Meditation: Precision Medicine for the Brain and Body

Meditation: Precision Medicine for the Brain and Body |
Sara Gottfried MD

Have you heard of this cool thing called meditation? As someone who has fixed a cup of tea and sat down to get quiet on a daily basis for the past few decades, I am a total convert on the benefits of meditation. And science is finally catching up to what we’ve known about meditation since ancient times  – that regular contemplative practice improves attention and awareness, and the downstream benefits are legion, including more gray matter (bigger brain), stress resilience, and less cognitive decline as we get older and cuter.

What type of meditation is best? Doesn’t seem to matter as long as attention is focused: vipassana, loving-kindness, mindfulness, samatha, sahaja, zen—meditators in these studies were engaged in control of breath, visualization, attention to external and internal stimuli, withdrawal of sensory perceptions, and letting go of thoughts. Just pick a practice and start. In this article, I’ll cover a few of my favorites.

What happens every morning? I sit quietly for ten to thirty minutes of reflection. Right now that’s the sofa in the family room, next to my favorite books and a few happy plants, a shrine of sorts but nothing fancy. Sometimes I record some thoughts and ideas in a journal. Other times, I’ll read a sacred text and sit with a sentence for thirty minutes. Often, I’ll use my Peloton app or Muse headband to guide me in visualization for a technology-supported practice. Meditation starts my day in the right gear, helping me become more positive, proactive, inspired, connected, and centered. Meditation has become a portal to explore uncomfortable emotions, my obsessive need to know, and my other uncomfortable and distressing sensations. If that’s starting to sound bland and a bit saccharin, I get it. Physicians have a very strong negativity bias, and there is no tool like meditation to help me be more aware of my own biases, in a more objective way.

I recommend meditation in all of my books, including Younger and Brain Body Diet, because it is proven to help regulate cortisol, anxiety and chronic pain, reduce inflammation and promote regrowth of the brain’s gray matter. It boosts the parts of the brain that make you focus better, feel resilient and keeps your brain young. It breeds a positive mood, and the benefits begin immediately after training, even in beginners.

As a culture, we value productivity and busy schedules. That means most of us are out of balance, spending too much time in fight-flight-freeze mode (overactivation of the sympathetic nervous system) and not enough time in rest and digest (parasympathetic nervous system), which restores and heals the body.  The key is to manage your stress so that it doesn’t cause downstream health problems and hormonal disruption. The body is designed to release cortisol in order to cope with stresslike when you’re in fight or flight modebut the problem is that most of us run around stressed constantly.  In addition to controlling how you cope with stress, cortisol governs digestion, cravings, sleep/wake patterns, blood pressure and physical activity.  It’s basically a spiral: when you get stressed, cortisol rises, you overeat, you drink coffee, cortisol rises higher, and then you get fat. Stress makes most women become hypervigilant and struggle with sleep.

Benefits of Meditation

Meditation helps shift your body into a healing state—and maintaining your parasympathetic tone may increase your longevity. Spending more time in a calm state allows the parasympathetic system, rest-and-digest, to heal your body and mind. It also affects how you respond to stressful situations—always a benefit for interpersonal relationships.

Meditation can also come from the form of deep breathing, yoga or simply shifting your awareness to the present moment. You could use a walking meditation, prayer, or other spiritual practices to detoxify stress from the brain in just a few minutes per day. One of the most proven practices is Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), which has been shown to reduce stress among other outcomes.

Here’s some of the scientific evidence supporting the benefits of meditation and how it changes the brain:

