Many people report positive health effects of practicing yoga and meditation and feel that it promotes their mental and physical health. But we still have a lot to learn about exactly how these methods affect the health of the mind and body.
A new research article, published in August 2017, investigated the effects of meditation and yoga on humans by observing physiological and immunological markers for stress and inflammation. The researchers studied the participants during an intensive three-month retreat. They found that the exercises had a positive impact on the physiological and immunological markers of stress and inflammation. They also improved subjective well-being.
The following article, published by Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, examines the effects of meditation and yoga on the so-called “brain-derived neurotrophic factor”, effects on the hypothalamus, pituitary and adrenal cortex (HPA axis), and inflammatory markers..
This time, the researchers studied the participants of an intensive 3-month yoga and meditation retreat. They found that these exercise methods had a positive effect on BDNF signals, a positive effect on the cortisol awakening response (CAR), and on immunological markers.
Participants reported a decrease in anxiety and depression, as well as an increase in conscious presence and attention. The research team saw increases in the levels of BDNF in the blood plasma. This is a neuromodulator that plays an important role in learning, memory and regulation of complex processes such as inflammation, immunity, mood regulation, response to stress and metabolism.
They also observed improvements in the cortisol awakening response (CAR), which is part of the stress axis; hypothalamus, pituitary gland and adrenal cortex (HPA). This indicates better resistance to stress.
Meditation alters brain structure and gene expression
A 2011 study conducted by researchers at the Massachusetts General Hospital in the United States, published in the journal Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging, revealed that meditation, and especially mindfulness, can bring about measurable changes in brain regions associated with memory, self-esteem, empathy, and stress. This study first documented the changes that meditation over a certain period of time brought about in the gray brain substance in the brain.
Analysis of the MRI images showed a higher density of gray tissue in the hippocampus. This is important for learning and memory. They found it in structures that are associated with self-awareness and introspection as well. The reductions in stress also correlated with the decrease in density of gray matter in the amygdala. This is known to play an important role in anxiety and stress.
Another study conducted in 2013 by researchers from Wisconsin, Spain and France was published in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology. It reported on specific molecular changes that occurred in the body after a period of conscious meditation.
The study examined the effects of meditation during a full day of practicing intense mindfulness on a group of experienced meditation practitioners. They compared this to a control group of untrained people who participated in quiet but non-meditative activities.
After eight hours of mindfulness practice, the meditation practitioners showed a range of genetic and molecular differences. This included altered levels of gene regulatory mechanisms and reduced levels of pro-inflammatory genes. This is associated with faster physical recovery in a stressful situation. These are the same goals that manufacturers of anti-inflammatory and analgesic drugs try to achieve with drugs.
Compensation for DNA reactions that cause stress
A recent study, from June 2017, conducted by the University of Coventry in the UK, found that mind-body interventions, such as meditation, yoga and tai chi, do not just relax us. They can “reverse” or compensate for certain parts of our DNA that may be risk factors.
The research, published in the journal Frontiers in Immunology, reviews more than a decade of studies. These studies analyze how different mind-body interventions affect how our genes behave. The 18 studies had 846 participants over 11 years.
When examined together, they show a pattern in the molecular changes that occur in the body as a result of mind-body interventions. They also show that these changes favor the patient’s mental and physical health.
The researchers focused on how gene expression is affected. That is, they focus on how genes are activated to produce proteins that affect the biological composition of the body, brain and immune system.
Millions of people around the world are already enjoying the health benefits of mind-body interventions, such as yoga or meditation. But these benefits start at the molecular level and can change the shape of our genetic code. The researchers called this a “molecular signature”, which reverses the effects of stress or anxiety on the body.
Meditation relieves pain
Pain relief is another reason why there exists research on meditation. A study published in June 2017 by the University of Leeds Beckett in the UK found that meditation could be a cheaper alternative to traditional painkillers.
According to the study, ten minutes of mindfulness could suffice, and this could be used as an alternative to painkillers. The results suggest that a single ten-minute mindfulness session can improve pain tolerance, pain limits, and reduce pain-related anxiety.
Other previous studies had investigated the possibility of relieving pain without opioids through meditation. That was the case with a US study from March 2016. It was conducted by Wake Forest Baptist Health and published in the Journal of Neuroscience. According to this study , pain decreased after a short period of meditation training.
These results are particularly important for those who have developed a tolerance to opiate-based drugs. These people are looking for a non-addictive way to reduce pain. Meditation can be used with other traditional therapies or medications to relieve pain without side effects.
A previous study from 2015, conducted by the same center, showed that conscious meditation reduces pain better than a placebo. The study used two approaches to verify the results. They used pain results and brain imaging to determine if mindfulness is a placebo or has real effect.
This study showed that participants who practiced mindfulness reported greater pain relief than the control group who had received placebo. Brain scans showed that their brain activity was different from those taking placebo.
Here we talked only about some of the studies that dealt with the effects of meditation. Without a doubt, there is interest in seeing benefits that go beyond myths, beliefs and the placebo effect.
We don’t have to prove that if you want to verify if this works, you have to try it yourself. You should have an open mind and a non-judgmental mind. There are no side effects, and once you do, you will see the effects of meditation in your own life.