Lets face it, between juggling a professional career, kids, social life and personal needs, it comes as no surprise that many individuals suffer from unmanaged stress, mood disorders such as anxiety and depression, and frequently feel like underachievers. Studies have shown that stress can not only affect one’s mood but can also lead to weight gain, insomnia, body aches, gastrointestinal disorders, acne and other skin disorders, among many other health issues.
Cardiologist Herbert Benson, MD, founder of the Mind/Body Institute at Harvard Medical School’s Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, says meditation and mindfulness can not only treat chronic pain and alleviate symptoms of stress and anxiety, but can also help resolve blood pressure disorders, improve metabolism and heart health, and boost the immune system. In fact, he adds that meditation has also been shown to resolve fertility issues in both women and men. Studies have examined MRI brain scans in those who meditate on a regular basis, and the astounding results revealed that those who practice meditation seem to develop long-term changes within the brain that allow them to have a positive impact on their heart rate, blood pressure and metabolism.
What exactly is meditation?
When I bring up the idea of introducing a daily meditation practice, many of my patients express concerns — as they should. Popular media portray meditation as a practice that is to be conducted while surrounded by shiny crystals, amid the fumes of fragrant incense sticks to clean our souls, as we remain still and silent while trying to fight our thoughts, which appear at lightning speed. Have you ever tried to sit still to meditate and failed because, instead of reciting the universal mantra “aum,” you find yourself too consumed with thoughts of dinner, homework or bills to be paid? Well, you are not alone. To remain still and create a thoughtless brain is to negate the very purpose of our brain — to think! So, what exactly is meditation? It is a far cry from the notion of someone sitting atop a mountain inhaling and exhaling while remaining still and devoid of thoughts, emotions and feelings.
Meditation can be defined as a set of techniques that allow you to streamline your thoughts and induce a state of clarity while having an impact on your neurons, thereby relieving the constant state of stress and anxiety we endure in present times. A study at Harvard Medical School found that meditation increases the thickness of the prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain associated with attention and self-awareness. Furthermore, Jon Kabat-Zinn, head of the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, revealed that meditation and mindfulness can significantly improve pain symptoms and quality of life in chronic pain patients in the long term. Dr. Elizabeth Hoge, a psychiatrist and assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard, found that meditating can even help those with generalized anxiety disorder, a condition defined by hard-to-control moods, worries, poor sleep and irritability.
Health benefits of meditation that go beyond treatment of stress & anxiety
You might wonder whether there might be any additional benefits to meditating beyond relieving stress. Meditation can do wonders for the entire body. Below are five lesser-known health benefits of meditation that extend beyond the realm of stress relief.
To help manage recurring migraines
Studies have shown that meditation can help reduce chronic aches and pains, so it comes as no surprise that meditation can also help manage those pesky migraines that seem to cripple those who suffer from them on a frequent basis. Studies also have shown that, in comparison to people who do not practice meditation, those who do meditate benefit from decreased migraine episodes and a dissipation of the associated throbbing headaches over time.
For glowing and healthy skin
We all know the importance of a nighttime skin care routine and that healthy bedtime habits are crucial for keeping premature wrinkles at bay. However, did you know that unmanaged stress, extended exposure to our phones and social media, and imbalanced dietary habits take a toll on our skin and cause irreversible damage starting as early as in our 20s? Daily meditation can help stabilize stress hormones, thus improving the quality of the skin and stopping premature aging in its tracks.
For a healthy and optimal sex life
Believe it or not, a healthy sex life can be attained without the support of medication. After a long and stressful day and all that elevated cortisol (stress hormone) in the blood, one’s sex drive is going to be affected negatively. Meditation can not only increase sexual desire by decreasing levels of cortisol, but it also enhances performance by elevating adrenaline levels in the body.
For a strong immune system
There are more than 3,000 studies looking into the various and all-encompassing health benefits of meditation. The bottom line is that to have a healthy and strong body and be able to achieve a state of balance wherein the body is able to fight diseases and auto-heal, one’s immune system must be nurtured and nourished. A Harvard Medical School study demonstrates that a daily meditation practice increased the genetic matter that ultimately increases immunity and builds resiliency against common threats such as certain cancers.
For curbing emotional eating
Last month, I discussed the many variables of mindful eating and how mindless eating contributes to weight gain and development of weight-related disorders such as Type 2 diabetes, heart diseases and other forms of lifestyle disorders. Daily meditation can not only help curb emotional eating; it can also help one lose weight and keep the weight off permanently.
Meditation and mindfulness are gaining traction within the medical field as health professionals become more aware of the clinical evidence supporting daily meditation. The misconception that meditation is practiced only by those seeking a spiritual lifestyle is being eradicated by abundant scientific evidence that meditation not only allows the brain to think with clarity, but that those who practice meditation are more focused, creative and resilient, and have more fulfilling professional and personal lives. In fact, meditation might help you keep away from vices, unnecessary medications and their side effects without having to resort to fads.
Dr. Suman Ahuja completed her education at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons in New York and at Texas Tech. She has a a doctorate in Clinical Nutrition with an emphasis on obesity treatment and prevention.