  • Meditation rebuilds your hippocampus by boosting gray matter density, which is believed to provide cognitive and psychological benefits that persist throughout the day and counter the brain fog1The main study showing this benefit is from Sara Lazar of Harvard University, who looked at images of the brains of participants in a ...continue, even in those new to meditation.2M. Fotuhi et al., “A Personalized 12-Week ‘Brain Fitness Program’ for Improving Cognitive Function and Increasing the Volume of Hippocampus in ...continue
  • Long-term meditators with a daily practice of ten to ninety minutes had bigger volumes of certain brain structures, particularly the hippocampus and the insula, the brain’s center of body awareness.3 In the study from UCLA of long-term meditators, other areas with larger volumes included the orbitofrontal cortex, thalamus, and inferior temporal ...continue
  • Meditation increases the gray matter throughout the whole brain, and especially the right hemisphere.4The scientific term for body awareness is interoception, the signaling and perception of internal bodily sensations. B. K. Hölzel et al., ...continue
  • Meditation can slow, stall, or even reverse the usual brain shrinkage and cognitive decline associated with age over thirty.5Pagnoni et al., “Age Effects on Gray Matter Volume and Attentional Performance in Zen Meditation,” Neurobiology of Aging 28, no. 10 (2007): ...continue
  • Meditation can increase blood flow in the brain and improve memory, even in older folks with age-related memory loss, mild cognitive impairment, and early Alzheimer’s disease.6R. Topakian et al., “Cerebral Vasculitis and Stroke in Lyme Neuroborreliosis,” Cerebrovascular Diseases 26, no. 5 (2008): 455–61; B. Wittwer et ...continue

How to Meditate

There’s no single best way to meditate but one of my favorites is to use the Muse brain-sensing headband because it gamifies meditation. It’s an EEG machine in the shape of a headband that guides you to focus your attention on a nature sound, such as beach waves or a rain forest that you play on your smartphone. As you focus better and calm down, the waves get quieter, and if you sustain the calm state, you start to hear bird sounds. Competitive brains like mine become calmer and calmer with each session. Then you get a score at the end of your session, which reviews what percent of time your brain was calm, neutral, or “active.” Brilliant! It’s the best way I’ve found to dial down my sympathetic nervous system and dial up my parasympathetic nervous system.

Without a book or CD, these practices are right under your nose. And they don’t have to be complicated or time-consuming. With a few simple tools, you can quickly train your mind to find peace and calmness during routine daily activities, shifting your dial from the go-go-go setting to slow and easy.

Walking Meditation

Recently I’ve begun a daily walking meditation with my dog. It takes ten to thirty minutes, and you don’t need a dog to reap the benefits.7J. Kabat-Zinn, Mindfulness Meditation in Everyday Life, audiobook Eureka Books, 2016. Read more here: ...continue It’s an intentional form of walking slowly and meditatively, where you walk ten to thirty small and natural steps, then retrace your steps.

Here’s how:

  1. Choose your place. Walk slowly, ideally in a quiet place where you won’t be stopped by neighbors or distracted by speed walkers.
  2. Begin stepping. Walk ten or so steps, then pause and practice deep breathing. Try to inhale for five counts, pause for ten counts, then exhale for five counts. When you feel ready, turn and retrace your steps or keep walking forward for another ten or so steps. Pause and breathe again.
  3. Consider the mechanics of each of your steps. We are usually so automatic about walking, but now we’re going to drill deep into each part and get more intentional, using mindfulness. For example, ponder the lifting of your right foot, the moving of the foot forward, the placing of the foot on the ground, the shifting in weight to that forward foot as the back heel lifts. Continue with the other foot, and notice any tendencies or judgments.
  4. Become aware of sensations. Sense your arms, allow them to hang. Pay attention to the breath moving in and out of your lungs. Keep your neck neutral, parallel to the ground. Do you hear any sounds nearby or from your movements? Trace the landscape with your eyes. When your mind wanders, bring it back to your present sensations: sounds, visual cues, breath.  
  5. Integrate. Walking meditation grows on you, but slowly at first. As you become more familiar with walking meditation, you can bring mindfulness to walking at any pace, even to running. The aim is to create the conditions that support gentle and gradual detoxification of the brain body, allowing a state of dynamic wellness and wholeness.

In short, you can use these principles for any meditation. First, notice the surprise in your surroundings. Second, find the mystical in the mundane. And third, set aside the multi-tasking to stay in the present. In my experience, the present moment is where all healing and restoration of homeostasis occurs.

Prayer-guided meditation

Besides for yoga and visualizations, I like to perform a centering prayer. Studies show that word-based centering prayer stimulates the prefrontal cortex, plus the language part of the brain (the frontal lobe, the area behind the forehead) and the limbic areas, and makes you less self-centered.8A. B. Newberg et al., “Cerebral Blood Flow During Meditative Prayer: Preliminary Findings and Methodological Issues,” Perceptual and Motor Skills ...continue It also activates the brainstem, which is how the brain connects to the body, and thereby translates calm not just into the brain but funnels it down to the rest of the body. Finally, studies show that meditation, including centering prayer, decreases sense of self as shown by reduced blood flow to the parietal lobe, the seat of self-orientation.9A. B. Newberg et al., “The Neural Basis of the Complex Mental Task of Meditation: Neurotransmitter and Neurochemical Considerations,” Medical ...continue Centering prayer is the form of active surrender. Here’s how to do it.

