A Stillness State of Mind

Your mood, your smarts, your appearance, your health—regularly practicing meditation pays off in more ways than you might think. Here are six reasons to get your om on daily

Woman meditating1. Fends Off Disease

If you think the benefits of meditation are all in your head, think again. A few minutes of deep relaxation, in peace and quiet can change your body (for the better) at the genetic level, according to research from Harvard Medical School. The study found that those who practiced meditation had significantly more active, disease-fighting genes than non-practitioners. These are genes that help protect against rheumatoid arthritis, high blood pressure, and even infertility.

2. Delays Aging

Put away your anti-wrinkle creams and step inside your local yoga studio for the perfect youth serum. Research has found that regular meditation increases your body’s production of the brain chemical melatonin by up to 300 percent. This hormone supports your beauty sleep, slows the aging process, and halts the natural damage to cells that occur as a result of aging. Meditation has also been found to decrease the skin-thinning stress hormone cortisol by 47 percent and increases production of DHEA, a powerful anti-aging hormone, by up to 90 percent.

3. Zaps Stress

Stress releases adrenaline—a hormone that causes breathing to quicken, and heart rate and blood pressure to rise. While a little stress is good (it pushes you just to the level of optimal alertness, behavioral and cognitive performance), too much can leave you mentally drained, less productive, or worse; it can contribute to everything from high blood pressure—also know as hypertension—to asthma, to ulcers, to irritable bowel syndrome. One study published in the American Heart Association journal Circulation: Cardiovascular Quality and Outcomes found that those with heart disease who practiced meditation regularly quelled rising blood pressure levels, and were 48 percent less likely to have a heart attack or stroke compared with those who attended a health education class over more than five years.

4. Boosts Brainpower

Om-ing does more than put your noggin in chill mode; it offers brainy benefits, too. Numerous studies suggest that regular meditation can actually change brain structure. One study published in the journal Neuroimage found that meditation is associated with a thicker cerebral cortex and more gray matter (i.e., the sections of the brain linked to memory, attention span, decision-making, and learning). Another study conducted at the UCLA School of Medicine found those who meditated at least once per week for four years showed increased cortical gyrification—the folding of the cerebral cortex that helps process information. While it’s unclear how meditation actually spurs these changes in the brain, some researchers suggest the simple act of devoting complete attention to one specific object or thought can alter our neural communication.

5. Reduces Pain

Just like with stress, we are programmed to enter “fight or flight” mode when faced with pain too. But through meditation, you can control your body’s response to pain. A study conducted at Wake Forest University examined the effects of inducing pain on subjects before and after a four-day crash course on meditation. After meditation instruction, subjects rated the same pain stimulus as being 57 percent less unpleasant and 40 percent less intense, on average. Research also noted changes in brain scans conducted during the pain experiments—scans revealed that the technique appeared to cause a number of changes in how the participants’ brains responded to pain.

6. Keeps Your Heart Healthy

Your ticker needs more than a few upbeat cardio sessions to stay strong and healthy. Multiple published studies have confirmed that meditation promotes heart health. It reduces high blood pressure and constriction of blood vessels. It also dilates blood vessels that, in turn, reduce stress hormones such as cortisol.

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