Does Meditation Really Change the Brain?

In alternative medicine circles, meditation is sort of a catch-all treatment for a variety of ailments, mostly related to mental health. In modern medicine circles, meditation is rarely, if ever, a treatment recommendation; instead, doctors tend to think of it as a way to relax after a difficult day. I know plenty of doctors who meditate, but none of them ever prescribe it to patients. But should they?

The effect of meditation on the brain is an interesting one, and research regarding the connection has been rolling in steadily for several years. As it turns our meditation can have a variety of neurological benefits. There have been some very exciting studies in the past few years, and I’ve combed through them with a believer’s enthusiasm and a skeptic’s precision. Here are some of the ways meditation can change the brain and be used for treatment.

It Helps Aging Brains

In 2015, a study from UCLA found that long-term meditators, or people who had been meditating regularly for an average of 20 years, had better-preserved brains than those who did not meditate. The study discovered the meditators had more grey matter volume in the brain. This grey matter contains much of the brain’s neuronal cell bodies and is essential to muscle control and sensory perception. The older you get, the less grey matter your brain has – unless, according to this study, you’ve been meditating for 20 years.

In this application, meditation is not a great treatment option. You can’t very well tell someone to go meditate for 20 years and come back younger. That said, if you’re worried about losing functionality as you age, it’s never a bad time to start up a practice.

It Reduces Symptoms of Depression, Anxiety, and Pain

A team of researchers at Johns Hopkins university found that meditation programs had moderate evidence of improved anxiety, depression, and pain. However, there was low evidence of improved stress/distress and mental health-related quality of life. “We found low evidence of no effect or insufficient evidence of any effect of meditation programs on positive mood, attention, substance use, eating habits, sleep, and weight,” the study states. However, it continues, stating, “clinicians should be aware that meditation programs can result in small to moderate reductions of multiple negative dimensions of psychological stress.”

What does that mean? Meditation isn’t a magic bullet for depression, but it’s a tool that patients and physicians can use to manage symptoms.

It Can Aid Addiction Recovery

Several studies have shown that meditation can be effective in helping people recover from various addictions. For example, one study compared the effects of meditation to the American Lung Association’s Freedom From Smoking program. Researchers found that those who “learned mindfulness” through meditation were more likely to have quit smoking than those in conventional treatment after 17 weeks. The researchers conclude that this is likely due to the fact that meditation has measurable effects on the regions of the brain that moderate self-control.

While meditation can help with addiction, remember that weaning off more dangerous substances, like alcohol and opioids, is best handled in a professional medical setting. This is the best way to control possible withdrawal symptoms. However, once through the withdrawal period, meditation can help with maintaining a substance-free life.

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