  • Select a sacred word that symbolizes your connection to inner divinity. Examples: grace, calm, trust, faith, peace, ease.
  • Sit comfortably, and close your eyes. Silently repeat your sacred word to invite a connection to the Divine.
  • When you find yourself becoming attached to thoughts, return to the sacred word, a symbol of your consent to surrender.
  • Remain still with eyes closed for a few more moments.

Whatever gets you motivated, the key is to carve out some time for regular meditative practice. And the science proves, even a little yields big results. It seems impossible to start, but just like any physical exercise, meditation is a mental one that gets easier as you build up more “muscle.” That’s brain muscle, that radiates down to bring your hormones and health into equilibrium. Experiment to find out which techniques speak most to you, aware of the fact that the technique matters less than developing the skill and building the habit.

  1. The main study showing this benefit is from Sara Lazar of Harvard University, who looked at images of the brains of participants in a mindfulness-based stress reduction program for eight weeks. She compared the brain MRIs before and after the program, and found the hippocampus was bigger and the amygdala (center of fear) was smaller, all in twenty-seven minutes per day of mindfulness practice. B. K. Hölzel et al., “Mindfulness Practice Leads to Increases in Regional Brain Gray Matter Density,” Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging 191, no. 1 (2011): 36–43
  2.  M. Fotuhi et al., “A Personalized 12-Week ‘Brain Fitness Program’ for Improving Cognitive Function and Increasing the Volume of Hippocampus in Elderly with Mild Cognitive Impairment,” The Journal of Prevention of Alzheimer’s Disease 3, no. 3 (2016): 133–37; R. A. Gotink et al., “8-Week MindfulnessBased Stress Reduction Induces Brain Changes Similar to Traditional Long-Term Meditation Practice: A Systematic Review,” Brain and Cognition 108 (2016): 32–41; R. A. Gotink et al., “Meditation and Yoga Practice Are Associated with Smaller Right Amygdala Volume: The Rotterdam Study,” Brain Imaging and Behavior 2018 (2018): 1–9.
  3.  In the study from UCLA of long-term meditators, other areas with larger volumes included the orbitofrontal cortex, thalamus, and inferior temporal gyrus, all known for regulating emotions. There was a total of twenty-two meditators of Zazen, Samatha, and vipassana who had practiced for five to forty six years. E. Luders et al., “The Underlying Anatomical Correlates of Long-Term Meditation: Larger  Hippocampal and Frontal Volumes of Gray Matter,” Neuroimage 45, no. 3 (2009): 672–78; E. Luders et al., “Meditation Effects Within the Hippocampal Complex Revealed by Voxel-Based Morphometry and Cytoarchitectonic Probabilistic Mapping,” Frontiers in Psychology 4 (2013): 398; E. Luders et al., “Global and Regional Alterations of Hippocampal Anatomy in Long-Term Meditation Practitioners,” Human Brain Mapping 34, no. 12 (2013): 3369–75.
  4.  The scientific term for body awareness is interoception, the signaling and perception of internal bodily sensations. B. K. Hölzel et al., “Investigation of Mindfulness Meditation Practitioners with Voxel-Based Morphometry,” Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience 3, no. 1 (2007): 55–61.
