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How Does Mindfulness Meditation Affect Your Brain and Body?

 
By Jane Bertin. Updated: January 16, 2017
How Does Mindfulness Meditation Affect Your Brain and Body?

You've probably heard that mindfulness meditation helps your mental and physical health. This technique consists on focusing completely on yourself in the present moment, without letting any thoughts distract you. Mindfulness is achieved through repetition and by focusing on your breathing.

Scientific studies show that with only 15 minutes of daily practice, mindfulness meditation raises your empathy, awareness and enhances your interactions with others. However, the benefits of meditation reach the physical, even altering the shape of your brain. Stay with us at OneHowTo to learn how does mindfulness meditation affect your brain and body.

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Steps to follow:
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Mindfulness meditation changes your brain:

As you already know, the brain is the organ that manages all inputs from your environment, turning them into information. It also rules over your actions, functions and relationships with others.

What you might not know is that the brain has the property of neuroplasticity, that is, its shape and structures can change physically. This means that your brain does not stop developing once you become an adult; it can always internalize new habits. Meditation is one of these practices that can physically affect your brain after around two months, which makes it a good technique when dealing with anxiety or depression, among other disorders.

In order to understand how meditation alters your brain we must understand how the human brain works, part by part. Our brain has an outer layer of neural tissue, called the cerebral cortex or cerebrum. The cerebral cortex is divided into two hemispheres - the famous right and left - and it is not a compact mass; instead, it is folded, so it's actually more dense and bigger than it might seem.

The cortex tissue is composed of gray matter, mostly astrocytes among other cells and capillaries. Gray matter are the cells that control our perception and our muscles. The cortex is divided into four lobes:

  • Frontal lobe: This area contains dopamine-sensitive neurons that control our attention span and motivation - it is in charge of reasoning and planning. There is a prefrontal cortex, the cells of which are responsible from turning your goals into actions and mark your personality. The lateral prefrontal cortex is the site of your impulse and habit control, while the medial prefrontal cortex is the site of your sense of self.
  • Parietal lobe: This area processes sensory information.
  • Temporal lobe: Between the parietal and temporal lobes we find the insular cortex, that monitors bodily sensations, instincts and interpersonal experiences. The temporal lobe turns the sensory inputs you receive into memory and comprehensible knowledge.
  • Occipital lobe: This area processes visual information.

Within - or under - the cerebrum or cerebral cortex we find the limbic system, an older structure that is in charge of our emotions. Some parts of the limbic system include:

  • Amygdala: These two nuclei process memories and are in charge of the first emotional response in any situation - the result can be action, but also fear or aggression. When we are stressed, the amygdala grows thicker; mindfulness meditation can help reduce its activity, calm down and have a more rational response.
  • Thalamus: This structure is in charge of focusing our attention, and it does so by managing the inputs we receive. It delivers sensory and motor signals, as well as consciousness and alertness.
  • Posterior cingulate cortex: This area of the cingular cortex receives inputs from the thalamus and the neocortex. It processes emotions and motivations, bringing about behaviors.
  • Hippocampus: The oldest part in our brain, it regulates our emotions. When we are stressed, it shrinks. Meditation, on the other hand, boosts the density of gray matter in this area.

Under the limbic system we find the brain stem, which is in control of our basic life functions. One of its structures is the reticular formation, a series of nuclei that maintain our consciousness and alert levels.

A study from UCLA has shown that meditation brings about a higher density of gray matter in our hippocampus and frontal lobe, a change that's even visible in scans. Practicing mindfulness meditation helps us control external inputs and make better assessments when facing all kinds of situations. The cortex tissue usually becomes thinner with age, which makes our cognitive and information processing abilities weaker; people who meditate, on the other hand, keep their cortex thick.

Meditation by focusing on a mantra, our breathing or a single external input trains us to have a better memory, attention span and perception. Changes in the brain, of course, means general changes in the entire body. Let's take a look:

How Does Mindfulness Meditation Affect Your Brain and Body? - Step 1
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Mindfulness meditation regulates your stress levels:

High levels of stress are linked to cardiovascular disease, diabetes and Alzheimer's disease. These conditions are linked to cell degeneration, since the proteins that delay cell death and protect your DNA are related to stress.

Moreover, being stressed can raise your blood pressure and constrict the blood cells. The breathing techniques of this kind of meditation help open up the blood vessels, easing circulation. Muscle tension is also decreased when we perform progressive and systematic breathing exercises, which in turn helps us sleep.

Stress is, of course, also related to anxiety, depression and addiction. According to a study published in the Journal of Neuroscience, people who practice meditation have an easier time managing not only stress, but also physical pain.

How Does Mindfulness Meditation Affect Your Brain and Body? - Step 2
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Mindfulness meditation can help your heart:

Studies by the American Heart Association and the American Journal of Hypertension show that practicing meditation helps arterial walls become thinner, which lowers the risk of strokes and heart attacks. According the Massachusetts General Hospital, it also lowers blood pressure and can be used to reduce and boost the effects of medication.

Meditation can also help with pain and inflammation in cases of chronic inflammatory conditions, according to the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the Waisman Center.

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Benefits of meditation for mental health:

As we have seen, mindfulness meditation affects your brain processes and diminishes pain and stress. This has an obvious effect in your mental health. It has been proved that meditation lowers anxiety and impulsive behaviors, as well as easing feelings of fear and loneliness.

Moreover, mindfulness is beneficial to boost your resilience and self-esteem. It also can help prevent or stop bad habits resulting from emotional imbalances like smoking or impulse eating.

Now that you know how does mindfulness meditation affect your brain and body, you'll surely want to try it out. If you have any questions or tips, please tell us in the comments section.

How Does Mindfulness Meditation Affect Your Brain and Body? - Step 4

This article is merely informative, oneHOWTO does not have the authority to prescribe any medical treatments or create a diagnosis. We invite you to visit your doctor if you have any type of condition or pain.

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