Everyone seems to meditate: Coworkers plan to vacation at a meditation retreat, friends chat about favorite meditation apps and countless articles praise the practice.
Does meditation live up to the hype?
“The science is very much in an embryonic state,” says Richard Davidson, founder of the Center for Healthy Minds, at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, but adding “meditation plays an important part of the maintenance of well-being.”
Much of the research looks at mindfulness meditation, where people focus on their breathing to stay in the moment.
It’s “paying attention to our present moment experience with openness, curiosity and a willingness to be there with what is,” says Diana Winston, director of Mindfulness Education at the Mindful Awareness Research Center at UCLA.
When thoughts pop up, people let them go and refocus on breathing. Other types of meditation include compassionate meditation, where people focus on kind, loving thoughts; or mantra meditation, where people repeat a saying, for example.
While meditation research remains in its infancy, a few recent studies show its impact.
Meditate away the recurring blues
“Recurrent depression is rather like a chronic health condition, like diabetes in the sense that people need to learn how best to manage it. MBCT teaches those skills,” writes Willem Kuyken, professor of clinical psychology at the University of Oxford.
Kuyken examined studies looking at whether MBCT — or mindful behavioral cognitive therapy, an eight-week program that helps people identify and address depression symptoms — helps with recurrent depression. When people undergo MBCT, they are less likely to experience a recurrence of depression for 60 weeks. It has a greater impact on people with the most severe symptoms.
While he’s not sure why it works best with the worst depression, Kuyken says that MBCT teaches coping.
“The idea is that they learn skills for life that they continue to use for the rest of their lives.”
Meditation-exercise combo makes people happy, reduces depression
Experts know exercise reduces depression, but what happens when it’s combined with meditation? Brandon Alderman looked at this relationship. He asked 52 people, 22 of which had depression, to participate in a meditation and exercise regime twice a week for eight weeks.
Participants first engaged in focused attention, similar to mindful meditation, for 20 minutes, then did 10 minutes of walking meditation, where people concentrated on their steps. Then, they ran on a treadmill or rode a stationary bike for 30 minutes. Everyone experienced improved moods, with depressed people reporting 40 percent fewer symptoms.
Alderman was surprised — previous studies show people need to exercise at least three times a week for 45 minutes to feel an antidepressant effect. But there seems to be a synergy between moving and meditation.
“Both exercise and meditation have influence on parts of the brain that have been implicated in depression,” says the professor of exercise science at Rutgers University. “The combination of the two is especially powerful."
Meditation as anti-aging
When middle age hits, people start experiencing mental fogs — things that once came naturally require more work. Researchers at UCLA have been studying the effects meditation has on brain aging. Most recently, they examined how longtime meditators at age 50 fare in cognitive tests compared to other 50-year-olds who don’t meditate. They found a big difference: meditators have brains that are about seven-and-a-half years younger than those those who don’t meditate.
“When you start exercising the brain with meditation, that particular part of the brain … [is] going to be stronger,” says Dr. Amit Sood, a professor of medicine at Mayo Clinic, who was not involved in the study.
Meditation reduces stress hormones, such as cortisol, while increasing endorphins, dopamine and other hormones that help to lower stress and slow aging, he says. Meditation also lessens inflammation, which damages and ages cells.
Though, he adds a caveat. It’s unclear whether meditators possess another quality, such as healthier genes or better habits, contributing to younger brains.
Refocusing to reduce pain
“If you have physical pain and you get lost in all your fears associated with your physical pain, it gets worse,” says Winston. “But if you live in the moment, it can reduce pain symptoms.”
The research supports that. One study found that after eight weeks of 45 minutes of meditation daily, older adults with lower back pain were better able to manage their aches. Another study showed meditation caused people to experience less pain without relying on the body’s natural opioid system, meaning it likely works by focusing attention on something else.
“We’re still a long way from having a mechanistic understanding of how these practices work," says Davidson. “There is some suggestion that meditation can have anti-inflammatory effects both in the body and perhaps in the brain."
Meditate the stress away
“When you are stressed or anxious and your mind is going through the worst-case scenario,” says Winston. “[Meditation] is a stress reduction tool.”
With lasting effects, it seems. Researchers asked 35 unemployed people to participate in three days of either mindfulness meditation or relaxation training and undergo a brain scan both before and after. People who did mindful meditation felt less stressed and experienced brain changes — regions that tackle stress communicated more with those responsible for calm and focus.
Experts remain unsure of how long people need to meditate for any effects. Sood says research shows 15 minutes of meditation is needed to reduce blood pressure. But the experts agree that meditating remains important.
“Start with what you can do, short brief practices multiple times [a day]. You will either be satisfied with that much” or you become hungry for more, Sood says.