The research on the effects of mindfulness has grown exponentially in recent decades. The initial studies generally explored how well mindfulness worked as a practice or therapy. With the scientific findings overwhelmingly confirming that mindfulness does have measurable mental and physical benefits, newer studies are focusing more on finding out what factors make the practice more or less effective.
For example, patient-related or therapist-related factors could potentially influence the outcome of mindfulness-based interventions, like the length and frequency of practice or whether the practice is more effective outdoors or in a quiet room, or if delivered digitally. In 2021, a systemic review of the research on mindfulness (in this case meditation), concluded, in general, that:
Meditation practices can be developed by healthy individuals or individuals who have different health conditions, from chronic diseases to different mental health disorders, with positive and potentially positive effects on various low-risk health outcomes. The practice of meditation can be a safe and effective strategy for implementing programs in the field of collective health. The possibility of applying it in groups facilitates access and reduces costs in relation to drug interventions, for example in mild cases of depression and anxiety, being a potential resource to avoid chronicity and the negative impact of stress on health.”
Research is showing that mindfulness-based interventions can have significant positive benefits on mental health and health, in general. Practicing mindfulness literally changes your brain and body. The following information is a representation of what the research says, so far.
Decreased risk of heart disease
What’s good for the mind and brain is also good for your heart. Practicing meditation may reduce the risk of heart disease, according to a scientific statement published in the Journal of the American Heart Association. Experts reviewed dozens of studies published over the past decades and found that meditation contributes to improving a host of factors linked to heart disease — making it worthwhile to include in a program for ongoing heart care.
During past decades, many studies have demonstrated the beneficial effects of meditation on various cardiovascular risk factors. Meditation decreases heart disease mortality because it has been shown to improve contributing conditions such as hypertension, type 2 diabetes mellitus, dyslipidemia, and high cortisol levels.
Lower blood pressure
Several high-quality studies show that meditation can modestly lower blood pressure. According to an American Heart Association official scientific statement in 2022:
- Adults with elevated blood pressure who participated in a mindfulness behavior program for eight weeks had significantly lower blood pressure levels and greatly reduced sedentary time when evaluated at six months follow-up.
- The mindfulness program was focused on attention control, meditation, self-awareness, and emotion regulation to support healthy changes in diet, physical activity, alcohol consumption, and stress, and they included weekly group sessions as well as individual, daily mindfulness exercises.
- Compared to participants who received enhanced usual care (a home blood pressure monitor, blood pressure educational information, facilitated access to a physician if needed), those in the mindfulness program group were more likely to eat heart-healthy foods and to report lower levels of perceived stress.
- With more research to confirm these results, mindfulness programs aimed at lowering blood pressure may be an effective intervention for people with high blood pressure.”
One analysis looked at results from nine studies and found that, on average, meditation lowered systolic blood pressure (the top number in a reading) by 4.7 mm Hg and diastolic blood pressure (the bottom number) by 1.2 mm Hg. A one-year follow-up study showed that patients continued to experience the positive effects.
A stroke is a cerebrovascular event where the blood supply to part of the brain is reduced or cut off. So, it is closely tied to heart disease and other health conditions. Because mindfulness practices improve many aspects of health, they can also help prevent strokes. Research suggests that meditation can significantly reduce the risk of a stroke. One 2022 study involving a transcendental meditation (TM) program concluded:
“…the TM program, significantly reduced risk for mortality, myocardial infarction, and stroke in coronary heart disease patients. These changes were associated with lower blood pressure and psychosocial stress factors. Therefore, this practice may be clinically useful in the secondary prevention of cardiovascular disease.”
Research has shown that mindfulness is also helpful in stroke recovery too. I know mindfulness and meditation were highly instrumental in my healing from a brain injury, both physically and emotionally.
Boosted mitochondrial function
Mitochondria are specialized parts of cells that perform a variety of functions, but their main job is to produce energy. First, they extract energy from electrolytes. Next, they use that energy to make adenosine triphosphate (ATP), which is the energy currency of cells. Your body uses ATP in a process called cellular respiration.
