Meditation has been an on-trend practice for more than a decade, but it’s been gaining popularity as a prescriptive part of a treatment regime in the mainstream medicine world. And for good reason—it’s more than just a mindfulness practice.
If you search for “meditation” in PubMed, the free public search engine for scientific studies, you’ll find more than 6,000 articles about all the ways people have researched its effects. Add to that the fact that, according to the Center for Disease Control, 6 in 10 Americans have a lifestyle-driven disease, and meditation becomes a necessary part of a well-rounded treatment approach.
But, a lot of patients feel overwhelmed by the practice of meditation. They think it requires a level of guru status to adopt the practice, that it’s not accessible for the average person. In essence, meditation is taking control of your mind for purposes of spending time in thought for relaxation or religious/spiritual purposes. That means that meditation is dynamic—it can look and feel different to each person, meaning anyone can do it!
Whatever meditation looks like for you, there’s science to back up the practice. Let’s look at how it can help enhance your biochemistry and optimize your health.
Meditation Can Enhance Your Cortisol Awakening Response
Cortisol is that stress hormone that helps you get into fight or flight mode… and motivates you to, say, run from a bear. Over time, if your body is being activated into fight or flight when there’s not actually a bear to run from, it gets tired. It will then start to slow down and compensate for the effects of chronic stress (if you need a refresher on this, check out our blog on adrenal fatigue).
One of the ways that this happens is through decreasing your cortisol awakening response. Hang in there with me! Here’s what that means:
Your cortisol is supposed to be highest in the morning, kind of like a great cup of coffee. It gets you up, out of bed, and ready to take on the day. During this 20 to 30 minute period upon waking, your cortisol starts to rise (called a cortisol awakening response or CAR). But, if your body is too stressed, one of the first places that your body starts to compensate for chronic stress is by decreasing your cortisol in the morning. That leaves you exhausted, snoozing a zillion times, and spending 45 to 60 minutes feeling like you’re trudging through concrete to get started with your day.
Here’s where meditation comes in. Researchers followed 38 women and men who incorporated 30 minutes of meditation into their daily lives for 3 months. They found that the test subjects’ CAR was significantly improved, meaning these participants found it easier to get up and out of bed with an elevated mood and without a pot of coffee. 😉 These results also showed that subjects’ cortisol curves normalized, and their bodies were better able to balance the sympathetic (fight or flight) and parasympathetic (calming) nervous system response. Read: Their bodies were better able to manage stress!
Meditation Can Help You Get Deeper and More Restful Sleep
Sleep is key to our best brain function (and our best looks). But if you’re one of the 33% of Americans who suffer with insomnia (and it’s thought to be as high as 60%!), you might not be reaping the benefits that a good night’s rest can provide. You might find that the over-the-counter medications haven’t been that effective or they create a ‘hangover’ so bad the next day, they’re not worth taking. And the side effects of prescription sleep meds may not be for you.
You may have turned to white noise (like your television or listening to music) to help you sleep, but research is actually finding that mindfulness meditation is far superior at increasing the length and depth of your sleep. The key? Routine and repetition. The most significant effects of meditation were most pronounced at the 3-month mark (so if you’ve given it a try but gave up because it didn’t work for you, keep at it for a bit longer!).
We love adding in a guided nighttime meditation, like those from the app Headspace, so you don’t overthink the process or add to your insomnia. There are lots of available resources that include soothing bedtime stories, breathing exercises, and more, to lull you into restful sleep.
Meditation Can Help Slow Cellular Aging & Boost Brain Function
The phrase “I’m stressing myself to death” is a jovial sentence thrown around in social situations. However, we’re finding in research that the chronic stress may in fact actually be killing us faster. Outside of heart disease, obesity, and other chronic, lifestyle-driven diseases, chronic stress (both objective and perceived) is quite literally killing our cells and shortening our telomeres (a major determinant of aging).
So what does that mean, “objective and perceived stress”? Objective stress is measurable, like years of being a caregiver, number of hours worked per week, or your job duties. Perceived stress is your measurement of the stress you are under, such as stressful life circumstances and feeling undervalued at work. Research has found that BOTH categories of stressors contribute to telomere shortening and more rapid cell death.
But don’t get more stressed yet: Meditation can enhance cell life! Researchers have found that by adding in a mindfulness meditation practice, we can actually promote cell longevity and protect cells from rapid death. Meditation does this by decreasing stress hormones and oxidative stressors that damage our telomeres directly. The result is longer cell life and less overall stress.
It’s no wonder doctors are prescribing meditation as part of a treatment plan for everything from chronic stress to chronic disease. And, it can be easy to add into your daily routine. Not sure where to start? Join us on February 25 to demystify meditation and learn how to use it for your best health.
Dr. Cassie Wilder is a registered Naturopathic Medical Doctor (NMD) and founder of MIMC. Her passion is empowering her patients through education, understanding, and support through their healing journey. After graduating from Iowa State University with a Bachelors of Science in Kinesiology and Health, Dr. Wilder earned her Doctorate of Naturopathic Medicine from Southwest College of Naturopathic Medicine & Health Sciences, a fully accredited and nationally recognized institution in Phoenix, AZ. During her clinical training, she received extensive hands-on training with many leading experts in the field of functional medicine and developed a passion for treating hormonal imbalances, thyroid disorders, cardiovascular concerns, and adrenal fatigue.