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Scientific Benefits Of Meditation (List)

You’ve probably been told that in order to achieve happiness, you need to look inwards and meditate. While introspection (internal awareness) and meditation aren’t requirements to feel happy or live a great life, practicing meditation can lead to significant improvements in mental health (brain functioning) and physical health for certain individuals. Therefore it is recommended to (at the very least) consider taking up a consistent meditation practice if you are looking to improve measures of health.

Although science has not accurately deconstructed every meditation technique and its effects, many studies have found that practicing meditation is generally good for your overall health and may even reduce your risk of mortality. That said, it is important to avoid clumping all meditative practices together in regards to suggested “benefits.” It is known that different types of meditation affect the brain in specific ways.

For example, Loving-Kindness meditation tends to yield increased activity in the left prefrontal cortex and boost gamma waves. Transcendental meditation on the other hand tends to boost alpha waves in the prefrontal cortex. Avoid the misnomer that “Meditation A” will have the exact same benefits as “Meditation B” – keeping in mind that there may be some overlap.

Just like performing two different types of exercise at the gym – both may increase certain measures of health, but lead to different physical adaptations. This is the same for meditation: two types of meditation techniques may both lead to greater relaxation, well-being, or reductions in pain, but the specific neurological footprints may differ.

Preliminary Meditation Research

Meditation has been studied with scientific interest for potential benefits since the early 1950s. Many studies have lead scientists to make vague conclusions such as: meditation may be beneficial, but effects may be overstated. Fortunately the times have changed and more legitimate science is starting to shed light on the true effects of meditation.

To get a better idea of how meditation changes the brain, researchers have utilized equipment such as: EEG (electroencephalographs) to measure brain waves, fMRIs (magnetic resonance imaging) to measure brain activity and regional thickness, as well as PET (positron emission tomography) scanning which uses a radioactive tracer to understand brain function.

Scientific Benefits of Meditation (List)

Below is a list of general benefits of meditation. Understand that certain benefits may be correlated with a specific subtype(s) of meditation rather than any type of meditation. This is a collective list of documented scientific benefits.

ADHD: It has long been established that certain types of meditation (e.g. Mindfulness) can enhance activity in the prefrontal cortex. While the prefrontal cortex may not be solely responsible for ADHD, it is thought to play a big part in inattentiveness and impulsivity. Consistently practicing Mindfulness or Focused-Attention meditation may improve both neurocognitive and behavioral problems associated with ADHD. Some consider meditation to be one of the best Adderall alternatives.

  • Source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24305060
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Addiction: Those dealing with addictions often struggle to reduce cravings, cope with withdrawal symptoms, and reduce stress. There is some evidence that certain types of meditation can help with various aspects of addiction. Qigong meditation has been shown to be a highly effective adjunct strategy for drug addicts (particularly females).
Additionally using Mindfulness meditation has also shown significant preliminary promise. In the article how to overcome any addiction, I reference meditation as an essential tool.  I personally think that meditation can play a key role in overcoming any addiction and enhancing the process of self-directed neuroplasticity.

  • Source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20649456
  • Source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2818765/

Anxiety: A study with 93 individuals (2013) demonstrated that Mindfulness meditation for an 8-week period resulted in significant reductions in symptoms of generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) as well as stress reactivity. The reduction in anxiety is believed to be a result of meditation’s ability to increase activation in the anterior cingulate cortex, ventromedial prefrontal cortex, and anterior insula. Transcendental meditation studies (1,295 participants) demonstrated significant improvement in trait-anxiety greater than standard treatments.  Some actually have found that meditation works as a natural cure for anxiety when practiced consistently over the long-term.

  • Source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23541163
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Blood pressure: Studies of meditation as a potential therapeutic treatment for hypertension (high blood pressure) have been inconclusive. At the very least, several have found noticeable (but not scientifically significant) benefit of incorporating meditation as an adjunct treatment tool. While as a standalone treatment meditation cannot yet be recommended, it does appear to be a helpful adjunct strategy.

