Are you feeling like your mind is all over the place? Do you sometimes feel like the world is spinning too fast, and your mind can barely keep up?
If so, then I have an exciting solution for you—meditation!
Over the past few years, there has been increasing evidence that suggests that meditation can be instrumental in improving cognitive functioning, memory recall and overall brain health.
In this blog post, we’re going to explore how incorporating a regular meditation practice into your life can help reduce stress while calming your mind and enhancing your mental clarity. So come along as we delve into the wonderful world of meditation and uncover some of its incredible benefits!
Table of Contents:
- What is Meditation?
- Benefits of Meditation on the Brain
- How to Practice Meditation
- Final Thoughts
- Recipe Spotlight: Chickpea Avocado Salad
What is Meditation?
Meditation stems from the ancient Vedic times of India and is one of the primary modalities used in Ayurvedic medicine. In recent times, meditation has spread into Western society, particularly in the USA, where it is gaining popularity as a therapeutic solution.
According to Vedic science, its true purpose is to establish a connection with our inner self and engage the mind by increasing awareness of thoughts and emotions. Key principles include focusing on the present, being mindful of ourselves and our environment, decluttering the mind from distractions, and consciously managing our breath and physical actions.
Techniques that achieve these goals serve the true purpose of meditation. Contemplation, concentration, and the use of nature sounds like the ocean or rainforest, along with guided meditation and meditative movement exercises such as Yoga and tai chi, qigong, breathing exercises, and Mantra, are all techniques used in meditation practices. These techniques train the brain to shift from an analytical state to an intuitive focus, resulting in reduced stress, increased creativity, and enhanced contentment.
Benefits of Meditation on the Brain
More and more research is showing pretty remarkable health benefits associated with this ancient practice. In fact, meditation has achieved considerable recognition from the scientific community due to its positive effects on brain health. Here are some of the ways your brain can benefit through consistent meditation practice:
1. Meditation reduces stress and anxiety
Meditation is a game-changer for those battling stress and anxiety. By triggering the relaxation response and diminishing stress hormones like cortisol, it acts as a powerful antidote.
In one study, the average plasma concentration of cortisol in a group of 15 experienced transcendental meditators decreased by 27% after a 30-minute meditation session.
In a second study, a group of 15 Thai boys in their early 20s, showed an average 24% reduction in serum cortisol levels after a six-week training period in Buddhist meditation, compared to their levels before the training began.
Research has also revealed that meditation has the ability to reduce other physiological markers of stress, including blood pressure, heart rate, and C-reactive protein.
2. Meditation reduces neuroinflammation
Now having too much cortisol can lead to inflammation in many different parts of the body – particularly in the gut, with digestive issues often occurring during periods of high stress.
Inflammation in the gut can lead to inflammation in the brain, a major contributor to cognitive decline and various neurological disorders, including Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer's. This can further lead to the breakdown of the blood-brain barrier (BBB), and result in what is referred to as a leaky brain. By alleviating stress, meditation also reduces neuroinflammation.
3. Meditation enhances cognitive function
If you’re wanting to become smarter and quicker, then there’s another good reason to practice meditation.
Studies have shown that this simple practice on a regular basis can increase the cortical thickness in key areas of the brain, including those responsible for attention, emotional regulation, and sensory processing. This enhanced cognitive reserve acts as a shield, lowering the risk of cognitive decline and diseases like dementia and Alzheimer's.
Numerous studies have revealed that regular meditation can also induce neuroplasticity, the brain's ability to reorganize and form new neural connections, to improve overall cognitive function
In a 2009 study, a group of 25 experienced meditators from a Buddhist center was compared to a control group of 25 non-meditators. The meditators had all completed a basic six-week mindfulness course, while the non-meditators had no meditation experience.
Using various testing methods, the researchers found that meditation practices greatly enhance cognitive flexibility (the ability to effectively switch between different mental tasks). The results of the study clearly showed that the meditators performed significantly better than the non-meditators on all assessments of attention control.
4. Meditation enhances neurotransmitter function
Neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine are key players in controlling our mood, motivation, and brain function. By practicing meditation, we can actually affect the delicate equilibrium of these chemicals and enhance both our physical and our mental well-being.
Research has demonstrated that meditation boosts serotonin production. Not only does serotonin serve as a neurotransmitter in your central nervous system, but it also does wonders in your digestive tract. This powerful molecule also helps keep your body temperature in check, ensures smooth motor control, and even influences your sleep-wake cycle.
