How Meditation Improves the Health of Your Brain and Your Gut
Some people like to do it in the lotus position, others prefer to sit comfortably in a chair, and some even find moving around to be the most enjoyable form. We’re talking about meditation, and no matter how you approach it, this ancient practice can have some serious benefits when it comes to your long-term brain and gut health.
Although meditation is widely thought to have originated in India around 5,000 years ago, some researchers believe that primitive societies may have discovered the mind-soothing benefits of meditation much earlier, while sitting around the fire gazing into the flames.
Popularized by the teachings of Buddha and adopted by spiritual traditions all over the world for centuries, researchers are discovering that meditation—and its extensive benefits—may be even more relevant in today’s never-stop, hectic world.
What is Meditation?
Meditation can take many forms and often means different things to everyone who practices, but in general, meditation is defined as the practice of resting the mind with the goals of achieving deep mental rest and fully embodying the present moment.
With at least 18 million adults in the United States (and millions more around the world) meditating, endless varieties of this contemplative practice can easily be tailored to individual, spiritual, and religious preferences. Here are some of the most popular types of meditation:
1. Mindfulness Meditation: Stemming from Buddhist teachings, mindfulness meditation is the most popular technique in the West, due to its simplicity and easy access. During mindfulness meditation, you simply bring your attention to the present moment by focusing on the breath, and noticing (but not judging) thoughts and sensations as they occur.
2. Yoga Meditation: For devoted yogis, yoga meditation can be an excellent way to incorporate meditation into your daily practice. From chakra and third eye meditations to the more complex Kundalini meditation, yoga is often considered the oldest meditation tradition in the world.
3. Transcendental Meditation (TM): A seated meditation, Transcendental Meditation involves silently repeating a given mantra to promote relaxed awareness. TM requires instruction, expert guidance (and often a fee), and is typically done twice per day for 15-20 minutes.
4. Loving Kindness Meditation: Also called Metta Meditation, this seated form of meditation also descended from Buddhist traditions works on generating loving kindness towards yourself, all others, and the universe.
5. Qigong: If you prefer meditation with gentle movement, Qigong combines focus, regulated breathing, and slow body movements in a series of exercises to achieve “life energy cultivation.”
No matter what your preferences and goals, the good news is that you have hundreds of ways to practice meditation on your path to relaxation, and your physical and emotional health will benefit in a variety of ways. Meditation has been shown to exert a vast number of beneficial effects on the mind and body, including:
• Reducing stress
• Improving focus and attention
• Relieving pain
• Improving learning and memory
• Regulating the immune system
• Increasing telomere lengths for anti-aging effects
• Alleviating sleep issues
• And the list goes on and on...
It’s clear that meditation has some profound effects on all aspects of your health—let’s take a look at how it can better your brain.
Your Brain on Meditation
Given the number of mood-boosting and cognitive benefits meditation has on your mental health, it’s no wonder that your brain also experiences some amazing benefits while you meditate. But, did you know that meditation can actually change the structure and function of your brain?
It’s true! Research shows that meditation can alter concentrations of grey matter in the brain, bringing about powerful cognitive changes. In one study, Harvard researchers studied 16 non-meditators before and after they embarked on an 8-week mindfulness meditation program.
Using MR images of the brain, scientists determined that just 30 minutes of meditation per day for two months increased subjects’ grey matter density in the hippocampus, the region of the brain associated with learning and memory. And, areas of the brain that correlate with compassion, self-awareness, and introspection also showed increased density.
What’s more, researchers found decreased grey matter density in the amygdala, the part of the brain known to play a significant role in stress and worry.1 This is after just a couple months of everyday practice!
Other studies confirm that meditation can reduce age-related mental decline. In one trial, 13 regular meditation practitioners did not show the same decrease in grey matter volume—which typically occurs as a natural part of the aging process—as the similarly-aged control group who didn’t meditate regularly.2
Research also shows that long-term meditators have larger brain cortical gyrification—in other words, they have more folds on the cerebral cortex, which enables the brain to process information more quickly and helps with memory formation.3 And, meditators typically have stronger connections throughout their brains than people who don’t meditate.4
Not too shabby for sitting around doing...well, nothing. So, if meditation can so vastly improve the health of your brain, what can it do for your “second brain,” the gut?
Meditation...More Than a Gut Feeling
We know that meditation can reduce stress and promote feelings of peacefulness and relaxation. This stress reduction can, in turn, produce changes throughout your entire body—including your gut.
In one trial, 19 patients with digestive issues who participated in a 9-week meditation-based relaxation response course showed significant decreases in symptoms, and they experienced genetic changes related to the stress response.5 This means that meditation can actually alter how our genes work!5
Meditation can also help with common digestive complaints like gas, bloating, and cramps, by putting a stop to the the “fight or flight” survival response that can become habitual in times of stress. You see, when you’re chronically stressed, your body diverts energy and blood flow away from everyday functions—like digestion—to focus on preparing you for a true survival scenario. The result is impaired digestion, abdominal discomfort, temporary constipation, and a host of other issues.
Fortunately, by relaxing your mind and your body, meditation can take you out of the “fight or flight” groove and move you into “rest and digest” mode, improving your gut health and entire digestive process.