  5.  G. Pagnoni et al., “Age Effects on Gray Matter Volume and Attentional Performance in Zen Meditation,” Neurobiology of Aging 28, no. 10 (2007): 1623–27; T. Gard et al., “The Potential Effects of Meditation on Age-Related Cognitive Decline: A Systematic Review,” Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 1307, no. 1 (2014): 89–103; E. Luders et al., “Forever Young(er): Potential Age-Defying Effects of Long-Term Meditation on Gray Matter Atrophy,” Frontiers in Psychology 5 (2014): 1551; F. Kurth et al., “Reduced Age-Related Degeneration of the Hippocampal Subiculum in Long-Term Meditators,” Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging 232, no. 3 (2015): 214–18; E. Luders et al., “Searching for the Philosopher’s Stone: Promising Links Between Meditation and Brain Preservation,” Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 1373, no. 1 (2016): 38–44; M. Sperduti et al., “The Protective Role of Long-Term Meditation on the Decline of the Executive Component of Attention in Aging: A Preliminary Cross-Sectional Study,” Aging, Neuropsychology, and Cognition 23, no. 6 (2016): 691–702; G. Chételat et al., “Reduced Age-Associated Brain Changes in Expert Meditators: A Multimodal Neuroimaging Pilot Study,” Scientific Reports 7, no. 1 (2017): 10160; N. Last et al., “The Effects of Meditation on Grey Matter Atrophy and Neurodegeneration: A Systematic Review,” Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease 56, no. 1 (2017): 275–86.
  6.  R. Topakian et al., “Cerebral Vasculitis and Stroke in Lyme Neuroborreliosis,” Cerebrovascular Diseases 26, no. 5 (2008): 455–61; B. Wittwer et al., “Cerebrovascular Events in Lyme Neuroborreliosis,” Journal of Stroke and Cerebrovascular Diseases 24, no. 7 (2015): 1671–78; F. M. Brett et al., “EBV-Driven Natural Killer Cell Disease of the Central Nervous System Presenting as Subacute Cognitive Decline,” Human Pathology: Case Reports 10 (2017): 64–68.
  7.  J. Kabat-Zinn, Mindfulness Meditation in Everyday Life, audiobook Eureka Books, 2016. Read more here: https://ggia.berkeley.edu/practice/walking_meditation.
  8. A. B. Newberg et al., “Cerebral Blood Flow During Meditative Prayer: Preliminary Findings and Methodological Issues,” Perceptual and Motor Skills 97, no. 2 (2003): 625–30.
  9.  A. B. Newberg et al., “The Neural Basis of the Complex Mental Task of Meditation: Neurotransmitter and Neurochemical Considerations,” Medical Hypotheses 61, no. 2 (2003): 282–91; S. Shimada et al., “The Parietal Role in the Sense of Self-Ownership with Temporal Discrepancy Between Visual and Proprioceptive Feedbacks,” Neuroimage 24, no. 4 (2005): 1225–32; L. Blumberg, “What Happens to the Brain During Spiritual Experiences?,” The Atlantic, June 5, 2014, https://www.theatlantic.com /health/archive/2014/06/what-happens-to-brains-during-spiritual-experiences/361882; A. B. Newberg et al., “A Case Series Study of the Neurophysiological Effects of Altered States of Mind During Intense Islamic Prayer,” Journal of Physiology–Paris 109, no. 4–6 (2015): 214–20.