Moreover, meditation has been associated with higher levels of dopamine, which heightens feelings of pleasure, concentration, and drive.
5. Meditation improves our mood
Serotonin has a direct impact on your mood, making you feel content and in a state of blissful relaxation. On the flip side, low levels of serotonin have been linked to feelings of depression and anxiety. Therefore, by increasing serotonin levels, meditation can also improve your mood and reduce symptoms of depression.
Meditation can also enhance your mood via other mechanisms. Research has shown it can increase grey matter in certain areas of your brain that control your mood. It also reduces tumor necrosis factor alpha (TNF-α), which is strongly related to the pathogenesis of neurodevelopmental disorders, especially depression.
One randomized controlled trial found mindfulness-based therapy over 56 weeks significantly reduced the period of time before relapse of episodes of low mood. It also helped with long and short-term healthy mood maintenance.
6. Meditation helps to maintain a healthy brain as you age
Did you know your brain starts to deteriorate in your 20s?
The good news is that the practice of meditation can help you maintain a healthy brain as you age.
Research shows that meditation thickens the pre-frontal cortex, the brain center responsible for higher-order functions like increased awareness, concentration, and decision-making. With meditation, you can strengthen these higher-order functions while reducing lower-order brain activities. In essence, you can train your brain to be sharper and more efficient, and combat brain deterioration.
The key to reaping the benefits of meditation is consistency. A study from the Harvard Medical School study revealed that experienced meditators aged 40-50 had the same amount of gray matter as an average 20-30-year-old. In fact, their frontal cortex, the region associated with cognitive function, remained healthy.
How to Practice Meditation
When you start the practice of meditation, it can take some dedication and effort. Training your brain to stay free from distractions for a period of time is not easy for everyone. However, with a few simple tips, you can soon learn how to meditate like a pro.
- Schedule in some time each day
The first thing to do is to pick a practical amount of time that you can meditate each day. A single meditation session can help to make you feel calmer and more relaxed, however, a daily practice has greater health benefits. It’s best to start with just 5 minutes per day and work up to 20 minutes plus. Remember, consistency is the secret ingredient to unlocking long-term rewards.
- Find a peaceful environment to practice in
With meditation, no fancy tools or prior training is required. All you need to do is find a quiet and peaceful environment where you can practice. This will help you to relax and focus without any distractions. Nature can be a great space to help reduce distractions. Focusing on the sights, sounds, and smells of nature can help ground your focus and presence. Some apps even offer guided walking meditation if you don’t like to sit still.
- Try different methods to find one that suits you
Countless methods exist to practice meditation. For example, one practice, called focus attention meditation, involves concentrating on a single internal object such as a part of the body, or breath, or an external object. Another method called open-monitoring meditation involves monitoring without judging or attaching oneself to any thought, feeling, or emotion coming into your conscious awareness.
The best thing is to try various methods and figure out what works best for you.
- Try guided meditations
Guided meditations may be the best place to start you on your journey. Whether you join a group practice or meditate by yourself following a video, following a guide can make the whole process a lot easier.
There are so many resources available, including apps, such as Calm, Headspace, and Meditation Valley, Netflix’s ‘Headspace Guide to Meditation,’ YouTube videos, and online courses. Test out a few different styles of guided meditations- from body awareness scans to mantras and visualisations- to see what your preferred style is. If you don’t resonate with one style, try another one.
- Find an anchor
To achieve a focused and mindful state during meditation, it can be helpful to use an anchor. This external point of reference helps redirect your attention whenever your mind begins to wander. By concentrating on easily noticeable sensations like counting your breaths, the sensation of the ground beneath your feet, or reciting a mantra, you provide your mind with a purposeful activity that aids in the practice of meditation. This anchor can take the form of a ticking clock to synchronize your breathing, or a tangible object that you can physically interact with. When your mind wanders, an anchor can help to gently guide it back to the present moment.
Well? Are you convinced that the first thing you should do each morning, instead of checking your social media, is to meditate?
Making meditation a priority is a powerful and yet simple means to take back control of your brain health. By practicing meditation on a regular basis, you can experience reduced stress, increased mental acuity, and improved emotional well-being through this ancient practice. Embrace meditation as part of your daily routine, and you will unlock your brain's full potential and enjoy a longer, healthier, and more vibrant life.
Recipe Spotlight: Chickpea Avocado Salad