And what about the trillions of microbes living in your gut? They benefit from meditation, too! Stress can deplete the beneficial bacteria that are so crucial to nearly every aspect of your health and vitality, from your digestion and nutrient absorption to your metabolism and immune function. If stress becomes chronic, your microbiome—the living ecosystem of microbes living in and on your body—can quickly become out of balance and inhospitable bacteria can take over, causing all sorts of health challenges.
By alleviating stress, meditation can support proper microbial balance so you and your beneficial bacteria can enjoy long-term health. Even better, your friendly flora help to produce and regulate important neurotransmitters that also keep your stress levels in check, like cortisol, serotonin, GABA, and oxytocin. So, meditation supports your microbes and your microbes support you!
How to Incorporate Meditation Into Your Life
If you’re like many busy adults, the thought of trying to fit one more thing into your jam-packed schedule can feel totally overwhelming, but it’s easier than you may think to make meditation a regular part of your life. And, committing to a daily practice will pay you back in dividends when it comes to your long-term health and well-being.
Follow these Dos and Don’ts to get your practice up and going in no time:
• Take a class. Once you decide on which style of meditation to pursue, it’s helpful to look for a class, instructor, or even an app to teach you the basics that you can then use to establish your practice. You may even find that you love the community atmosphere of group meditation and can join an ongoing weekly session at a community or spiritual center.
• Meditate at the same time each day. Choosing a time that you’ll meditate every day will help you make meditating a part of your regular schedule. Once you establish your daily practice (remember, it takes at least 21 days to form a new habit), you’ll be less likely to skip it.
• Start with just two minutes. You don’t need to go straight to a 20-minute practice to reap the benefits of meditation, and you may be tempted give up in frustration if you start with more minutes than you are ready for. Begin with a two minute meditation and slowly increase your time as you feel ready.
• Set a timer. Setting a timer will enable you to sink deeply into your meditation without worrying about when you’ll be done, or if you’ve gone over your set time. Pick something that will gently (and quietly) transition you from meditation to your normal, alert state, like a soothing music tone on your phone.
• Begin by focusing your attention on the breath. The easiest way to begin meditating is by focusing on your breathing and observing the breath as you inhale and exhale. If your mind wanders, simply refocus your attention.
• Try guided meditations. If you haven’t yet settled on a particular technique, look for free guided meditations online that lead you through the process and gently (and effortlessly) bring your mind to a quiet space.
• Worry about the “how.” How you meditate is not nearly as important as that you meditate, so don’t stress about doing it right...just do it! Find a spot and position that is comfortable for you and settle into relaxation.
• Try to empty your mind. Many people try too hard to clear all their thoughts when they meditate, and end up quitting when they realize it’s nearly impossible! Instead, let thoughts float through your mind like balloons and gently refocus your attention on your breath or mantra when you feel yourself getting carried away thinking.
• Get distracted. Find a quiet time (and place) to meditate when you won’t be interrupted by kids, neighbors, or the dog. Consider putting your cell phone on airplane mode and take your landline off the hook, so you can really enjoy your time free from distractions and interruptions.
Oftentimes, the expectation in today’s society is to go, go, go and most of us never slow down enough to just “be” and relish the present moment in all its beauty and simplicity. And when you don’t take the time to really let your mind rest from its incessant thinking, you may find yourself feeling less than your best, both physically and emotionally.
Fortunately, meditation provides us with a way to find our center and relieve stress while also improving the function of our brain and gut, organs that are so crucial to our health, our immunity, our moods, and even how we age. Taking the time every day to be still in your mind is truly one of the best steps you can take towards vibrant health, happiness, and longevity!
1. Hölzel, B. K., Carmody, J., Vangel, M., Congleton, C., Yerramsetti, S. M., Gard, T., & Lazar, S. W. (2011). Mindfulness practice leads to increases in regional brain gray matter density. Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging,191(1), 36-43. doi:10.1016/j.pscychresns.2010.08.006
2. Pagnoni, G., & Cekic, M. (2007). Age effects on gray matter volume and attentional performance in Zen meditation. Neurobiology of Aging,28(10), 1623-1627. doi:10.1016/j.neurobiolaging.2007.06.008
3. Luders, E., Kurth, F., Mayer, E. A., Toga, A. W., Narr, K. L., & Gaser, C. (2012). The Unique Brain Anatomy of Meditation Practitioners: Alterations in Cortical Gyrification. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience,6. doi:10.3389/fnhum.2012.00034
4. Luders, E., Clark, K., Narr, K. L., & Toga, A. W. (2011). Enhanced brain connectivity in long-term meditation practitioners. NeuroImage,57(4), 1308-1316. doi:10.1016/j.neuroimage.2011.05.075
5. Kuo, B., Bhasin, M., Jacquart, J., Scult, M. A., Slipp, L., Riklin, E. I., . . . Denninger, J. W. (2015). Genomic and Clinical Effects Associated with a Relaxation Response Mind-Body Intervention in Patients with Irritable Bowel Syndrome and Inflammatory Bowel Disease. Plos One,10(4). doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0123861
Emily Courtney is a Writer and Editor at Hyperbiotics and mom to two fun and active boys. Emily is passionate about natural wellness and helping others learn about the power of probiotics for vibrant health! For more ideas on how you can benefit from the power of probiotics and live healthier days, be sure to subscribe to our newsletter.