What are the benefits of meditation?
Before diving into this question, before trying to understand what are the benefits of meditation, let’s define meditation and talk a bit more about this superpower.
Meditation is a regulation of your attention willfully and purposefully: for relaxation, personal growth or an exploration of yourself.
Meditation is divided into two categories
Researches divide meditation into two categories. The first one focuses your attention on a changing object like your physical sensations during a body scan, yoga movements, mindfulness meditation, vipassana meditation, etc. The second one focuses on an unchanging object that constantly helps to focus like in mantra meditation, breathing meditation, etc.
However, in real practice, these two categories overlap in most cases and normally meditating people focus their attention on an unchanging object to better focus on a changing object. People who meditate usually fulfill these meditation techniques focusing on concentration and attention.
Relaxation response vs stress response
As a consequence, these techniques have the potential to bring out the so-called “relaxation response”, which is a natural antagonist of “stress response”.
You can apply this superpower of meditation particularly in stress-associated diseases such as immune (asthma, rheumatoid arthritis), proinflammatory (atherosclerosis, cancer) diseases. As well as neurodegenerative (lateral sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease) or cardiovascular (angina, heart attack) diseases, including anxiety and depression.
To learn more about mindfulness, you can visit this post.
When you stress, your body forms automatic mental patterns and they become parts of the cognitive stress response. Such patterns you can see as automatic negative thoughts or constant reflections about the past or future. The is also a tendency of the mind to wander away in challenging, boring and stressful situations.
In cases when you practice mindfulness and meditation systematically, these patterns or automatic chains can break.
A skilled in meditation person can overcome automatic thoughts by keeping a mind actively in a present moment. By the means of staying with the experience that is happening here and now or by focusing on the breath. Being mindful helps us understand that we are not in danger and there is no need to constantly stress.
This intentional and active turn towards the present moment, which is not stressful, is an inner capacity, like a “mindset”. This “mindset” you can train and facilitate by systematic meditation practice.
What happens inside you during and after meditation? What are the benefits of meditation?
Every time you move a muscle or think a thought, your nerve cells start working hard. They have to process information: receive a signal, make a decision about what to do with it, send a message to another neighbor (nerve cell). Some nerve cells are VIP because they can send signals directly to muscle cells. Other nerve cells are just ordinary employees who can communicate only with other nerve cells, so they are mostly busy with bureaucracies. And these ordinary nerve cells cannot get a promotion, so you are lucky, people, to be people!
Acetylcholine and acetylcholinesterase
This communication between nerves and muscles happens with the help of neurotransmitters. These are small molecules (let’s call them balls) are released from one nerve cell and move to another nerve cell and when they arrive, they stimulate a response in the nerve cell. Every ball has it’s own job to do, has its own responsibilities.
For example, the job of the ball (neurotransmitter) acetylcholine is responsible for carrying the signal from nerve cells to muscle cells.
So, how it happens:
The nervous system is calling a nerve cell telling that the acetylcholine ball should be sent to a muscle. This nerve cell releases the acetylcholine ball (neurotransmitter) and tells it to go to a specific muscle. When acetylcholine ball arrives at the destination, it opens receptors on the muscle cell and triggers the process of contraction. The job for this acetylcholine ball is done and it should be terminated, otherwise, the signals would be mixed. The termination (clean up) of this ball is the job of acetylcholinesterase.
Also, acetylcholine increases the activity of the constitutive nitric oxide-producing enzymes, which have an anti-inflammatory effect.
Thus, why I have been telling you all this story? What does it have with meditation? Here meditation comes.
When we stress, acetylcholine levels become very low (the balls-neurotransmitters which we need for our muscles) and acetylcholinesterase activity becomes high (the guys who terminate/clean up our balls-neurotransmitters).
The researchers found the connection that meditation lowers stress levels therefore, it helps our nervous system to work properly and to send the right amount of balls-neurotransmitters to the muscles when we need them.
Dopamine, limbic system, and mesolimbic pathways
Also, researchers proved that the limbic system and mesolimbic pathways together with dopamine are involved during meditation. The limbic system is responsible for emotions, memories, and stimulation, thus for the brain’s motivation. Mesolimbic pathways together with dopamine regulate motivation and desire for a reward. They also play a role in the perception of pleasure. Thus, they are responsible for reward systems.
Dopamine helps regulate movement, attention, learning and emotional responses; it enables to see rewards such as feelings of pleasure and satisfaction and to move towards them.
How Enzymes can be the benefits of meditation?
Moreover, researchers found that enzymes are also involved during and after meditation. Enzymes are molecules that speed up all the chemical reactions that happen in the cells.
But not all enzymes.
Only enzymes who are responsible for the production and release of norepinephrine. Norepinephrine is a substance that releases to increase the force of skeletal muscle and the contraction of the heart – fight-or-flight response when the body prepares to act to run from an acute threat.
And enzymes who are responsible for the production and release of epinephrine. Epinephrine is a substance that releases in the blood which causes an increase in heart rate, blood pressure, and sugar metabolism.
What is BDHF? And How it can be included in the benefits of meditation?
What is more, researchers proved the involvement of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) during and after meditation. BDNF is a buddy who helps to support the survival of existing neurons and encourages the growth of new neurons.
Melatonin and cortisol
Moreover, meditation increases peripheral melatonin levels. Melatonin is responsible for our sleep cycle regulation. Also, meditation reduces cortisol levels. Cortisol is responsible for sugar production, regulates the response to stress, decreases inflammation and decreases the immune system response. However, high levels of cortisol lead to high blood pressure, muscle weakness, mood swings including anxiety, depression, irritability.
Therefore, meditation helps us to regulate:
- a desire for a reward
- perception of pleasure and satisfaction
- the force of skeletal muscle and the contraction of the heart
- heart rate, blood pressure, and sugar metabolism
- the survival of existing neurons and the growth of new neurons
- sugar production
- the response to stress
- immune system
- fights with anxiety, depression, irritability
Esch T. (2014) The Neurobiology of Meditation and Mindfulness. In: Schmidt S., Walach H. (eds) Meditation – Neuroscientific Approaches and Philosophical Implications. Studies in Neuroscience, Consciousness and Spirituality, vol 2. Springer, Cham