Regular Transcendental Meditation (TM) has been suggested to possibly reduce systolic blood pressure by 4.7 mm Hg and diastolic blood pressure by 3.2 mm Hg. Other meditative practices such as Zen may also reduce hypertension. Even in middle-school aged non-hypertensive youth, a meditation program is likely to improve measures of blood pressure.

  • Source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18311126
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Brain matter: It appears as though meditation can have profound effects on functioning of both white and gray matter of the brain. Not only does the practice tend to increase the efficiency of white matter functioning, but it prevents the atrophy of gray matter that tends to occur during aging.

  • Gray matter: In a group of 100 individuals, it was discovered that there was greater age-related gray matter atrophy in non-meditators than those who practiced meditation. The researchers suggest that meditation may be an effective intervention to prevent atrophy of gray matter associated with aging. The practice of Loving-Kindness Meditation (Metta) has been associated with increased gray matter volume in certain regions. Mindfulness meditation has also been associated with an increase in the concentration of brain stem gray matter.
    • Source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25653628
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  • White matter: Meditation is associated with changes in the efficiency of white matter. By meditating, you are making your white matter more efficient. Although the exact mechanisms by which it becomes more efficient are unknown, researchers believe it may be a result of increased frontal slow-wave activity. They suggest that the slowing of brain waves elicits a domino-effect that enhances regional connectivity and increases myelin. Even short-term meditation (e.g. 3 total hours) can improve the functioning of your white matter.
    • Source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25386155
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Brain activity: There are significant changes in brain activity as a result of long-term meditation. These changes are thought to be dependent on the specific type of meditation that is practiced. Over time, certain connections and regions are strengthened in the brain by the meditative practice, and other regions may become less active. Long-term meditation also is capable of altering electrical activity in the brain (i.e. changes the brain waves).

  • Brain waves: A majority of meditators experience an increase in slow waves (i.e. alpha waves). The specific EEG pattern that is observed as a result of a meditative practice tends to be unique based on the specific modality of meditation pursued. Certain types tend to elicit more gamma waves, while others tend to promote stronger alpha activity. There are likely some commonalities in EEG activity among meditative techniques, but the specific footprints may be unique to the practice.
  • Regional blood flow: There are noticeable changes in blood flow during the meditative state as well as following long-term practice. Essentially the specific type of meditation determines which regions get more blood flow. An increase in regional blood flow to certain areas such as the prefrontal cortex is likely beneficial for improving executive functions such as: attention, learning, and self-control.
    • Source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1697747/
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Cognitive function: In a 2012 study comparing those practicing Vihangam yoga meditation with those who didn’t meditate, it was found that the Vihangam yogis ended up performing better in all cognitive tests (except a “digit backward test” in which they still performed better but it wasn’t significant). This is another form of concentrative meditation and the results suggest that cognitive performance is enhanced by the practice.

Researchers also believe that meditation may help those experiencing cancer-induced cognitive dysfunction. Additionally Trataka yoga meditation has been shown to improve cognitive function in the elderly. While evidence may not be conclusive that meditation improves cognitive function in the young, it clearly is a cognitive enhancer among adults.

  • Source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22149237
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Cortical thickness: A study comparing 46 adept meditators with 46 non-meditator volunteers demonstrated differences in thickness of various brain regions. An fMRI demonstrated that the meditation group had significantly greater: cortical thickness in the anterior regions of the brain (notably the frontal and temporal areas). Examples include: thicker medial prefrontal cortex, superior frontal cortex, temporal pole, interior temporal cortex, and the middle temporal cortex.

  • Source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25407688

Chronic pain: Practicing Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) has been shown to significantly improve a person’s ability to manage chronic pain. While it may not reduce the actual pain that is experienced, it improves a person’s ability to cope. A study published in 1985 with 90 chronic pain patients demonstrated that practicing Mindfulness meditation for a 10-week period resulted in improvements in: present-moment pain, negative body image, inhibition of activity by pain, symptoms, mood disturbances, anxiety, and depression. There is also evidence that practicing Vipassana meditation helps those suffering from chronic lower-back pain (CLBP).

