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Monday
Oct282013

4 Ways Meditation Can Work for Your Health (and Weight Loss!)

“You want me to do what to help lose weight?” It might seem like a logical question, given the generally sedentary nature of meditation. (In fact, the concept usually conjures an image of people sitting on cushions for hours not moving a single muscle.) True, meditation’s role in a healthy way of living doesn’t have anything to do with burning calories. Nonetheless, increasing research supports its impressive and far-reaching benefits for health - and even weight loss. Consider it part of a larger lifestyle picture beyond the basics of diet and exercise. When we experiment with a meditation practice, we choose one more tool with the power to positively impact our physiological functioning - and to potentially transform our overall wellbeing. 

First off, what is meditation? Beyond the many styles of meditative practice (some more detailed than others), the heart of meditation is simple. It’s a quieting practice that trains us to stay with the present moment. From a practical standpoint, this involves freeing our minds from the mental chatter that keeps us from being in the here and now. If you’re like most people, you go through much of your day with a frequent if not continuous tape playing in your mind - a tape of of mental list-making, of case building, of rehashing conversations, of planning and analyzing, of anticipating. What does this continuous pattern do to our emotional energy and our cognitive concentration? What physiological cues does this mental merry-go-round set off over time? Generally speaking, it adds up to unacknowledged tension that kicks up our bodies' stress response.

Dr. Herbert Benson of Harvard Medical School, one of the most recognized experts on mind-body health, has researched the impact of the relaxation response. The relaxation response is simply a state of “deep rest” we can all access that counters the physical and emotional impact of stress. While meditation is one of the most studied activities that promotes the relaxation response, others such as yoga, Tai Chi, biofeedback or even repetitive prayer have been found to result in many of the same benefits when practiced regularly. Meditation and other relaxation response practices reverse the stress cycle and guide us away from the typical mental operations that elicit stress in the first place. The physical and emotional impacts of getting off the carousel are nothing short of transformational. 

Meditation can change our gene activity - with implications for metabolic health. 

If you want evidence that meditation makes a difference in your health, know that the impact trickles down to your genes themselves. While we’re born with our basic genetic material itself, the “expression” of our genes is a continual work in progress. In fact, it’s largely determined by our lifestyle and environmental inputs. (Think of your genes on a dimmer switch.) Meditation, a recent study suggests, can help influence our gene expression in ways that serve our overall health - including functions related to metabolic health.

After only eight weeks of relaxation response training, the gene expression profiles of meditators showed several significant changes. The research team (led by Dr. Herbert Benson) found several genes, including those related to “energy metabolism, mitochondrial function, insulin secretion and telomere maintenance [thought to influence the body’s aging process]” were “upregulated.” In other words, these genes were more active, which means their corresponding functions in the body could be that much more energized and effective. When you’re trying to lose weight or use lifestyle to dial back ill health, these are some of the genes you want working for you. 

Meditation can improve sleep quality.

We know that sleep quality is important for overall health and weight loss. Inadequate sleep or poor quality sleep can raise our risk for heart disease, diabetes, metabolic syndrome and obesity. Meditation can play an important role in ensuring quality rest - particularly when sleep often eludes us. Research participants who suffered from insomnia were split into two groups. One received general health education, and the other received instruction and continued guidance in a specific meditation practice. After two months, the meditators reported better sleep quality. Their total sleep time, sleep efficiency and other related measures also improved more than those in the health education group. 

Meditation can reduce the risk for cardiovascular disease.

Beyond lowering cardiovascular disease risk with improved sleep, meditation has been shown to support cardiovascular health in a number of other ways. Many studies, for example, have demonstrated that meditation can lower blood pressure. Likewise, gene profiles show meditation appears to "downregulate" or dim the activity of genes associated with inflammation and the body’s stress response. For those who’ve already been diagnosed with cardiovascular disease, meditation appears  to reduce the incidence of heart attack, stroke and death. 

Meditation can enhance our emotional resilience. 

Here’s where meditation is less about physiological change and more about the emotional experience we go through in our weight loss and health journeys. That said, there’s no shortage of evidence that meditation makes measurable and concrete differences in our emotional processing. When practiced over time, for instance, meditation literally changes our brains. Scans comparing brain activity after eight weeks of meditation training showed a decreased activation of a brain area related to emotional response, affirming the long-held view that meditation can enhance emotional stability. Likewise, other studies have shown meditation can lower anxiety, reduce the physical and emotional experience of pain, improve concentration and decrease stress. What’s more? The benefits of a sustained meditation practice appear to carry over into our self-regulation and wellbeing throughout the rest of the day. In the ups and downs of a weight loss journey, we could all use a little more emotional resilience. 

While it matters less what kind of meditative/relaxation response practice we choose, the research suggests one thing is certain. The benefits compound over time. It’s all the more reason to invest in a long-term practice that suits our personalities and interests. Whether we choose to meditate alone at home or seek the guidance and collective energy of a group setting, meditation has the power to shift our health trajectory and redefine the nature of our journey. 

Thanks for reading today, everyone. Do you meditate or have a formal relaxation practice? Would you like to learn? What kind of practice do you feel you’d be most drawn to? Share your questions, experiences and insights. 

Written by Jennifer Wannen, Content Manager

This article is not intended for the treatment or prevention of disease, nor as a substitute for medical treatment, nor as an alternative to medical advice. Use of recommendations in this and other articles is at the choice and risk of the reader.


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