Author Nina Evans, Researcher & Trainer in Public Health/1 November 2019
Meditation is an age-old practice found in various forms in ancient religious traditions however it is most closely associated with Buddhism. Meditation is not solely for spiritual people, it is about finding awareness and getting a healthy sense of perspective, not to turn off thinking but to observe thoughts and eventually understand them better. This is why meditation is becoming increasingly popular in our fast-paced world, especially for stress-related medical conditions. Meditation can be practiced in many different forms but the most popular are mindfulness, transcendental, guided and meditative movement. It can help lead to an increase in self-awareness, positive mood and outlook, and calm and relaxation which can be beneficial throughout all aspects of life.
This week’s blog is focusing on the use of meditation and how it can positively influence certain lifestyle factors (such as eating habits and choices, stress management, and sleep) to help us achieve optimal health. Research in this field is still new and ongoing so it is unclear who and what meditation is most successful for however the current findings on its use are promising.
Mindful eating is becoming aware of the food you are eating and all the sensations that you experience when you eat. This may help you identify periods when you are not eating for true (physiological) hunger such as are eating for emotional reasons, habit or boredom. If you want to know more about mindful eating, read one of our previous blogs here.
Meditation has been shown to reduce stress. Stress can have serious repercussions on our health so stress management is an important component of maintaining overall health. Taking some time to rest the mind can be enough to make us feel better and feel better equipped to be able to deal with everyday stresses. Meditation is thought to achieve this by essentially reprogramming the brain to be able to increase the capacity to manage stress. Research has suggested this can only take approximately eight weeks and can moderately reduce multiple negative aspects of psychological stress. A systematic review has even shown meditation to be an effective method to reduce symptoms of mental health disorders such as post-traumatic stress and depression.
Improved Cognitive Function
Research has suggested that meditation can have a positive effect on cognition, especially attention and memory, with some even showing that meditators and mindfulness intervention participants had a significant increase in grey matter volume in various regions of the brain. Grey matter includes regions of the brain involved in muscle control, sensory perception, memory, emotion, speech, decision making, and self-control. Preliminary evidence also suggests meditation may offset grey matter atrophy. Even though these findings might seem promising, the research is scarce with many limitations.
While it is known sleep quantity is important there is also extensive research on the importance of sleep quality. Good quality sleep is important for all factors listed in this article (cognition, stress reduction, weight loss, and healthy eating). But can meditation impact our sleep quality too? A recent systematic review reported that meditative movement improved sleep quality as well as improved quality of life, physical performance, and symptoms of depression. Research also supports the use of meditation (mindfulness) to improve sleep parameters (e.g. sleep latency and sleep efficiency) and has been used to improve patient symptoms of insomnia. However, similarly to the research on meditation and cognition, there are methodological limitations with this research and higher quality evidence is needed.
Mindfulness training is often incorporated into weight loss programmes to assist with dietary changes. Research supports this idea as significant weight loss has been seen in participants attending mindfulness interventions. As well as significant weight loss, obesity-related eating behaviours (such as emotional eating, binge-eating, and restrained eating) were also shown to improve. Seemingly a common theme throughout this blog, the research seems to show promising results, yet there were often many limitations and methodological issues.
Overall, research findings seem positive and support the practice of meditation for its beneficial effect on health through a variety of factors such as stress, sleep, cognitive function and achieving and maintaining a healthy weight. Many of the current research has limitations and methodological issues so further high-quality research is needed. However, it seems there is no harm in trying, so for those who want to give meditation a go, here are some pointers for first timers;
Tips for beginners
- Remember there is no right or wrong way to meditate
- It’s a new skill so do not expect to be a master straight away
- Find a peaceful environment to start with as this will make it easier
- Sit in a comfortable position with good posture (as this will help you to breathe properly)
- Set yourself a specific time to meditate without distraction
- Close your eyes and breathe in and out
If you need a bit more help to get you started there are a few apps we recommend for guided meditation such as ‘Headspace’ and ‘Calm’ which are both available on Apple and Android devices.
As with all our blogs and other work if you have any further questions or feedback, feel free to comment below, drop me an e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org, message us on Facebook, tweet us at @XPERTHealth or follow us on Instagram @XPERTHealth.
- Last, N., Tufts, E. and Auger, L.E. 2017. The effects of meditation on grey matter atrophy and neurodegeneration: a systematic review. Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease. 56(1), pp.275-286.
- Hilton, L., Maher, A.R., Colaiaco, B., Apaydin, E., Sorbero, M.E., Booth, M., Shanman, R.M. and Hempel, S. 2017. Meditation for posttraumatic stress: systematic review and meta-analysis. Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy. 9(4), pp.453-460.
- Gotink, R.A., Meijboom, R., Vernooij, M.W., Smits, M. and Hunink, M.G.M. 2016. 8-week mindfulness based stress reduction induces brain changes similar to traditional long-term meditation practice – a systematic review. Brain and Cognition. 108, pp.32-41.
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- Chételat, G., Lutz, A., Arenaza-Urquijo, E., Collette, F., Klimecki, O. and Marchant, N. 2018. Why could meditation practice help promote mental health and well-being in aging? Alzheimer’s Research & Therapy. 10(1), pp.57
- Wang, F., Eun-Kyoung Lee, O., Feng F., Vitiello, M.V., Wang, W., Benson, H., Fricchione, G.L. and Denninger, J.W. 2016. The effect of meditative movement on sleep quality: A systematic review. Sleep Medicine Reviews. 30, pp.43-52.
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- Olsen, K.L. and Emery, C.F. 2015. Mindfulness and weight loss: a systematic review. Psychosomatic Medicine. 77(1), pp.59-67.