  • Source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25376753
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Creativity: There appears to be a link between Open Monitoring (OM) meditation and divergent thinking. Focused attention (FA) meditation resulted in increases in convergent thinking (logic), which is not associated with creativity. Researchers speculate that creativity may improve as a result of various forms of Open Monitoring meditation (e.g. Mindfulness). While all types of meditation may not directly improve creativity, many are associated with mood improvements, a factor which is associated with increased creativity.

  • Source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3328799/

Decision-making: Researchers have been able to determine that Mindfulness meditation likely improves our ability to predict rewards. They believe that the improvements are due to the fact that in meditation alters neural processing. Specifically activity in the putamen and posterior insula are noticeably different, which leads to differences in interoceptive processes.

Researchers speculate that those adept in the practice of Mindfulness meditation are able to attenuate reward prediction signals to positive or negative emotional stimuli. Another study found that those practicing body-scan mindfulness have “reduced tactile misperception” as a result of interoceptive attention.

Finally in a study involving the “Ultimatum Game,” which tests responses to unfairness, meditators activated a different brain network than a control group. The meditators were able to act without being influenced by negative emotional reactions. Researchers believe that those practicing mindfulness meditation may end up making better decisions.

  • Source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4325661/
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Depression: Those suffering from an anxiety-induced form of depression will likely find benefit from meditation due to its efficacy in reducing anxiety. While meditation may not significantly improve depressive symptoms as a standalone treatment, there is significant scientific evidence supporting the usage of Mindfulness as an adjunct treatment for depression.

Secular practices of MBSR (Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction) as well as MBCT (Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy) have a broad-spectrum of antidepressant effects and tend to decrease measures of psychological stress. At the very least, Mindfulness meditation appears to be equally as effective as physical exercise as an antidepressant.

Interestingly enough, a Buddhist form of walking meditation (often called “Kinhin”) was found to be an effective antidepressant in an elderly population (ages 60 to 90) suffering from depression. The improvements were greater in the walking meditation group than just a standardized walking program.  In some cases, mindfulness works as a natural cure for depression when practiced over an extended period.

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Eating disorders: Meditation-based interventions have long shown promise in the lives of those with binge eating disorders. Nearly all studies incorporating mindfulness-based eating awareness training (MB-EAT) have discovered significant benefits of the practice. Training in mindfulness meditation and “guided mindfulness” were able to improve: emotional states, food choices, awareness of hunger vs. fullness, and self-acceptance. Binge eaters practicing mindfulness tend to binge eat significantly less than those who don’t.

  • Source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22021603
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Empathy: There is significant evidence that frequently practicing “compassion” or LKM (Loving-Kindness Meditation) can increase empathy. It does this by increasing and strengthening activity in brain regions responsible for empathic responses. This specific type of meditation increases activity in the inferior frontal gyrus (IFG) and dorsomedial prefrontal cortex (dmPFC). Some researchers have gone as far as to speculate that LKM may increase oxytocin levels and decrease regional inflammation. There is even evidence that “brief” sessions of Mindfulness meditation can increase a person’s “empathic concern.”

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Fatigue: Meditation has been found to be an effective treatment for cancer-related fatigue (CRF). Patients with cancer tend to have persistent and disabling symptoms that they have a difficult time coping with. Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) has shown promise in reducing the CRF as well as related symptoms. Other studies assessing the efficacy of meditation on fatigue in those receiving radiation treatment for breast cancer also note improvements in energy levels as well as quality of life.

Furthermore, fatigue stemming from a stroke or traumatic brain injury (TBI) makes it difficult to function. Researchers tested a Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) protocol and noted that it improved measures of mental fatigue. It has also been discovered that while meditation may not significantly improve energy levels in those with chronic fatigue, a Mindfulness intervention does improve a person’s ability to cope with the condition.

Therefore if you are suffering from CFS (chronic fatigue syndrome), incorporating a Mindfulness approach may be helpful.