Mitochondria are important to living a long and healthy life because they produce 90 percent of the ATP in the human body. When ATP levels are not optimal, you can experience low energy and poor cognition because your cells don’t have enough of the fuel they need to function. Mitochondrial fitness supports every system in your body and slows down the aging process.
Some science has shown that mindfulness meditation can boost the function of a person’s mitochondria. This makes sense as studies with mice have shown that acute and chronic stress can decrease mitochondria health and function. One study saw that regular mindfulness practice can turn on genes that support healthy mitochondria.
Altered gene expression
A 2017 Harvard Medical School study showed that after meditating 15 minutes daily for eight weeks, the meditators had changes in 172 genes that control inflammation, sleep-wake rhythms in the body, and how sugar is processed. Those changes, in turn, lowered their blood pressure.
In one study, mindfulness effectively changed the gene profiles of the volunteers. Participants with no regular mindfulness practice learned a 10-20 minute exercise designed to elicit the body’s relaxation response and performed it every day for eight weeks. The exercise included reciting words, breathing exercises, and methods to exclude everyday thoughts.
After eight weeks of performing the technique daily, the volunteers’ gene profiles were analyzed again. Clusters of important beneficial genes had become more active and harmful ones less so. The enhanced expression of beneficial genes was associated with energy metabolism, mitochondrial function, insulin secretion, and telomere maintenance, and reduced expression of genes linked to inflammatory response and stress-related pathways. Clusters of genes that became less active were those governed by a master gene, which triggers chronic inflammation leading to diseases, like high blood pressure, heart disease, inflammatory bowel disease, and some cancers.
Harvard researchers looked at what happens to markers of aging in cells after people begin meditating. The researchers measured telomeres and telomerase. Telomeres are protective protein caps at the end of DNA strands. Telomerase is an enzyme that helps protect and lengthen those protective DNA caps. The more telomerase and the longer the telomere caps, the more times a cell can regenerate — and the longer your life span. As we age the protein caps on our DNA get shorter and have fewer protective enzymes. People in this study who meditated saw their telomeres get longer, while the control group remained the same.
Shorter telomeres have been linked to chronic stress and depression. And the length of these protective protein caps is also related to how well your immune system and cardiovascular systems work. Cells die faster and are more prone to disease with shorter telomeres.
Improved immune system and reduced inflammation
Mindfulness-based interventions have been shown to improve the functioning of the immune system. One study saw that meditation improved the function of the flu vaccine, and another one saw meditation increase T-cell production in males with HIV. Over the past two decades, mind-body interventions like meditation and mindfulness have been gaining empirical support for their ability to turn down inflammation and turn up immune system regulation. This may be beneficial for people with chronic inflammatory conditions where stress is a contributing factor, such as rheumatoid arthritis, inflammatory bowel disease, and asthma.
Could have a positive impact on the gut
One way mindfulness could boost the immune system and reduce inflammation is because it changes the microbiome beneficially. Researchers have found evidence that frequent meditation over several years may alter the human gut — boosting the body’s immune system and reducing the risk of anxiety, depression, and heart disease.
In a small study of Buddhist monks, researchers found deep meditation could help regulate the gut microbiome and lower the risk of physical and mental disease. Researchers wrote:
The microbiota enriched in monks was associated with a reduced risk of anxiety, depression and cardiovascular disease and could enhance immune function. Overall, these results suggest that meditation plays a positive role in psychosomatic conditions and wellbeing. Stool sample analysis revealed significant differences in the diversity and volume of microbes between the monks and their neighbors…. Bacteria enriched in the meditation group at the genus level had a positive effect on human physical and mental health.”
The study was observational and small, all male and living at a high altitude, making it difficult to draw any general conclusions. More research is needed.
While the research about mindfulness is still relatively new and emerging, the results are extremely encouraging. Over recent decades, mindfulness has gone from being an alternative concept associated with incense and granola to becoming a scientifically validated therapeutic mental and physical health tool. Analyzing the practice through rigorous scientific standards has resulted in some promising and robust data showing mindfulness to be an alternative and supplemental treatment for many health conditions.
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