Many people practice mindfulness for the way it benefits them mentally. But did you know that taking up the practice can actually make you feel better physically, too? Fascinating new research on the science behind mindfulness is proving that being tuned in can have a profound effect on our bodies as well as our brains.
Stress has been linked to almost every ailment imaginable, including heart disease, high blood pressure, gastrointestinal difficulties, chronic pain, and more. But by training your body and brain not to flip into fight-or-flight mode (which triggers the release of neurochemicals that tell your body it’s time to exit — or attack), being dialed in can dial down the hormonal response and, thus, lead to healthier outcomes overall. In addition, tamping down on stress helps us to slow down and make more careful considerations, which ultimately sets us up to engage in more healthful decisions (choosing tomato juice over a Bloody Mary, for example).
Finally, being present inspires us to pay attention to our bodies, so we’re more apt to notice when something’s just a little off, before it spins out of control. While nobody’s suggesting meditation over a trip to a medical professional, there are many ways that staying in the moment can keep you safe. Here are six science-backed health benefits of mindfulness..
1. It helps control blood pressure.
A study done at Brown University found that mind-body training significantly improved people’s ability to regulate their emotions; it also helped lower their blood pressure readings.
2. It moderates migraine pain.
The results of one randomized clinical trial found that 16 weeks of an evidence-based program of mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) followed by biweekly MBSR treatment for another eight weeks was more effective in reducing the number of migraines than another type of stress management program was. Also interesting to note: MRIs of the subjects’ brains actually showed changes in those who took part in the MBSR program, while those who did not participate displayed no difference. Other being-present programs may help as well. One study found that subjects had fewer migraines with less intensity and they needed fewer drugs when they participated in a yoga program.
3. It reduces the symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).
Recent research out of the University of Oxford found that after mindfulness-based cognitive therapy, patients with IBS experienced a 13 percent reduction of symptoms and a 28 percent reduction at follow-up compared to a control group.
4. It conserves cognitive function.
Researchers compared the brains of participants who had practiced meditation for at least a year to those of a control group. They found that those who said om (the common chant and sacred sound often heard in western yoga practices to deepen meditation) had increased activity in parts of the brain involved in memory compared to those who didn’t meditate.
5. It lessens chronic pain.
A study of fibromyalgia patients found that more than half use alternative treatments, such as meditation, massage and vitamins in addition to meds. Compared to just the medication alone, a combined approach resulted in less pain and better quality of life.
6. It improves the immune response.
A study found that those who participated in forest bathing — a slow, deliberate walk through a dense forest while tuning into the surroundings — had a spike in blood levels of natural killer cells. Researchers credit phytoncides, airborne chemicals released by trees that protect foliage from microbes and also help stimulate humans’ immune systems.
A version of this article appeared in our partner magazine Mindfulness for Women.
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