  • Source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25132206
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Fibromyalgia: Researchers have attempted to assess outcomes of a Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) protocol for the treatment of fibromyalgia. Fibromyalgia is a condition characterized by chronic pain and psychological symptoms. It was found that individuals who practiced MBSR reduced depressive symptoms in those with fibromyalgia.

Another evaluation determined that MBSR reduced the occurrence of major symptoms of fibromyalgia as well as subjective burden associated with the illness. This has lead scientists to conclude that a Mindfulness approach may be an effective adjunct therapy for those with this condition.

A third study demonstrated that interventions involving Qigong, Tai Chi, and Yoga were able to improve: pain levels, sleep quality, fatigue, depression, and quality of life among those with fibromyalgia compared to a control group. When each of these three practices were compared, it was found that Yoga produced the most benefit for pain, fatigue, and depression.

A small-scale study also found that yoga and meditation therapy improved symptoms of stiffness, anxiety and depression among fibromyalgia sufferers. Additionally those that underwent meditation and/or yoga therapy reported more “good days” than bad and missed work less due to their illness.

While these studies may not have had large sample sizes, they demonstrate the fact that a meditation or yoga practice can (at the very least) improve measures of certain symptoms. Meditation is likely not an effective standalone treatment, but it certainly can be used as an adjunct option without adverse reactions.

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Heart health: Just 15 days of practicing Pranayama meditation was found to improve cardiovascular functions – regardless of the person’s age, gender, or BMI. Pranayama meditation has also been found to reduce resting pulse rate, systolic blood pressure, diastolic blood pressure, and mean arterial blood pressure. Other studies have also discovered that Pranayama meditation is capable of improving overall pulmonary function.

Specific measures that improved included: PEF (Peak Expiratory Flow), FEF (Forced Expiratory Flow), as well as MVV (maximal voluntary ventilation). Many researchers believe that heart coherence is a notable biomarker associated with a meditative state. It is correlated with alpha waves and may increase heart-brain synchronization; which may further improve heart health.

  • Source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3221193/
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Immune system: In an 8-week mindfulness meditation training program, it was discovered that among healthy employees, those that meditated experienced improvements in both brain and immune function. It is believed that mindfulness influences the brain in a way that yields a favorable immune response from the body.

In a different study, those who practice transcendental meditation (TM) were found to have altered plasma levels of catecholamines and pituitary hormones compared to a control, which may account for better immune function. Researchers believe that practicing TM results in alterations in the levels of circulating lymphocytes. They speculate that this is due to TM’s effect on the neuroendocrine axis.

There is also a study that linked meditation to both positive psychological change and alterations in telomerase activity. Meditation increased a person’s feeling of “control” and also decreased negative emotions – both of which were thought to impact both telomere length and longevity of immune cells. Chronic psychological stress can have detrimental effects on telomerase activity and meditation practices are capable of mitigating stress.

Other studies investigating the effects of meditation on immune system disorders have found significant benefit. As an example, researchers took patients suffering from dermatomyositis and had them practice meditation with imagery. They found that the meditation practice had a direct, favorable influence on immune system function. Another study went as far as to suggest that yoga and meditation may help regulate levels of cytokines to improve immunity.

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Inflammation: A study demonstrated that those practicing meditation for a short-term or a long-term resulted in different temporal gene expression compared to novices. The relaxation-response associated with the meditative practice was able to reduce expression of genes responsible for producing inflammatory responses in stress-related pathways. Therefore the ability of meditation to enhance a physiological relaxation response is likely to reduce inflammation. Similar findings have been reported in studies involving yoga.

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Intelligence (IQ): Researchers have determined that there are relationships between age and fluid intelligence. Fluid intelligence is our ability to think with logic and solve problems in new situations regardless of our current knowledge. It helps us understand patterns and relationships and use logic to make sense of the findings.

Practicing mindfulness has been positively correlated with fluid intelligence. Researchers believe that mindfulness aids in the prevention of age-related fluid intelligence decline. Other studies have found that practicing meditation for at least one month can significantly increase IQ (intelligence quotient) and other aspects of cognition.