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References   [ + ]

1. The main study showing this benefit is from Sara Lazar of Harvard University, who looked at images of the brains of participants in a mindfulness-based stress reduction program for eight weeks. She compared the brain MRIs before and after the program, and found the hippocampus was bigger and the amygdala (center of fear) was smaller, all in twenty-seven minutes per day of mindfulness practice. B. K. Hölzel et al., “Mindfulness Practice Leads to Increases in Regional Brain Gray Matter Density,” Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging 191, no. 1 (2011): 36–43
2. M. Fotuhi et al., “A Personalized 12-Week ‘Brain Fitness Program’ for Improving Cognitive Function and Increasing the Volume of Hippocampus in Elderly with Mild Cognitive Impairment,” The Journal of Prevention of Alzheimer’s Disease 3, no. 3 (2016): 133–37; R. A. Gotink et al., “8-Week MindfulnessBased Stress Reduction Induces Brain Changes Similar to Traditional Long-Term Meditation Practice: A Systematic Review,” Brain and Cognition 108 (2016): 32–41; R. A. Gotink et al., “Meditation and Yoga Practice Are Associated with Smaller Right Amygdala Volume: The Rotterdam Study,” Brain Imaging and Behavior 2018 (2018): 1–9.
3. In the study from UCLA of long-term meditators, other areas with larger volumes included the orbitofrontal cortex, thalamus, and inferior temporal gyrus, all known for regulating emotions. There was a total of twenty-two meditators of Zazen, Samatha, and vipassana who had practiced for five to forty six years. E. Luders et al., “The Underlying Anatomical Correlates of Long-Term Meditation: Larger  Hippocampal and Frontal Volumes of Gray Matter,” Neuroimage 45, no. 3 (2009): 672–78; E. Luders et al., “Meditation Effects Within the Hippocampal Complex Revealed by Voxel-Based Morphometry and Cytoarchitectonic Probabilistic Mapping,” Frontiers in Psychology 4 (2013): 398; E. Luders et al., “Global and Regional Alterations of Hippocampal Anatomy in Long-Term Meditation Practitioners,” Human Brain Mapping 34, no. 12 (2013): 3369–75.
4. The scientific term for body awareness is interoception, the signaling and perception of internal bodily sensations. B. K. Hölzel et al., “Investigation of Mindfulness Meditation Practitioners with Voxel-Based Morphometry,” Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience 3, no. 1 (2007): 55–61.
5. Pagnoni et al., “Age Effects on Gray Matter Volume and Attentional Performance in Zen Meditation,” Neurobiology of Aging 28, no. 10 (2007): 1623–27; T. Gard et al., “The Potential Effects of Meditation on Age-Related Cognitive Decline: A Systematic Review,” Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 1307, no. 1 (2014): 89–103; E. Luders et al., “Forever Young(er): Potential Age-Defying Effects of Long-Term Meditation on Gray Matter Atrophy,” Frontiers in Psychology 5 (2014): 1551; F. Kurth et al., “Reduced Age-Related Degeneration of the Hippocampal Subiculum in Long-Term Meditators,” Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging 232, no. 3 (2015): 214–18; E. Luders et al., “Searching for the Philosopher’s Stone: Promising Links Between Meditation and Brain Preservation,” Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 1373, no. 1 (2016): 38–44; M. Sperduti et al., “The Protective Role of Long-Term Meditation on the Decline of the Executive Component of Attention in Aging: A Preliminary Cross-Sectional Study,” Aging, Neuropsychology, and Cognition 23, no. 6 (2016): 691–702; G. Chételat et al., “Reduced Age-Associated Brain Changes in Expert Meditators: A Multimodal Neuroimaging Pilot Study,” Scientific Reports 7, no. 1 (2017): 10160; N. Last et al., “The Effects of Meditation on Grey Matter Atrophy and Neurodegeneration: A Systematic Review,” Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease 56, no. 1 (2017): 275–86.
6. R. Topakian et al., “Cerebral Vasculitis and Stroke in Lyme Neuroborreliosis,” Cerebrovascular Diseases 26, no. 5 (2008): 455–61; B. Wittwer et al., “Cerebrovascular Events in Lyme Neuroborreliosis,” Journal of Stroke and Cerebrovascular Diseases 24, no. 7 (2015): 1671–78; F. M. Brett et al., “EBV-Driven Natural Killer Cell Disease of the Central Nervous System Presenting as Subacute Cognitive Decline,” Human Pathology: Case Reports 10 (2017): 64–68.
7. J. Kabat-Zinn, Mindfulness Meditation in Everyday Life, audiobook Eureka Books, 2016. Read more here: https://ggia.berkeley.edu/practice/walking_meditation.
8. A. B. Newberg et al., “Cerebral Blood Flow During Meditative Prayer: Preliminary Findings and Methodological Issues,” Perceptual and Motor Skills 97, no. 2 (2003): 625–30.
9. A. B. Newberg et al., “The Neural Basis of the Complex Mental Task of Meditation: Neurotransmitter and Neurochemical Considerations,” Medical Hypotheses 61, no. 2 (2003): 282–91; S. Shimada et al., “The Parietal Role in the Sense of Self-Ownership with Temporal Discrepancy Between Visual and Proprioceptive Feedbacks,” Neuroimage 24, no. 4 (2005): 1225–32; L. Blumberg, “What Happens to the Brain During Spiritual Experiences?,” The Atlantic, June 5, 2014, https://www.theatlantic.com /health/archive/2014/06/what-happens-to-brains-during-spiritual-experiences/361882; A. B. Newberg et al., “A Case Series Study of the Neurophysiological Effects of Altered States of Mind During Intense Islamic Prayer,” Journal of Physiology–Paris 109, no. 4–6 (2015): 214–20.