Most people would agree that meditation is beneficial to one’s health, which is part of the allure that has kept it around for so many years. But did you ever stop to think exactly why meditation was healthy or how it affected your health?
Meditation creates a state of relaxation; it activates your parasympathetic nervous system1 (also known as rest and digest) which allows stress hormones to diminish and promotes blood flow to the digestive system. This is the time when your body is able to heal itself and this is how our bodies are meant to be most of the time. Inducing this state regularly allows the body to function optimally.
In a hectic world, we spend most of our time in a state of arousal. This means that we are living in a state of fight-or-flight with activation of our sympathetic nervous system2. This is kind of like driving your car all the time in first gear. It’s good to do when you need extra power to pull something or get up a steep hill. However, driving in first gear all the time can really wear on your car leading to the eventual breaking of more than just your transmission. Meditation allows you to switch gears and your body functions the way it was meant to. It allows your body to focus on rest and digestion (which takes up to 20% of your energy) which is necessary to process nutrition for feeding and healing your body.
Meditation is also beneficial to having a healthy and strong immune system. Prolonged stress weakens the immune system, making it more difficult to fight off pathogens that might enter our bodies. The immune system fights by attacking the pathogens directly or through larger scale attacks (inflammation, fever, swollen lymph nodes, or fatigue). When there is prolonged and excessive stress in the body, the immune system does not function the way it was meant to (like the digestive system), after all when in a state of fight or flight, who really needs the immune system? Think about when you are most likely to get sick, it often coincides with very stressful periods where we have high levels of stress hormones, little rest, and poor nutrition. Practicing regular meditation allows the immune system to rest, and better prepare for future attacks. It allows the immune system to stay strong and effective so it is always ready to defend your body.
Meditation is also a great way to increase your chances of pregnancy! Wait, what? Yup, it is true. Stress is a huge killer of fertility and this is a critical part of the evolution process. The body is fully aware that when the woman is stressed, it is not a good time to conceive. In the past, stress in a woman likely meant that she did not have sufficient access to food, water, or basic needs. She may be in a stressful environment which would not be conducive to having a child such as migrating to follow the animals or relocating due to natural disaster. Although these problems are less likely to affect women these days, the body does not know the difference. It perceives stress as stress. It does not differentiate between a lack of available food and a rough commute involving 2 unexpected hours of traffic. Of course, women are not the only ones who have sexual problems related to stress. Men who suffer from excess and chronic stress often report having low sperm count, low sex drive, or erectile dysfunction. Again, regular meditation allows the body to find a state of relaxation and peace which the body interprets as a good time to get pregnant. Obviously, stress is not the only cause of infertility, but it is estimated to be responsible for up to 20% of those trying to get pregnant.
These are a few examples of how regular mediation allows the body to heal itself and function in a more healthy and optimal way. Increasing the time and frequency of meditative states of relaxation will increase the length of time that the body is able to be free from stress. Anyone who meditates regularly will tell you that practicing meditation regularly increases your state of relaxation beyond the times spent in meditation and allows a calmer perspective on life. Both of these aspects continue to extend the amount of relaxation the body experiences which results in more activation of the parasympathetic nervous system which is our goal.
Next: Meditation Part IV: The Psychology of Meditation
*1-2 Refer to Meditation Part I: Biology of Stress for more information about these systems