Another practice called “Saral Meditation” has been shown to improve development of intelligence as well as academic performance. Not only did it increase intellectual development, but it boosted levels of confidence and reduced anxiety. Researchers speculated that it may be a result of increased psychomotor abilities as a result of the meditation.

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Insomnia: There is significant evidence suggesting that insomnia is influenced by increased levels of arousal (both mental and physical). Practicing meditation or yoga is associated with reductions in both psychological as well as physical arousal. Many studies have significant evidence suggesting that consistently practicing meditation will reduce arousal and thus improve sleep time and quality among those with insomnia.

Studies involving Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) found that it could be a viable treatment for adults with chronic insomnia. Other studies have noted significant improvements in sleep quality among those with insomnia when MBSR is combined with CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy). Furthermore, there appears to be a connection between the number of times a person meditates and their level of arousal.

Measures of: total sleep time, sleep onset latency, and sleep efficiency all improved significantly after an MBSR intervention. Other research has noted that those with insomnia tend to be “less mindful” than those who have healthy sleep patterns. Women suffering from postmenopausal insomnia have also been suggested to benefit from MBSR interventions.

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Memory: Research suggests that meditation is capable of preventing stress-related working memory impairments. Another study found that Mindfulness training is capable of improving GRE test scores in the areas of reading-comprehension and “working memory capacity.” These benefits were attained with just 2-weeks of adherence to a Mindfulness training course. It likely improves working-memory by reducing distractibility.

Even those who briefly practice mindfulness meditation tend to experience significant improvement in working memory. A different study found that young adults who had never practiced meditation before experienced significant improvements in memory scores. Meditation appears to improve memory without taking away the beneficial effects of stress.

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Neurodegeneration: As was already mentioned, there is less age-related gray matter atrophy among long-term meditators than those who don’t meditate. Meditation may be an effective preventative option for reducing the likelihood of neurodegenerative diseases like dementia. Some researchers (i.e. Newberg) believe that meditation techniques among those with neurodegenerative diseases can improve memory and attention.

It has also been suggested that meditation may reduce the likelihood of hippocampal atrophy as well as improve connectivity in regions of the brain most affected by dementia. Researchers conclude that meditation could aid in the mitigation of cognitive decline in elderly. In addition to potential prevention of neurodegeneration, meditation techniques may improve mental capacities among those with neurodegenerative diseases.

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Perception: It appears as though practicing meditation has an impact on your perception. The practice of Zen meditation leads to a perception of “inner energy” or “inner light.” Researchers pinpointed feelings of this “inner light” to alpha blocking on an EEG. Whether the perception of inner energy is of scientific benefit is subject to debate.

Another study found that those who practice mindfulness undergo internal changes in time perception. Researchers believe that due to the increase in attentional capacity and moment-to-moment awareness, time may seem to pass more slowly among meditators than non-meditators. This could be interpreted as a benefit for those who aren’t able to sustain momentary focus and as if time passes too quickly to get things done.

  • Source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23778017
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Personality traits: There is evidence that meditation has potential to change various aspects of your personality – likely for the better. Those who practice Mindfulness tend to develop a healthier, more coherence sense of self or identity. Researchers suggest that they accept a greater sense of responsibility, are more likely to maintain authenticity, compassion, and accept themselves.

Frequent mindfulness meditation is associated with increases in personality traits of openness and extroversion. Researchers believed that neuroticism as well as conscientiousness experienced a decrease. They believe that practicing mindfulness meditation also results in greater curiosity and openness to new experiences. Those undergoing mindfulness training may worry less about achievements and negative emotions.

Among those practicing Transcendental Meditation (TM), it was found that a 6-month period of meditation resulted in significantly less neuroticism. The frequency of meditation appeared to be directly related to the degree to which the person was neurotic. More research on Mindfulness meditation utilized the 5-Factor Model of Personality and the Temperament and Character Inventory to assess changes associated with meditation.

Results indicated that this type of meditation resulted in healthier personality profiles. There also appears to be beneficial effects of a Mindfulness-Oriented Meditation (MOM) on the personality of those who are alcohol-dependent. Character scores improved significantly after 8-weeks of Mindfulness Meditation and reduced risk of relapse.

