The Health Benefits of Meditation

Meditation is a hot topic as more and more research highlights the many health benefits of meditation and mindfulness practices. We review here these health benefits. To learn how you can benefit from meditation, keep reading! 

Health benefits of meditation include:

  • Reduced depression and anxiety
  • Reduced stress
  • Improved focus and concentration
  • Improved immune system
  • Improved cardiovascular health
  • Decreased chronic pain
  • Improved sleep quality and quantity

To begin, let’s first define meditation.

What is meditation?

Meditation is defined as the intentional self-regulation of attention from moment to moment. The word itself is derived from two Latin words – “meditari,” which means to think, to dwell upon, or to exercise the mind, and “mederi,” which means to heal. The practice of meditation can be traced back to ancient Asian cultures and is core to many spiritual practices such as Buddhism.

Meditation has become more popular in Western cultures since the 1960s when the practice of meditation came to the US. Since that time more research has been done to evaluate the health benefits of meditation and mindfulness practices. Many physiological changes have been empirically linked to meditation practices, such as:

  • Increased cerebral blood flow
  • Reductions in metabolic activity, heart and respiratory rates
  • Reduced blood pressure
  • Reduced muscle tension
  • Decreased symptoms of depression and anxiety

Types of meditation

There are many different forms of meditation practices. Two of the most common are transcendental meditation (TM) and mindfulness meditation (MM). Other forms include Sheng Zhen Gong (Union of Three Hearts meditation), several forms of Buddhist meditation, Zen meditations and meditations from various systems of yoga. We will focus here primarily on mindfulness meditation (MM). Mindfulness mediation is to intentionally bring one’s attention to the internal and external experiences of the present moment without judgement.

Mindfulness meditation differs somewhat from transcendental meditation, which focuses on a single stimulus such as a word like “peace,” a sound like “om” or a phrase like “I am a big body of love.” When attention inevitably wanders, the participant guides their attention back to the stimulus without judgement or attention on the nature of the distraction.

Mindfulness meditation

Mindfulness meditation is taught through many practices and traditions, and is now used as a core component of many contemporary forms of psychotherapy. These include Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) and Mindfulness-Based Eating Awareness Training (MB-EAT) (1) (2). In these practices, we observe and acknowledge thoughts and feelings as they arise without judgement, rather than try to ignore them.

The primary benefit is to allow participants to detach from difficult thoughts and feelings so that they can gain insight, awareness and compassion. This helps to develop more flexible and adaptive coping responses. People can examine difficult thoughts and feelings which they may normally avoid in an effort to reshape their relationship with them.

Benefits of mindfulness

The basic idea is to experience the present moment openly and without judgement. This helps to avoid the stress that we may otherwise feel when dealing with difficult thoughts and feelings. This type of stress is frequently observed in many, if not most, emotional disorders. It is associated with excessive focus on the past or the future.

MM promotes responding to stress reflectively, rather than reflexively. It encourages healthy adaptive strategies and reduces maladaptive strategies like avoidance and living in the future or past. In addition, MM helps to balance the sympathetic (the fight or flight response) and parasympathetic (the calmer rest and digest response) parts of the nervous system. Many people in today’s stressful world tend to be sympathetic (fight or flight) dominant (3).

Other benefits of mindfulness include:

  • Increased ability to recognize and accurately label emotions (4)
  • Increased ability to connect with the present moment
  • Improved self-awareness (5)

MM is now used in many forms of psychotherapy because mindfulness practices are helpful for mental and emotional well-being. But there are many other health benefits. These include improved immune function, decreased risk of cardiovascular disease and reduced chronic pain.

Stress reduction

Meditation can modulate the stress response and change how we relate to stress. The stressors in our lives are not what causes us distress and impacts on health. It is more a question of how we perceive that stress. Anything that can change how we perceive and relate to stressors is powerful and can reduce the impact stress has on our health.

Stress is a major contributing factor in many disease processes and areas of health. Stress is part of the sympathetic nervous system response – the fight or flight response – which is dominant in most Americans today. MM gives us a way to downregulate fight or flight and the sympathetic nervous system and activate the parasympathetic, or rest and digest, nervous system response.

There are many behavioral, psychological and biological ways in which MM can reduce stress-related illness.

  • Clarifying primary stressors
  • Helping to utilize appropriate coping resources
  • Reducing dysfunctional coping styles, like rumination and catastrophizing
  • Enhancing adaptive coping processes, such as positive reappraisal
  • Reducing distress and psychophysiological activation (6)

Many prevalent medical conditions are stress-related. So, the ability of MM to reduce stress is significant and relevant to the health struggles many people face today. 

Stress-related conditions that have been demonstrated to improve with MM are:

  • Chronic lower back pain (7)
  • Fibromyalgia (8)
  • Rheumatoid arthritis (9)
  • Psoriasis (10)
  • Type II diabetes (11)

MM can reduce stress by changing how stressful we perceive external stressors to be. There are additional benefits that can help with other health conditions:

Improve focus and concentration

Meditation can improve the ability to concentrate and maintain attention span. One study took a group of 28 meditation-naive subjects and had them meditate for 10 minutes per day. The meditation practice improved focus and attention and led to changes in brain function. Participants improved their ability to self-regulate their attention (12). These benefits came about with only short meditation periods of 10 minutes/ day for a relatively short period of 4 months.

