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Don’t get it twisted. Meditation isn’t magic mumbo-jumbo. The practice has been probed, prodded, and scrutinized by some of the world’s best scientists. Their findings reveal evidence that behind a meditator’s feelings of calm and openness lie measurable physiological changes in the brain and bodily systems.
Here are a few thought-provoking studies that address some of the seemingly mystical effects of meditation through the rigorous lens of scientific examination.
Meditation for Heart Health
In a study published in 2012 in an American Heart Association journal, researchers found that African Americans with heart disease who practiced transcendental meditation (TM) twice a day were at a lower risk of stroke, heart attack, and death. Practicing TM daily also helped lower blood pressure, anxiety, and anger.
The research subjects were divided into two groups—one group was asked to incorporate at least 20 minutes of heart-healthy practices into their daily lives; a second group was taught TM and asked to practice it twice per day for 20 minutes. After three-month and six-month evaluations, the data showed that the meditation group displayed greater risk reduction for heart disease.
Though the study focused on the African American community (the group most prone to heart disease-related deaths in the United States) researchers concluded that practicing TM can help alleviate heart disease risk for healthy and unhealthy people of all races, and even suggested that doctors prescribe it to their patients.
Meditation for Anti-Aging
According to UCLA research published earlier this year, meditation can be linked to a reduced risk of the mental illnesses and neurodegenerative diseases associated with aging, which are caused by the decrease of the brain’s gray matter (the tissue that contains neurons).
The study examined the brains of 100 adult men and women, split into equal percentages of meditators and non-meditators, between the ages of 24 and 77.
The results revealed that the meditating group preserved a larger portion of the brain’s gray matter across wider regions of the brain than did their non-meditating counterparts. Though researchers are cautious about directly linking meditation to the cause of these differences, the research provides strong implications for meditation’s effect on quality of life for the aging by helping preserve brain function.
Meditation for Stress Management
Late last year researchers from Harvard University and the University of Siena teamed up to study the physiological changes that occur in the brain that facilitate the meditator’s ability to better manage stress and increase self-awareness and concentration.
Twenty-four subjects were given MRIs before and after they began an eight-week meditation course and 45-minute daily meditation practice. The MRI findings revealed that the physiological portion of the brain that deals with emotions and perceptions had thickened after the eight weeks. These physiological changes support the commonly acknowledged psychological effects of meditation, such as decreases in anxiety, depression, stress, and confusion.
Meditation for Pain Relief
In 2011, MIT and Harvard neuroscientists conducted a study that concluded that meditation helps to mitigate pain, and that meditators are less reactive to stress.
The reason, researchers found, lies in meditation’s ability to elevate alpha waves, which are the cells in the brain that help suppress distracting and irrelevant senses such as pain.
The research included six meditators—who were asked to meditate for 45-minutes a day over an eight week period—and six non-meditators. An MRI was conducted before and after this period, and only the meditating group showed a difference in alpha wave size. The baseline findings among the meditators had increased, while that of the non-meditators had remained virtually the same.
Kinisha Correia is a freelance writer and blogger. She is a contributing writer to a number of publications, and is a regular columnist for the Miami Herald, highlighting local initiatives focused on building social welfare in any capacity. Her blog, Prana Writes, showcases change-making people and projects around the globe doing uplifting work in the areas of yoga, wellness, eco-living, the arts, conscious travel, and ethical fashion. Kinisha credits yoga for altering the course of her life, and dedicates much of work to sharing yoga’s positivity.
This post originally appeared on Wanderlust.com on April 1, 2015.