There is also evidence that Zen meditation is capable of changing personality measures based on the Temperament and Character Inventory. Researchers believe that it is a result of brain wave changes such as in both alpha waves and theta waves – specifically in the frontal areas of the brain. The slower brain waves as a result of meditation is associated with better internal attention and novelty seeking. The changes in brain waves may also result in alterations in neurotransmission of dopamine and serotonin.

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Sleep: Practicing cyclic meditation (CM) twice per day noticeably improved both objective and subjective measures of sleep quality. Researchers were able to track the sleep quality of participants by hooking up electrodes to various sites on the brain. The percentage of slow-wave sleep was significantly increased in the meditation group than the control group. The controls had a greater number of awakenings per hour as well as REM (rapid-eye-movement) sleep.

There is also evidence that meditation can help boost mental performance following periods of sleep deprivation. Although even short-term meditators experienced slower baseline reaction times following periods of sleep deprivation, they were significantly quicker than a control group. The research demonstrated that even novice meditators could reap the benefits of improved mental functioning following periods of sleep deficiency.

In long-term meditators, several hours spent in a meditative state actually decrease need for sleep. Some could argue that the brain is refreshed or rejuvenated in similar ways to sleep following a long-term meditative practice. Mindfulness training may also improve sleep problems in older adults, reducing sleep-deprivation related impairment. Additionally as was already mentioned, meditation shows clear promise for treating insomnia.

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Social isolation / Loneliness: There are significant health risks associated with both social isolation and feelings of loneliness. Lonely adults tend to elicit an increase in inflammatory gene expression, which increases risk of mortality. A study testing an 8-week MBSR (Mindfulness) protocol found that it was able to reduce loneliness as well as inflammation in a group of 40 older adults.

There may be a direct connection between feelings of loneliness and inflammation, as well as inflammation-driven health concerns. Other studies involving LKM (Loving-Kindness Meditation) practices found that it is possible to generate feelings of social connectedness. Just a few minutes of LKM is capable of increasing feelings of social connection and positivity toward novel individuals. Researchers concluded that practicing LKM is likely to increase positive social emotions and reduce social isolation.

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Stress: Practicing meditation is thought to elicit a moderate effect of stress reduction. A meta-analysis of Mindfulness meditation demonstrated that anxiety scores were “moderately” improved. Other research has shown that greater mindfulness resulted in less stress; there appeared to be a direct relationship based on the number of meditation sessions per week.

Although meditation may not eliminate all stress, it should be considered as a treatment option for reducing detrimental health effects of psychological stressors. In addition to mindfulness training, Transcendental Meditation (TM) programs have shown success in reducing psychological stress among teachers and staff working at a school geared towards students with behavioral problems.

In addition to reducing work-related stress, meditation programs (MBSR) have been shown to improve stress reactivity and ability to cope in laboratory-designed stress challenges. Those dealing with significant chronic stress may find that meditation reduces sympathetic nervous system activity, decreases cortisol, and improves performance and ability to cope with stressful scenarios.

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  • Source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24501780

Well-being: Meditation is associated with a variety of health benefits, all of which may contribute to an individual’s overall subjective and objective “well-being.” Mindfulness training is reported as being effective in the management of stress as well as low mood – which results in improvements in well-being. Loving-Kindness meditators may experience changes in metabolism of nitric oxide as well as transmission of oxytocin – which may account for increases in well-being.

A study analyzing Vipassana meditation suggested that those who practiced Vipassana show “significantly increased well-being and decreased ill-being.” This may be related to changes in parasympathetic functioning, attentional capacities, and heart-rate variability among meditators. Researchers concluded that practicing mindfulness is associated with nearly “all measures of well-being” and lower perceived stress.

  • Source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23377964
  • Source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25457445
  • Source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23797150
  • Source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21711203

Problems with existing meditation research

Below is a list of various problems associated with scientific research of meditation. Problems include things like: difficulty comparing techniques, determining specific neurological or physiological measures, grouping all meditations together (overgeneralization), poor methodological designs, and small sample sizes.