Another MM trial found improvements in cognition after just 4 days of meditation training. Researchers compared the effects of meditation training to a control group, who listened to an audio book. Participants had no prior meditation experience. Both meditation and the audio book improved mood. But meditation training also reduced fatigue and anxiety and increased mindfulness. Visuo-spatial processing, working memory and executive functioning were significantly improved. Even very short-term meditation training improves ability to sustain attention (13).

Amazingly, a third study found that meditation may cause physical changes in the gray and white matter of the brain. Looking at 300 meditating individuals, this study identified 8 brain regions that were consistently changed in meditators compared to non-meditators. These regions related to meta-awareness, body awareness, memory consolidation, self and emotional regulation and intra- and inter-hemispheric communication. Meditation results in significant structural changes in the brain (14).

Improve immune system

Meditation improves immune function. One interesting study compared immune cell markers in subjects practicing transcendental meditation with non-meditators. The active meditating group showed significantly higher levels of lymphocytes, B lymphocytes and natural killer cells, suggesting a stronger immune function (15).

Another study evaluated the effects of compassion meditation on neuroendocrine, innate immune and behavioral responses to psychosocial stress. 61 participants were randomized to receive either compassion meditation training or a health discussion class. Both groups then underwent a standardized laboratory stressor. Within the meditation group, people who meditated more had decreased stress scores. Participation in compassion meditation showed improved stress-induced immune and behavioral responses (16).

A final interesting study compared the immune boosting effects of vacation with vacation combined with meditation. Non-meditating women went to a resort retreat for six days where they either participated in a meditation retreat or simply relaxed on-site. These two arms were compared to a third group of regular meditators already enrolled in the retreat. All participants displayed highly significant changes in gene expression, called the “vacation effect” that was essentially an improved stress response, immune function and amyloid beta metabolism. Novice meditators were able to maintain lower levels of stress after the retreat was over. Regular meditators had increased telomerase activity, a marker for longevity. All participants had notable healthy changes in gene expression due to the vacation effect. For experienced meditators, the retreat gave further benefits to cellular health beyond the vacation effect (17).

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Cardiovascular health

Cardiovascular disease (CVD) is the leading cause of death worldwide. In addition to natural treatments like hawthornDan Shen and pomegranate, meditation provides clear benefits for cardiovascular health. Meditation reduces stress and modulates hormones, which helps to regulate the central nervous system. Meditation is associated with blood pressure control, improved insulin resistance and reduced lipid peroxidation and cellular deterioration (18).

One study looked at the effect of transcendental meditation on cortisol in response to a metabolic stressor. Long-term TM practitioners were compared to non-meditating controls. There was a lower cortisol response to the metabolic challenge in the TM practitioners. This shows the disease-preventing effects of transcendental meditation in older women via a lower cortisol response and an improved endocrine regulation. In addition, the length of TM practice was inversely correlated with CVD risk factors (19)

Decrease chronic pain

Meditation can reduce chronic physical pain. It provides a great alternative to habit-forming opioid painkillers as well as NSAIDs like ibuprofen. One common type of chronic pain is lower back pain. A 2016 study found that patients being treated with opioids for lower back pain responded positively to meditation therapy. In 35 patients with moderate pain severity, the meditation group experienced a reduction in pain severity compared to controls. Results were positively correlated with the amount of meditation people did (20).

Chronic pain commonly results in secondary depression and anxiety. MM significantly reduced pain-induced depression and improved affective pain, sensory pain and anxiety. Quality of life, mental health and physical health improved with mindfulness meditation (21).

Better sleep

Quality and quantity of sleep are critical for health. A study on 30 male participants compared cyclic meditation (CM), a technique that combines yoga postures interspersed with supine rest, with supine rest (SR) alone. On nights after CM, the percentage of slow-wave sleep was significantly higher and rapid-eye movement (REM) sleep and number of awakenings were reduced. On the nights following CM self-reported sleep quality was also improved. 

Participants rated their sleep as more refreshing and were more likely to report feeling “good” in the morning upon waking. They slept longer and reported fewer sleep disturbances (22). Some limitations of this study include a lack of a control group and a potential placebo effect.

A better designed study compared a mindfulness awareness practices intervention with sleep hygiene education in older adults with moderate sleep disturbances. The active mindfulness group had significant improvements compared to the sleep hygiene group. Sleep disturbances decreased and symptoms of insomnia, depression and fatigue improved. There were no differences between the groups in anxiety or stress. Mindfulness training was superior to sleep hygiene education (23).

There are clear health benefits of meditation. Newer research continues to show the benefits and some potential mechanisms that may explain how meditation works. It’s an extremely low risk and inexpensive practice that only requires some time, so give it a try today!


  • Meditation is defined as the intentional self-regulation of attention from moment to moment. It has become more popular in Western cultures since the 1960s. 
  • Many physiological changes have been empirically linked to meditation practices. 
  • There are different types of meditation. We focus in this blog on mindfulness meditation.
  • Benefits include stress reduction, improved focus and concentration, improved immune system and cardiovascular health, decreased chronic pain, improved mental health and better sleep.

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