People who insist meditation has changed their lives likely inspire fewer eye rolls today than they used to. That’s because a growing body of evidence suggests that the ancient practice — explained simply as being aware in the present moment— can have a powerful impact on our health. Research suggests that a mindfulness-based stress-reduction practice can increase density in the brain's gray matter, which affects learning, memory, and more. Other studies show that mindfulness might stop a wandering mind and boost the body's immune function. “We now have scientific evidence in randomized, controlled trials showing how mindfulness changes your brain,” says Dr. Judson Brewer, associate professor and director of research at the Center for Mindfulness at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. “It’s hard to argue with that stuff, which is one reason mindfulness is moving away from the hippie stereotype.” Here, we present some of the best science-backed benefits of mindfulness:
1. It relieves depression.
People who followed up 30 minutes of meditation with 30 minutes of aerobic exercise experienced fewer depressive symptoms, researchers found in a study published online in February in Translational Psychiatry. Meditation and exercise are thought to affect the same parts of the brain, researchers speculated, and both have been found, separately, in previous studies to have a positive effect on alleviating depression. In the latest research, they concluded that both increase neurogenesis —the growth of new, healthy cells — the same way antidepressants do.
2. It helps you sleep.
In a JAMA Internal Medicine study of 49 people middle-aged or older, the group that practiced mindfulness for 20 minutes a day reported less insomnia, fatigue, and depression than the control group that had undergone sleep-education class to retrain their habits. In addition, a review of existing research published in 2012 in Frontiers in Neurology noted that meditation improved sleep quality.
3. It makes you smarter.
Even a brief meditation session helped people perform better than a control group on cognitive-skills tests, according to 2010 research from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, who studied the effects of four days of 20-minute meditation training on study subjects. Mindfulness was found to lessen mind wandering, improve memory, and boost reading comprehension of students taking the GRE, researchers at the University of Santa Barbara concluded in 2012. Other studies have even linked mindfulness training to improved memory for people with memory loss.
4. It will ease stress.
A review of 20 studies supports the ability of mindfulness-based meditation to lower your stress levels. Its impact in this area has even been found in people suffering from chronic diseases such as fibromyalgia, Type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular problems, and rheumatoid arthritis, Australian researchers concluded in 2010. Research also suggests it can improve cognitive function, including memory and ability to pay attention in the aging and people suffering from neurodegenerative diseases. Finally, a writer for the Harvard University health blog noted that mindfulness meditation has been found to lessen symptoms of generalized anxiety disorder, which include trouble sleeping, hard-to-control worrying, and irritability.
5. It relieves chronic back pain.
Because letting feelings come and go in your mind without reacting to them is what mindfulness is all about, it makes sense that training your brain to respond differently to signals telling you to feel pain could work. Thirty percent of chronic back pain sufferers reported less pain and improved functionality after receiving treatment that combined mindfulness-based stress reduction with talk therapy in a recent study published in JAMA. Researchers came to similar conclusions about the power of mindfulness practices to relieve back pain in a University of Pittsburgh study of older adults published in February. And in a study published in the International Journal of Yoga last year, mindfulness-based stress reduction combined with sitting or walking meditation was found to improve quality of life and help relieve pain of chronic low back pain sufferers.