What Happens to Your Body When You Meditate
Fifty-year-old meditators had the same amount of gray matter in their prefrontal cortex as non-meditating 25-year-olds, found a small study in Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience. The area is crucial for decision-making and tends to shrink over time.
Some of the Smallest (but Most Important) Parts of Your Body May Be More Resilient
You've heard of telomeres—the caps on the end of your DNA strands that act like a marker of your cellular age and generally get shorter as you get older. Meditation might help them stay long. Recovering breast cancer patients who received either mindfulness-based or expressive-group therapy maintained their telomere length better over the course of eight weeks than women who received more conventional care, found a small study in Cancer.
It May Help You Fight That Thing You're Always Hearing About
Eight hours of mindfulness mediation over the course of one day did a better job of controlling inflammation than the same amount of leisure time, found a small study that included experienced meditators. Lonely older adults saw similar benefits from an eight-week mindfulness meditation in another study, and they had lower levels of a substance your liver pumps out when inflammation increases.
The Pain of Shots and Stubbed Toes Probably Won't Linger as Long
Meditators were told a painful stimulus was coming (and given a taste of what it would feel like), and their brains lit up when it was applied—but their brains were less active before and after compared with non-meditators, reports a study in Neuroimage. Meaning, they didn't worry about the pain before it started, and they moved on faster once it was over.
Key Parts of Your Brain Could Change in Size
The part that keeps you on task and limits mind wandering, called the posterior cingulate cortex, gets bigger. (It's heavily damaged in Alzheimer's patients). So does the area that helps you learn, retain and retrieve memories and keep your emotions on an even keel, called the left hippocampus. Another region that increases in size? The one involved in empathy, compassion and being able to put yourself in someone else's shoes. It's called the temporo-parietal junction. All of this was published in a study in Psychiatry Research that had observed people who'd never meditated. Subjects brains were scanned before and after an eight-week meditation-based stress-reduction program, in which they practiced for an average of 30 minutes per day. Another brain benefit: The amygdala, the fear and anxiety center, shrunk in a similar before-and-after study, meaning meditators would experience stress less intensely.
You're More Likely to Get Through Cold-and-Flu Season Unscathed
In addition to a more robust response to the flu vaccine, meditation could help keep serious coughs (and more) at bay. People who followed (you guessed it!) an eight-week mindfulness-meditation regimen were 33 percent less likely to report acute respiratory infections than a control group, found a study in the Annals of Family Medicine. When they did get sick, their infections lasted 43 percent less time, their symptoms were 60 percent less severe and they were less likely to miss work because of the illness (the effects of meditation were even more protective than an eight-week exercise program).
- Sara Lazar, PhD, assistant professor of psychology in the department of psychiatry at Mass General Hospital and Harvard Medical School
- Richard Davidson, PhD, professor of psychology and psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, founder of the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds at the Waisman Center at UW