Sitting quietly and contemplating does more than ease your anxiety. A regular meditation practice can have a profound influence on immune health. And you don’t have to commit to a two-hour sit; even five minutes a day can yield significant benefits. Below, discover six ways that meditation supports immunity.
1. Meditation switches off your body’s fight-or-flight response
In the presence of danger, your brain initiates what’s known as the fight-or-flight response – a physiological survival mechanism that kept our ancestors safe in the face of life-threatening challenges. In modern times, ongoing anxiety from work, relationships or financial woes prompts the same primitive response – and that’s bad for immunity.
Stress dampens the activity of chemicals involved in the body’s protective response, decreasing resistance to pathogens and prompting higher levels of cortisol, two factors that are harmful to healthy immune function. Ongoing anxiety is linked with an increased risk of infectious respiratory illnesses, and in one study, those with the highest levels of stress consistently had more colds.
A regular meditation practice helps regulate the body’s response to tension and supports healthy immunity. Studies show meditation has a significant, beneficial effect on immune cells, and can even shorten the duration and reduced severity of cold and flu symptoms.
2. Meditation naturally tames inflammation
Inflammation is a normal part of the body’s immune response; it’s a reaction to injuries, pathogens or other irritants. But when the inflammatory response gets cranked up too high and lingers too long – a condition called chronic inflammation – it suppresses immune function. Left unchecked, those untamed flames decrease resistance and increase susceptibility to infections. They also increase your risk for cardiovascular disease, osteoporosis, dementia, cancer and other serious illnesses.
Meditation, however, enhances your body’s natural immunity by turning down chemicals that feed the flames. It can suppress chronic inflammation and help your body return to a state of balance.
3. You’ll keep your belly balanced
Gut microbiota, or bacteria that live in the gastrointestinal tract, play a crucial role in immune response. But tension, stress and anxiety have a powerful effect on gut bacteria composition, lessening the diversity of strains, reducing beneficial bacteria and increasing potentially harmful bacteria. Stress also impacts the function of the gut barrier – the physical surface of the intestines that serves as a block to prevent infiltration of pathogens.
By balancing the body’s response to anxious states and suppressing excess inflammation, meditation promotes balanced intestinal bacteria and healthy gut-barrier function, enhancing immunity.
4. Meditating regularly supports sounder slumber
Deep, restorative sleep has a powerful influence on various aspects of the immune system, promoting resistance and reducing the risk of infection. Yet disordered sleep alters those processes, impacting inflammatory responses and upsetting the release of immune-related chemicals. Prolonged sleeplessness weakens the body’s defense system and promotes inflammation, and even short bouts of sleep deprivation seriously decreases resistance to infection. Plus, a lack of restful slumber affects the beneficial gut bacteria that support healthy immunity.
A regular meditation practice significantly improves quality of sleep, and it may be effective in treating insomnia and other sleep disturbances.
5. Meditation promotes a positive outlook
Anger, negative thoughts and depressed moods have a powerful effect on your body’s natural resistance. Depression is linked with decreased immune cell activity, higher levels of inflammation and disturbances in restful sleep – all of which are key to healthy immunity. Negative emotions, anger and a less-than-lighthearted sense of humor also dampen defenses. Even a single five-minute bout of anger can significantly decrease levels of antibodies that play a crucial role in immune function for as long as five hours after the experience.
A regular meditation habit profoundly impacts mood, and it can lead to significant and lasting decreases in depressive symptoms. Meditation also lessens negative thoughts, soothes anger and increases overall sense of well-being. In one study, a mindfulness meditation program reduced psychological distress by 44 percent.
6. Meditating actually changes your brain
The effects of zenning-out aren’t just subjective. The practice of meditating produces measurable, structural changes in regions of the brain associated with empathy, sense of self and positive affect – all of which are linked to enhanced immune response.
Those benefits are attributable to more than just the relaxation response. The act of meditating itself appears to shift the expression of genes involved in stress and inflammation. In one study, regular meditators had particular shifts in genes related to fighting viral infections. Even a short program in mindfulness meditation produced measurable effects on the brain, with a positive impact on immune function.
Ready to give meditation a try? You can put it into practice right now with this brief exercise.
Whether you think you don’t have time, can’t sit still or don’t know how to meditate, anyone can give it a try. No more excuses: you can master this simple practice, and it takes only five minutes from start to finish. Of course, the benefits amplify as you increase the length of time you’re sitting. Yet giving this meditation exercise a try for even five minutes a day can soothe stress, support gut health, enhance sleep and shore up immunity.
Here’s how to put it into practice:
1. Start in a quiet, peaceful location; set a timer so you won’t be distracted by worrying about when to stop.
2. Sit comfortably, in a chair or on a cushion on the floor, with your spine straight and shoulders relaxed.
3. Close your eyes and slowly begin breathing in and out through your nose, noticing where your body makes contact with your chair or cushion.
4. Start to scan your body from head to toe, being aware of any areas of tension and consciously relaxing them.
5. Begin focusing on the flow of breath as it passes through your nostrils and into your body.
6. Continue watching your breath, or add this simple practice: inhale for a count of four, softly retain the breath for a count of seven, then exhale through your mouth for a count of eight. Try not to grip or tense when you’re retaining the breath. Relax your shoulders and diaphragm, and just let the breath be there.
7. If your attention starts to drift during meditation, that’s normal (and even helpful). The practice of gently returning your focus to the body or breath when attention wanders is how new pathways in the brain are created.
8. When your five minutes are up, open your eyes and take a few deep, full breaths, returning slowly. Or, turn the timer off and keep going – the longer you meditate, the greater the rewards.
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