Can meditation improve physical health?
We have a lot of evidence now that tells us that meditating is good for us. Many of us though have grown up in a culture that tends to separate the mind from the body. We may feel that meditation helps us mentally but struggle to see how that could have an effect on our physical health. However, research tells us that the benefits of meditation reach beyond the domain of mental health and can exert a measurable influence on our physical health too.
This was demonstrated in a study by Barbara Fredrickson and her colleagues which you can read about here https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23649562. They found that lovingkindness meditation led to measurable improvements in vagal tone which is known to be related to general physical health. Increased vagal tone is associated with increased activation of the parasympathetic nervous system. The parasympathetic nervous system is responsible for 'putting on the brakes' and calming down our response when there is no need for fighting or competitiveness. While the sympathetic nervous system helps us to deal with emergency and competitive situations, the parasympathetic nervous system deals with the everyday housekeeping of the body, supporting the immune system, health and vitality. Both systems are very much needed to help us to survive and thrive. The sympathetic nervous system is continually activated unless suppressed by the activation of the parasympathetic nervous system, which occurs through vagus nerve activation. The researchers used a measure of vagal tone as a measurable indicator of physical health.
The research involved two groups of people. One group was taught lovingkindness meditation exercises while the other served as a comparison group. Vagal tone was measured before and after the intervention. The results of the study indicated that people in the lovingkindness group experienced more positive emotions. This result was stronger for people with a higher starting vagal tone. In turn, more positive emotions resulted in further improvements in vagal tone.
The results of this research suggest something that many of us will have experienced ourselves. Positive emotions lead to improved health, and improved health leads to more positive emotions. The importance of the research is in demonstrating that this is linked to real, measurable changes inside the body. We do not need to dismiss the impact of meditation of merely a side-show to real physical change but can rather recognise it is something that has the power to change us in real and profound ways.
So why not start or renew a meditation practice today. Your body will thank you and your mind will thank you too.