Meditation as Medicine: The Science Behind the Ancient Practice

Mounting research indicates that as many as 40 percent of dementia cases may be prevented with lifestyle modifications. In addition to maintaining a healthy diet and exercising regularly, meditation has become another line of defense for cognitive health. Some research has found that meditation can even change your genetic health for the better, helping to alter gene expression in Alzheimer’s pathology to fight inflammation.


Dr. Mao Shing Ni, an acclaimed acupuncture expert, whose family line has been practicing Traditional Chinese Medicine for 38 generations, recommends incorporating a meditation practice to improve your mental health and reduce stress. “Stress creates an increase in cortisol and also lowers neurochemicals like serotonin and dopamine, which we actually want to increase,” he said.


Cortisol is the body’s main stress hormone that works in conjunction with other parts of the brain to control one’s response to stress or danger, regulate blood pressure, and reduce inflammation. Too much cortisol, however, can disrupt sleep, promote depression and anxiety, increase blood pressure, and contribute to fatigue and cloudy thinking.


But what exactly happens to the brain while meditating? Using brain scans, Harvard researchers discovered that 50-year-olds who meditated consistently for seven to nine years had not only more gray matter in parts of their brain, but the same amount in their frontal cortexes—the part of the brain that’s responsible for memory and decision-making—as adults half their age.


Harvard neuroscientist Sara Lazar, who spearheaded this study, also found that first time meditators who participated in an eight-week mindfulness course for thirty minutes a day had increased thickness in their hippocampus, the part of our brain that’s responsible for learning memory and emotional regulation, as well as the brain’s ‘pons,’ where neurotransmitters are generated.


“There’s a phrase in neuroscience: ‘neurons that fire together wire together,’ and this is the job of the hippocampus,” Lazar explained. “As you’re meditating, it’s sort of like physical exercise. Just like the more you work out your arm muscles, the more you work a brain area, the bigger it’s going to get, the more complex the connections are going to become, and it’s going to get bigger.”


Lazar recently recruited healthy people between 65 and 80 years old to find out whether older people can benefit from meditation, similar to how younger people do. She is also recruiting people with Mild Cognitive Impairment or early-stage Alzheimer's to find out if meditation can help prevent cognitive decline.


Even as we wait for those results to be released, it's clear that meditation can provide real benefits to one’s cognitive health. Just like physical exercise, the more you practice, the more you’re going to benefit. That said, Lazar said you don’t need to meditate for 30 minutes a day to see results. “There have been studies showing that even a week or two of practice causes changes in brain structure and function,” she explained. “In certain terms of behavioral metrics, like symptom reduction, we definitely know that even five or 10 minutes a day can be really powerful.”


Mao believes using a holistic approach, both in philosophy and medicine, is most effective when combatting neurodegenerative diseases: “A smart approach to longevity includes balancing all aspects of one’s health: food, necessary medication(s), exercise, and emotional well-being,” he explained.


He is confident that we each hold the key to our own longevity and advocates “taking care of your mind and body now to avoid spending extra time and money at the doctor’s office later.” With that in mind, here is a stress release meditation he recommends:


Sit comfortably or lie down on your back. Slow your respiration to deep, abdominal breathing. Utter the word “calm” in your mind with every exhalation. Focus on relaxing each area of your body in sequence, from the top of your head to the tips of your toes. Starting with the top of your head, inhale and then exhale while visualizing your scalp muscles relaxing. Say “calm” in your mind. Repeat this with each body part as you move down through all body parts, front, back, and sides, in succession: your face, throat, chest, arms, stomach, abdomen, thighs, knees, legs, ankles, until finally you reach your feet. When you’ve relaxed your feet, visualize all the tension in your body leaving through your toes as dark smoke. Practice this for at least 15 minutes before bedtime.


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