain imaging technology to show that pons tissue thickened in study participants after they took part in an eight-week mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) program. This suggests that mediation could help those who struggle with insomnia.
Another study by Dr. Lazar found that participants in an eight-week MBSR program also demonstrated a thickening of gray matter when compared to a control group. Gray matter is responsible for parts of the brain that regulate emotion, empathy, perspective taking and compassion, which are important in any relationship.
A research team led by Mass General neurologist Daniel Hoch, MD, PhD and Joseph Kvedar of Partners Connected Health found that that even virtual meditation was beneficial in reducing perceived stress, anxiety and depression. This could be a great solution for those who do not have easy access to in-person, face-to-face interventions.
Ellen Slawsby, PhD, psychologist and director of chronic pain services at the Benson-Henry Institute, helps clients deal with their chronic pain by teaching them mind-body skills to regain control of their thoughts. Her research shows behavioral medicine interventions reduced more expensive medical treatments for arthritis by 40 percent.
A research team led by Mass General’s Dr. Lazar and Bruce Fischl, PhD, found that meditation is also associated with increased cortical thickness. Our data indicate that regular practice of meditation is associated with increased thickness in a subset of cortical regions related to the processing of sensory information, as well as the processing of visual and auditory information and the perception of sensations within the body. The results also suggested that regular meditation practice may slow age-related thinning of the frontal cortex.
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