Get mindful

You can improve your physical health, right down to your genes, by practicing meditation

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The cliché “mind over matter” appears to have scientific validity.

Meditation can have significant beneficial health effects, according to a new research study, out of Spain, France and the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

In the study, researchers analyzed the effects of a day of intensive mindfulness on a group of experienced meditators.

After eight hours of mindfulness practice, the meditators showed a striking molecular difference — including reduced levels of pro-inflammatory genes, which resulted in more rapid recovery from a stressful condition.

Genetic changes, meanwhile, were not seen in a non-meditating control group that took part in other quiet activities.

“To the best of our knowledge, this is the first paper that shows rapid alterations in gene expression within subjects associated with mindfulness meditation practice,” said study author Richard Davidson, founder of the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds at UW-Madison.

“Most interestingly, the changes were observed in genes that are current targets of anti-inflammatory and analgesic drugs,” said Perla Kaliman, a researcher at the Institute of Biomedical Research of Barcelona, Spain, where the molecular analyses were conducted.

Psychosomatics

The mind and the body are intimately connected. Our physical health is largely determined by our mental and emotional condition.

Kenneth Pelletier of Stanford Medical School put it this way: “Mind and body are inextricably linked, and their second-by-second interaction exerts a profound influence upon health and illness, life and death.”

Research has implicated chronic stress as a major contributor to a wide variety of diseases and other health issues. According to the American Psychological Association, the six leading causes of death in the U.S. are all linked to stress — heart disease, cancer, lung ailments, accidents, cirrhosis of the liver and suicide.

Staying present

In recent years, psychotherapists have turned to mindfulness meditation as an important element in the treatment of a number of problems, including depression, substance abuse, eating disorders and anxiety.

Increasing your capacity for mindfulness is said to support many attitudes that contribute to a satisfied life. Being mindful makes it easier to savor pleasures in life, helps you become fully engaged in activities and creates a greater capacity to deal with adverse events.

By focusing on the here and now, many people who practice mindfulness find they’re less likely to get caught up in worries about the future or regrets about the past, are less preoccupied, and are better able to form deep connections with others.

If greater well-being isn’t enough of an incentive, scientists have discovered that mindfulness techniques help improve physical health in a number of ways. It can help relieve stress, treat heart disease, lower blood pressure, reduce chronic pain, improve sleep and alleviate gastrointestinal difficulties.


Tait Trussell is a former managing editor of Nation’s Business magazine.


Learn more

Discover the basics of mindfulness mediation — and find mediation apps for your phone — at mindful.org. Or you can try these basic steps (also from mindful.org):

1. Take a seat. 

Find a place to sit that feels calm and quiet to you.

2. Set a time limit. 

If you’re just beginning, it can help to choose a short time, such as 5 or 10 minutes.

3. Notice your body. 

You can sit in a chair with your feet on the floor, you can sit loosely cross-legged or you can kneel. Just make sure you’re in a stable position you can maintain.

4. Feel your breath. 

Follow the sensation of your breath as it goes out and as it goes in.

5. Notice when your mind has wandered. 

Inevitably, your attention will leave the sensations of the breath and wander to other places. When you get around to noticing this — in a few seconds, a minute, five minutes — simply return your attention to the breath.

6. Be kind to your wandering mind. 

Don’t judge yourself or obsess over the content of the thoughts you find yourself lost in. Just come back. That’s it! That’s the practice. You go away, you come back, and you try to do it as kindly as possible.