Another wellness 101 lesson many learn are the benefits of meditation, but what many don't know is that a meditation practice is actually linked to lowering inflammation. That's right—the two things are actually connected. It may sound out there, but the connection is based in science and has many proponents, including functional medicine doctor and Food Fix author Mark Hyman, MD. (He even recently posted about it on his Instagram feed.)
How does meditation work to fight inflammation?
To understand meditation's effects on inflammation, you first have to understand how the body responds to stress. Cortisol, aka the stress hormone, is released whenever your body is stressed—which spurs a chain reaction in your body that makes you super alert and full of energy. Cortisol also mobilizes your immune system to respond to a potential threat in the form of creating cytokines (cells that attack disease), which are inherently inflammatory.
This stress response is good in situations where you need it (like running away from a burning building). But if you have sustained, chronic levels of stress, your body is less able to cope with the amounts of cortisol it's producing, which forces your immune system (and other parts of your body) into overdrive—leading to chronic inflammation.
Watch the video below to learn about foods linked to lowering inflammation:
Enter meditation. The practice offers incredible healing benefits, Dr. Hanson says, because as breathing and heart rate slows (which happens during meditation), cortisol levels drop. While many people live with a low level of stress, Dr. Hanson says says regularly meditating helps lower cortisol levels so the default setting, so to speak, is a calmer mode than one that's on the verge of fight-or-flight all the time—which supports your inflammatory response, too. "What you'll actually see in people who practice meditation regularly is that they are able to slow their heart rates faster than people who don't meditate, which is an indicator that they are better at [dealing with] stress," Dr. Hanson says.
"Meditation decreases interleukin-6 and C-reactive protein, blood markers of systemic inflammation," Dr. Hyman adds, explaining physically what's happening during meditation. "This is a reflection of the positive brain changes and better stress management it supports."
How long do I have to meditate in order to experience the healing benefits?
If the idea of sitting with your eyes closed and focusing on your breathing sounds like complete torture to you, get ready for some great news: You don't have to live like a monk in order to reap the healing benefits of meditation. Both experts say that most scientific studies on the benefits of meditation connect it to a 10-minute regular practice. "Even just a few minutes every day can have profound effects on your biology and mental outlook," Dr. Hyman says.
Dr. Hanson says that when it comes to cultivating a meditation practice, the key is to do is consistently. "It's better for someone to meditate a few minutes each day than for a longer period of time once in a while," he says. He also says that there are many different ways to meditate and it doesn't have to look the same for everyone. He says spending time in prayer, spending a few minutes focusing on gratitude, or going for a walk outside are all ways of meditating. "The key is taking time to slow down," he explains.
All the more reason to hit the pause button on your day and schedule yourself some 10 minutes of zen. Your stress (and inflammation levels) will thank you.
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