In today’s busy world, it seems like sometimes you just can’t catch a break. Especially during the pandemic, we are more stressed than ever . Stress eating or watching TV might seem to ease feelings of stress, but these activities may serve as distractions instead of solving our root problem. But what if there was a time-tested way to actually relieve stress and the physical effects that come with it?
Originating in East and South Asia thousands of years ago, meditation has long been a daily exercise practiced around the world to help improve mood and overall well-being. Meditation has since been commercialized to appeal to American consumers through popular apps like Headspace and Calm, but many may still not practice it because they see it as something only practiced by monks and hippies, or they think like it takes years to experience the benefits.
As a high school student-athlete, I wasn’t interested in meditation because of the stigmas associated with it. One day, my track coach had my whole team sit in a dark room before our track meet to practice breathing exercises and visualize our goals. After trying to distract myself all day from the stress and anxiety about my important races later that day, I finally felt relieved after a few minutes of calm music and controlled breathing. I realized that meditation shouldn’t be something I avoided because of stigma as it turned out to be a really effective way for me to relax and focus on the present moment. In fact, famous athletes like UFC fighter Conor McGregor and NBA player Lebron James are open about practicing meditation techniques while visualizing their goals in order to focus and relieve any anxiety before training or competing.
One popular form of meditation is mindfulness meditation. Incorporating Zen techniques and Buddhist influence, mindfulness involves controlled breath-work and focusing on bodily sensations while trying not to get lost in thoughts. The other main type of meditation, called transcendental meditation, involves sitting with your eyes closed and repeating a particular mantra such as the popular “Ohm” sound. While each form has its differences, they share similar benefits for psychological and physiological well-being [2, 3]. At first, meditation can sound complicated and daunting; luckily, there are plenty of guided meditation apps and free ten-minute videos out there, meaning that many people (including the curious person reading this) can simply follow the guide in each video to meditate.
One of the main mechanisms by which meditation benefits health and mood is by reducing stress. Imagine that you are about to give a speech to a group of 500 people. You would probably feel nervous, as if there were butterflies in your stomach, or maybe you’d notice that your hands are shaking uncontrollably. These feelings and physical reactions are due to the activation of the sympathetic nervous system (SNS), which is responsible for the commonly known “fight or flight” response to stress . This “fight or flight” response is activated by the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, which consists of a combination of the nervous system and the endocrine system that together regulate hormones . The hypothalamus and pituitary glands in the brain work together to induce the release of cortisol from the adrenal glands, located right above the kidneys.
Cortisol, sometimes known as the “stress hormone,” plays a major role in the HPA axis by increasing blood glucose, enhancing the brain’s use of glucose, suppressing digestion, and performing other functions related to the fight or flight response . While this is important for the ability to focus and act quickly in stressful situations, there can be harmful effects associated with prolonged stress. Over time, HPA axis overactivity and elevated cortisol levels can lead to chronic stress and a host of negative health effects including hypertension, heart disease, and obesity. The hippocampus, an important brain region related to learning and memory, can also be negatively affected by chronic stress . The hippocampus has a high density of receptors for stress hormones including cortisol, so it is especially susceptible to damage caused by chronic stress. The high levels of cortisol associated with chronic stress lead to the degradation of the hippocampus by blocking hippocampal activity and promoting apoptosis, the death of brain cells.
One important part of neurons, called the dendrite, can also be damaged by the high levels of cortisol associated with chronic stress. Dendrites are the parts of nerve cells that branch off from the cell body and are key for transmitting impulses between neurons, as they receive chemical signals from the axons of other neurons through neurotransmitters. Chronic stress can cause the dendrites of hippocampal neurons to shrink and deteriorate, which significantly impairs memory . The degradation of the hippocampus can even be so impactful that it is a cause of Alzheimer’s Disease . Alzheimer’s occurs when there is an accumulation of proteins and decaying parts from dead brain cells, and it may be linked to the death and breakdown of brain cells related to chronic stress, although further research in this area is needed . Therefore, while cortisol is important for the fight or flight response, prolonged high levels of cortisol can have detrimental effects.
Luckily, regularly practiced meditation has been shown to decrease cortisol levels in people at rest, as well as after completing stress-inducing tasks . While they involved different forms and durations of meditation practice, various lines of research all drew the same conclusion: meditation decreases cortisol levels through activation of the parasympathetic nervous system (PSNS) . The PSNS has essentially the opposite effects of the SNS, so it is sometimes called the “rest and digest” system. Researchers in one study measured heart rate variability and used fMRI to determine how meditation affects the PSNS . They found that people who meditated during brief sessions for just five days displayed increased activity in the PSNS during their meditation practice . Since the PSNS is responsible for helping individuals relax after a stressful event, its increased activity may result in decreased symptoms of everyday stress. This means that even beginners can experience the relaxing effects of meditation. Meditation can also reduce blood pressure and heart rate, which is related to reduced levels of cortisol and other stress hormones that are part of the SNS .
