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Meditation--the relaxation remedy: research suggests meditation can help ease stress, improve health and well-being, and even boost brain activity.

Modern science is investigating the ancient practice of meditation, and uncovering strong evidence that people who spend time every day in quiet, sustained contemplation reap benefits in greater resistance to stress and better mental and physical health.

Over the past three decades, researchers searching for ways to help people resist stress and find emotional balance have published more than 1,000 peer-reviewed articles on meditation. Their work suggests that regular practice of meditation is linked to--among other things--significant relief from a variety of stress-related physical and mental problems, a stronger immune system, longer life, increased energy and positive changes in brain function.

In one important study, Sara Lazar, PhD, a research scientist at Massachusetts General Hospital, found that brain regions associated with sensory processing and attention were thicker in meditators than in non-meditators. What's more, in a region of the brain involved with working memory, the differences in thickness between meditators and non-meditators were most evident in older people, which suggests that regular practice of meditation might reduce age-related thinning in that area of the cortex.

"In recent years federal funding for research into meditation and other forms of complementary and alternative medicine has grown, and new technologies have become available to help us measure more precisely how meditation affects the body and the brain," says Greg Feldman, PhD, a fellow in the Depression Clinical and Research Program at Massachusetts General Hospital, and an assistant professor of clinical psychology at Simmons College.

"What we're learning suggests that, especially for people living stressful lives, meditation may offer a way to find peace, reduce tension and protect overall health. It's something you can do for yourself to promote your own health and well-being."


There are various forms of meditation, but all have a similar goal--to help practitioners reach a state of physical relaxation, mental tranquility and focused attention. One category of meditation emphasizes concentration: Meditators strive to control their minds through sustained concentration on a word, object or sensory perception, eventually developing the ability to tune out the external world and intrusive mental chatter. Another meditation category focuses on awareness, or mindfulness: Meditators endeavor to become more aware of what is happening inside them and around them in the present moment, while maintaining a non-judgmental and open attitude toward whatever perceptions, thoughts or sensations may arise. Emphasis is on living in the moment, rather than functioning on "automatic pilot."

Although it has long been associated with religious or spiritual practice, meditation is increasingly used in the West by practitioners in search of stress reduction and better health. Research indicates that they're on the right track: An investigation involving 2836 people enrolled in a Quebec insurance plan found that payments to physicians for participants who learned and practiced meditation over a six-year period were 55 percent lower than for subjects in the non-meditating control group.

While some people spend many hours a day meditating, research suggests that as little as 20 minutes to an hour of meditating once a day may produce benefits.


As research mounts, so does evidence that regular meditation is good for you. Studies suggest that long-term meditation can affect such areas as:

* Mental health. Regular meditation is associated with improvements in a range of mental health measures, including stress levels, coping styles, quality of life and levels of depression, hostility and anxiety. A recent study found that 20 of 22 anxiety-prone volunteers improved significantly after practicing meditation for eight weeks.

* Cardiovascular health. Studies suggest that regular meditation can improve exercise tolerance in patients with chronic stable angina. Regular meditation is also linked to lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels, reduced frequency of irregular heart beats, and reduced risk of heart attack and stress-related changes to the cardiovascular system.

* Pain control. Researchers have documented a reduction in pain perception among people who meditate. Various studies involved subjects who suffered from rheumatoid arthritis, back pain, headaches, and fibromyalgia.

* Immunity. Research has documented a boost in immune function among people who meditate regularly. One well-known study found that individuals who underwent an 8-week program in mindfulness meditation displayed a significantly greater immune response following an influenza injection than did a control group who did not meditate.

* Brain function. Studies have associated meditation with an increase in the communication between the two hemispheres of the brain, and with a more pronounced response to stimulation. Regular meditation is associated with greater activity in several left anterior regions of the brain that are associated with positive emotions. Areas of the brain associated with attention and sensory processing thicken with regular meditation, and several studies have suggested that meditation can increase concentration, mental performance, memory and the ability to calm and stabilize the mind.

* Other conditions: Psoriasis clears up more readily in people who regularly meditate, according to research. Meditation may also improve insomnia, infertility, headache, asthma, and irritable bowel syndrome.

RELATED ARTICLE: A simple meditation technique.

Try this mindful meditation technique for at least 20 minutes a day to soothe away stress.

* Choose a relaxing setting. Select a comfortable place where you will not be disturbed. Dim the lights. Unplug the phone and eliminate other potential distractions.

* Sit comfortably. Use a chair, or sit on the floor, with your neck and back straight. Close your eyes, relax your muscles, and breathe deeply.

* Focus on your breathing. Feel each breath go in and go out, becoming aware of the sensation of air moving through your nostrils and lungs, and of your abdomen rising and falling. Try not to let thoughts distract you.

* Gently control your thoughts. When worries, images, fears or hopes intrude, don't try to suppress them or ignore them. Simply note them in a nonjudgmental manner, and then gently bring your mind back to contemplation of your breathing. Your ability to maintain concentration will improve with practice.

* Occasionally check the time to see how long you have meditated. Eventually time will seem to pass quickly.

* When your meditation session ends, open your eyes and slowly return to the world around you.
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Publication:Mind, Mood & Memory
Geographic Code:1U1MA
Date:Jul 1, 2006
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