Meditation is good for you. Like, really really good for you. In fact, the American Heart Association even recommends meditation for “primary and secondary prevention of cardiovascular disease” (in addition to lifestyle management and drug therapy). As more research points to powerful psychological and physiological benefits, doctors are starting to integrate meditation and mindfulness techniques into cardiovascular and stress treatment. And the best part? No negative side effects.
Meditation has been shown to lower high blood pressure an average of 5 points
Meditating is free, easy to do, customizable to your needs and physical limitations, and effective—even in small doses. All you need is 15 minutes and a few deep breaths to start improving your cardiovascular and mental health.
6 Different Types of Meditation
Meditation comes in all shapes and sizes. Depending on your taste, experience, and commitment level, you can usually find at least one style that resonates with your health goals. Having said that, not all mindfulness techniques necessarily have the same physical and psychological benefits. When researchers study “meditation,” they generally pick a specific type to study, and they track its effects on a specific outcome—like the effects of transcendental meditation on hypertension. Here’s a list of six common meditation styles and their “objectives.”
- Samatha Meditation: Aims to calm the mind by focusing on a single thing—either a breath or an object
- Vipassana Meditation: Gain insight by focusing on your breath and observing your thoughts and experiences
- Mindful Meditation: A method of observing what enters your thoughts and attention without judgement. UMASS has extensively studied a particular style called Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) for its health benefits.
- Zen Meditation: Another technique that uses breathing to observe one’s thoughts
- Loving Kindness Meditation: Focuses on sending positive feelings to your surroundings and the world
- Transcendental Meditation (TM): Uses mantras to help settle the mind
Focus on breathing and mindfulness of your current thoughts and experiences is a recurring theme. Some styles also use repeated mantras as part of the technique, but how you practice each style is ultimately up to you. The interesting part is how these various techniques and approaches have a measurable effect on your health—particularly how your body handles with stress.
Meditation and Fight or Flight
One of the most popular theories for how meditation “works” deals with your sympathetic nervous system. The sympathetic nervous system is responsible for your “flight or fight” response. Basically, it works by releasing adrenaline (epinephrine) and noradrenaline (norepinephrine) into the body to increase heart rate, blood pressure, breathing rate and mental focus. This dump of chemicals ramps your mind and body to peak operating power, making you ready for just about any threat. It’s your body’s “break glass in case of emergency” button, and it’s super important. But only when something dangerous happens.
In a very real sense, the sympathetic nervous system can turn you into a part-time superhero. The sympathetic nervous system is what makes mothers strong enough to lift a car off their trapped child. However, an overactive sympathetic nervous system and prolonged stress response can cause serious long-term harm to your body and mind.
Our bodies are bad at differentiating between physical danger (a fire) and mental stress (that big work presentation). To your sympathetic nervous system, stress is stress. Every threat gets the same response—adrenaline in your bloodstream. But you’re not built to operate at that increased capacity 100% of the time. Elevated heart rate, blood vessel dilation, and spiking glucose levels can increase your risk for cardiovascular disease, stroke, and insulin resistance. Meditation works by confronting our bodies mental and physical stress triggers to reduce the frequency, duration, and severity of sympathetic nervous system responses. And it’s surprisingly effective.
Physical Benefits of Meditation
Most studies that track the physical benefits of meditation measure your heart rate, blood pressure, and glucose levels—aka your stress metrics. And while methods and techniques vary, the results are clear. Transcendental meditation (TM) and mindfulness techniques, including MBSR positively impact your body’s overall stress response, most noticeably in these four ways:
- Blood pressure: Meditation has been shown to lower high blood pressure an average of 5 points. The most dramatic results are in older patients and those already suffering from hypertension
- Insulin resistance: Most studies show improvement in insulin resistance, which decreases the risk for diabetes.
- Atherosclerosis: There’s some evidence for regression of atherosclerosis (reversing plaque buildup in your arteries) in people who learn to meditate.