Linked to the decrease in cortisol levels, meditation also promotes brain cell health and memory by activating the PSNS and circuits in the hippocampus that would otherwise be degraded due to chronic stress . Therefore, while acting as a preventative measure against the brain damage caused by high cortisol levels, meditation also enhances the hippocampus and other parts of the brain. Multiple studies found that meditation promotes neuroplasticity in the hippocampus [8, 9]. Neuroplasticity, which is the development and reorganization of the brain, involves the strengthening of certain neural networks and the production of dendrites [10, 11]. Thus, since the hippocampus is crucial for learning and memory, strengthening connections in the hippocampus is another crucial benefit of meditation.
Along with promoting neuroplasticity in the hippocampus, meditation also enhances the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for attention and focus . People with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) sometimes display decreased size in the prefrontal cortex, and meditation has been shown to activate and even promote growth in this region [13, 14]. Studies using fMRI found that the prefrontal cortex increased in size for novice and long-term meditators practicing variations of either of the two main forms of meditation . In fact, research suggests that meditation can be an effective form of attentional training for people with ADHD . In multiple studies, adults and adolescents with ADHD displayed significant decreases in self-reported ADHD, anxiety, and depressive symptoms, indicating that meditation may be a promising complementary solution to helping people who have ADHD .
Along with helping people with diagnosed attention disorders, anyone who wants to improve their attention should try meditation for a few sessions. Meditating can be compared to working out in the gym as it develops and preserves the hippocampus and the prefrontal cortex—brain regions responsible for memory, learning, and attention—just like lifting weights helps develop and preserve muscles. Since development and overall brain health in the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex are essential for athletes to focus and make the right split-second decisions during competition, it’s no wonder that Lebron and McGregor include meditation in their daily routines alongside their training and exercise.
While it can decrease stress and improve attention and memory, meditation is also useful for improving mood. Meditators displayed increased levels of serotonin, a neurotransmitter associated with elevated mood when present, whereas people with depression often have lower levels of serotonin . In fact, meditators often report experiencing feelings of euphoria during or after meditation which is hypothesized to be a result of increased serotonin . Increased activity in the prefrontal cortex due to meditation is related to an increase in the release of β-endorphin (BE), a natural opioid in the brain that has similar effects to serotonin: reduced pain and sensations of joy and euphoria . The changes in the levels of BE and serotonin often leave meditators with decreased symptoms related to anxiety and depression [6, 17].
One additional neurotransmitter, called gamma aminobutyric acid (GABA), was increased when participants practiced transcendental meditation . Directly related to depression and anxiety, GABA is a neurotransmitter that decreases arousal and reduces stress by inhibiting neurons in brain regions related to nervous activity such as the hypothalamus . Because of GABA’s role in decreasing nervous activity, preliminary research suggests that transcendental meditation can lessen anxiety and depression by increasing GABA . In a 2019 study, 14 university students who had eight weeks of mindfulness training displayed a statistically significant decrease in trait anxiety and depression on a scale based on self-reports . Thus, due to its effects on cortisol, serotonin, GABA and BE levels, meditation has been shown to reduce depression and anxiety.
Finally, another attractive benefit of meditation is better sleep. Melatonin is an essential hormone produced in the pineal gland that causes feelings of calmness, decreased awareness of pain, and, most importantly, improved sleep. Primarily produced at night, melatonin helps you wind down before falling asleep by lowering body temperature and inducing drowsiness. As a result, melatonin supplements are becoming increasingly popular to help people get fuller, uninterrupted nights of sleep. Interestingly, studies have shown that meditators consistently have increased production of melatonin at night [17, 19]. One study found that the average amount of melatonin during one night rose over 20% higher on average in meditators compared to the control group . People who meditate often feel calmer before bed and get a better night’s sleep due to the fact that night-time melatonin production is increased for regular meditators . Additionally, blood flow through the liver decreases during meditation, slowing the rate at which melatonin is metabolized and consumed in the body . Along with a temporary spike in the production of melatonin during meditation, this gradual decline in melatonin due to decreased metabolism in the liver prolongs the effects of melatonin, leaving meditators feeling relaxed and calm after each session . Therefore, meditation can be a solution for getting a better night’s sleep as it allows the body to have more melatonin when it’s supposed to--at night.
With all of the health benefits that come with meditation, including decreased stress, alleviated depression and anxiety, increased focus and attention and improved memory, and better quality of sleep, I encourage you to give the practice a try. There are obviously times that you cannot simply stop what you are doing to start meditating, like during an exam, but meditation during free time can help relieve stress without getting in the way of daily life. During the pandemic, I started to meditate much more regularly and have found that taking ten to 20 minutes out of my day to relax through meditation has made a huge difference in my mood and even my performance in school. I like to try variations of the two main types of meditation—guided mindfulness and transcendental meditation—through videos on YouTube, or sometimes I simply enjoy sitting quietly and keeping a clear mind. I urge you to try it too; it takes only a few minutes to feel relaxed, focused, and overall happier. You may not be preparing for a UFC title fight or an NBA Finals game—maybe it’s something more commonplace like a final exam, interview, speech, or simply the need to relax—whatever the stressful situation may be, practicing meditation may be the key to be the healthiest, sharpest version of yourself.