The meditation-and-the-brain research has been rolling in steadily for a number of years now, with new studies coming out just about every week to illustrate some new benefit of meditation. Or, rather, some ancient benefit that is just now being confirmed with fMRI or EEG. The practice appears to have an amazing variety of neurological benefits – from changes in grey matter volume to reduced activity in the “me” centers of the brain to enhanced connectivity between brain regions.
One of the most interesting studies in the last few years, carried out at Yale University, found that mindfulness meditation decreases activity in the default mode network (DMN), the brain network responsible for mind-wandering and self-referential thoughts – a.k.a., “monkey mind.” The DMN is “on” or active when we’re not thinking about anything in particular, when our minds are just wandering from thought to thought. Since mind-wandering is typically associated with being less happy, ruminating, and worrying about the past and future, it’s the goal for many people to dial it down. Several studies have shown that meditation, through its quieting effect on the DMN, appears to do just this. And even when the mind does start to wander, because of the new connections that form, meditators are better at snapping back out of it.
Other benefits of meditating everyday include:
1) Meditation Sharpens Your Attention
It’s not surprising that meditation would affect attention, since many practices focus on this very skill. And, in fact, researchers have found that meditation helps to counter habituation—the tendency to stop paying attention to new information in our environment. Other studies have found that mindfulness meditation can reduce mind-wandering and improve our ability to solve problems.
There’s more good news: Studies have shown that improved attention seems to last up to five years after mindfulness training, again suggesting trait-like changes are possible.
2) Long-term, Consistent Meditation Increases Resiliency To Stress
Note that we’re not saying it necessarily reduces physiological and psychological reactions to threats and obstacles. But studies to date do suggest that meditation helps mind and body bounce back from stress and stressful situations.
For example, practicing meditation lessens the inflammatory response in people exposed to psychological stressors, particularly for long-term meditators. According to neuroscience research, mindfulness practices dampen activity in our amygdala and increase the connections between the amygdala and prefrontal cortex. Both of these parts of the brain help us to be less reactive to stressors and to recover better from stress when we experience it.
3) Meditation Appears To Increase Compassion
While we may espouse compassionate attitudes, we can also suffer when we see others suffering, which can create a state of paralysis or withdrawal.
Many well-designed studies have shown that practicing loving-kindness meditation for others increases our willingness to take action to relieve suffering. It appears to do this by lessening amygdala activity in the presence of suffering, while also activating circuits in the brain that are connected to good feelings and love.
4) Meditation Has An Impact On Physical Health
Many claims have been made about mindfulness and physical health, but sometimes these claims are hard to substantiate or may be mixed up with other effects. That said, there is some good evidence that meditation affects physiological indices of health.
We’ve already mentioned that long-term meditation seems to buffer people from the inflammatory response to stress. In addition, meditators seem to have increased activity of telomerase, an enzyme implicated in longer cell life and, therefore, longevity.
If you’re considering meditating but are having thoughts such as “I’m too anxious of a person” or “There’s no way my mind could relax enough to focus” or “Meditation or mindfulness alone is not enough to help my stress”, we have some herbal medicine that can help your mind and body become naturally more relaxed.
One of the most beneficial ancient herbs for adrenal health and stress response is Ashwagandha. We’ve already written quite a bit about this wonderful addition to your lifestyle in depth that you can read here: All About Ashwagandha, however we’re going to focus more on how you can use this in relation to meditation/mindfulness here.
Ashwagandha Can Calm Anxiety
Many studies have demonstrated the calming effects of ashwagandha. One study showed that people who took just two months of ashwangandha supplementation had reductions in anxiety of up to 44 percent. When anxiety levels are at bay, meditation becomes much easier to do. Clinically, ashwagandha is found to be very helpful to calm anxiety, and specifically, help agoraphobia (anxiety especially in open or crowded places). Most of the understanding we have about ashwagandha is based on its substantial anecdotal history and animal studies. But more clinical studies are being done.
The most well-known effect of ashwagandha is its supposed ability to lower cortisol, the stress hormone. Doses as low as 250 mg daily for 60 days significantly reduced self-reported anxiety levels as well as serum cortisol levels in participants of a small 2014 placebo-controlled study on ashwagandha supplements. While you do want some cortisol—it’s essential for vital functions like metabolism—chronically elevated levels of this hormone can lead to other problems like blood sugar issues and weight gain. So supplementing to reduce cortisol levels is a potential therapeutic use of ashwagandha with wide-ranging benefits.
Daily doses of 125 mg to 5 grams for 1–3 months have shown to lower cortisol levels by 11–32%. Moreover, 500–600 mg of ashwagandha per day for 6–12 weeks may reduce anxiety and lower the likelihood of insomnia in people with stress and anxiety disorders.
By ingesting ashwagandha everyday with the proper dosing for you personally, adding in meditation for at least 5-10 minutes a day, and of course taking care of yourself with proper nutrition, sleep, and exercise, your anxiety should improve tremendously allowing you to live your best life. No one enjoys feeling stressed or out of touch with themselves, it’s time to make a change!