- Risk of Death: TM and MBSR may even lower the risk of death from cardiovascular disease and all causes according to a few studies.
10-20 minutes of meditation a day can improve your cardiovascular health
The physical health benefits of meditation are all about changing how you respond to stress. Mindfulness techniques aim to reset you back to a healthy baseline by lowering your heart rate, blood pressure, and glucose levels. If you’re at risk for any of these health conditions, talk to your doctor to see if supplementing your existing treatment with meditation is right for you.
Psychological Benefits of Meditation
While it’s difficult to quantitatively measure, many self-reported studies show the positive effects of meditation on participants’ overall mental health. Various meditation styles have been shown to improve:
Some studies even show lower levels of certain inflammatory chemicals in the body. Again, the studies for the mental benefits of meditation are largely self-reported, but the results are compelling.
A Beginner’s Guide to Medical Meditation
If you’re not sure how to get started, don’t panic. The world of meditation is an…interesting place. But you don’t need to move to a remote monastery or practice for years to gain the benefits of meditation. I recommend starting with 10-20 minutes of guided meditation per day. That’s it. And you don’t even have to leave your living room thanks to a number of quality meditation apps. Here are a few of my favorites:
- The Mindfulness App: (iPhone & Android) The free version includes guided meditations from 3-30 minutes and other tools to help you go from novice to experienced meditator. Daily reminders and courses taught by experienced instructors and the more comprehensive premium version can help you flesh out different styles of meditation to find your favorite. It’s a great place to start.
- Headspace: (iPhone) Headspace is ideal for beginners. It features 10-minute a day beginner’s courses in mindfulness meditation in the free basic version. If you want more functionality, invest in the premium paid version.
- Calm: (iPhone & Android) Calm is designed to improve sleep through mindfulness. The free version includes both a 7-day and 21-day beginners program. Like the other apps, there’s also a paid version with monthly, yearly, and lifetime memberships.
- Buddhify: (iPhone & Android) Buddhify offers a low one-time membership fee with no subscription model. It you’re serious about meditation, it’s a solid place to dive in. The guided routines and timers are great, but “Foundations” are where you can learn about some of the principles of meditation to give your practice more context (if you’re into that sort of thing).
Give these apps a try and see if one of them can help you on your meditation journey.
If you decide to upgrade from the apps to find a real life “guru,” here are three of my favorite meditation teachers:
- Dr. Dan Siegel is a Harvard trained psychiatrist who integrates Western neuroscience with ancient meditation practices
- Dr. Jon Kabbat-Zinn has the unique distinction of being a meditation teacher who also happens to have a Ph.D. in molecular biology from MIT.
- Dr. Jack Kornfield is a meditation teacher with a Ph.D. in clinical psychology
All three of these teachers have various tools and (free) resources on their websites. Give meditation a try for a couple of weeks and see what it can do for you.
Geek Out: More Meditation Resources
Not enough info for you? No problem. Nerd out on the health benefits of meditation with research from the most trusted sources on the interwebs. If you have any questions or you think we missed something important, leave a comment or book a consultation with one of these trained professionals and we’ll get you on the way to a healthier manhood.
- Meditation and Cardiovascular Risk Reduction
- Stress Reduction Programs in Patients with Elevated Blood Pressure
- Effects of Stress Reduction on Carotid Atherosclerosis in Hypertensive African Americans
- Transcendental Meditation Mindfulness and Longevity: An Experimental Study with the Elderly
- Effects of preventive online mindfulness interventions on stress and mindfulness
- Internet-based Mindfulness Treatment for Anxiety Disorders
- Mindfulness Meditation and Improvement in Sleep Quality and Daytime Impairment Among Older Adults With Sleep Disturbances
- Mindfulness Meditation for Chronic Pain
This information isn’t a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. You should never rely upon this article for specific medical advice. If you have any questions or concerns, please talk to your doctor.