Comparison data: Some researchers (e.g. Fred Travis) have attempted to gather data and make accurate comparisons, but he admits that the data may not be perfect. Hopefully in coming years scientists will focus more effort on coming up with an exact set of neurological measures and directly comparing different subtypes of meditative practices including: concentration (focused-attention), open monitoring (e.g. mindfulness), and effortless transcending (e.g. mantra). Additionally, a direct comparison study in which meditators practice a technique for the same time span (e.g. 3 years) and duration of session (e.g. 20 minutes) would be highly beneficial.

Neurological measures: Most scientists have studied meditation to detect both physiological and neurological changes that are induced by chronic or long-term meditation. Since scientists haven’t agreed on an exact set of neurological measures when studying meditation, we haven’t been able to make an accurate side-by-side comparison of different techniques. Additionally most research involving meditation focuses on one particular measure such as: regional activity, blood flow, brain waves, etc. – rather than collecting all measures.

Overgeneralization: Many studies involving meditation have lumped all practices of meditation together when compared to a placebo or drug. The problem with lumping all meditative practices together is that a certain practice (e.g. Mindfulness) may be effective for a certain measure (e.g. stress reduction), but another (e.g. Vajrayana) may not.

Therefore instead of getting a mix of various techniques, classifying them all under the group “meditation” and comparing them to a placebo – it would be advised to pick one specific type of meditation practice. Lumping them all together minimizes the validity of the study.

Poor quality: It is impossible to conclude whether meditation has minimal benefit, no benefit, or significant benefit until studies are better designed. Some have suggested that in a majority of meditation studies, the validity is highly questionable. Of hundreds of clinical studies assessing meditation, it is estimated that less than 50 are thought to be of reasonable quality.

Under 5% of all studies had randomized clinical trials (a strikingly low figure), which makes it difficult to draw any conclusions from the research other than better studies need to be designed. To suggest that meditation is ineffective against a placebo is nearly impossible due to the fact that most studies were poorly designed.

Small sample sizes: Many studies incorporating meditation tend to have extremely small sample sizes. This means that any evidence in support (or against) meditation may not be accurate. Therefore scientists need to expand upon small-scale studies that have observed a particular effect and utilize a larger sample to confirm (or reject) any suggested benefits.

  • Source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19123875
  • Source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17764203

Which type of meditation is associated with the most benefits?

It is important to note that not all science supports the usage of “every” meditative practice for improving certain measures of health. Therefore it is important to be meticulous in your selection of the type of meditative practice that you incorporate into your routine. If you have a particular goal in mind such as: reduce blood pressure, reduce anxiety, OR increase divergent thinking ability – I would recommend looking up NCBI studies to determine which meditative practice is most likely to provide benefit.

Let’s say your goal is to increase empathy… In this case, you’d probably be best off practicing either LKM (Loving-Kindness Meditation) or a Mindfulness meditation as these are scientifically supported for that purpose. Certain meditative practices like TM have organizations behind them making claims to promote the practice that aren’t fully supported by science. While TM clearly has specific benefits, many of the claims made by TM practitioners aren’t well-established and should be received with a healthy degree of skepticism.

I’d say the best bet for someone starting out who wants to maximize general health benefits would be to practice a Mindfulness type of meditation (e.g. MBSR). Mindfulness approaches have been the most studied and are supported by the most science. That isn’t to say that other approaches aren’t effective, it’s just to point out that there isn’t as much science supporting them.

Have you noticed any health benefits from meditation?

If you’ve been practicing meditation, feel free to share any noticeable improvements that you’ve experienced in terms of: cognitive function (i.e. attention, learning, memory), emotional regulation (i.e. mood), stress response (i.e. anxiety), and overall physical health (e.g. blood pressure). Be sure to discuss the type of meditation or yogic practice you’ve been using, how long you practice each day, and how long you’ve been in practice. By sharing these details, you’ll help others get an accurate understanding of your situation.

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