With patients who seem stressed or in pain, Dr. Lori Weichenthal sometimes asks them to take a moment to concentrate on their breathing while she’s assessing them.
Focusing on breathing has been shown in many medical studies to reduce anxiety, depression and pain. And nearly 300 studies in the past five years have shown a link between meditation and improvements for those with inflammation related diseases like rheumatoid arthritis and inflammatory bowel disease.
“That is the most basic form of mindfulness,” Dr. Weichenthal, a UCSF professor of emergency medicine and a registered yoga teacher, said of deep breathing and focusing on the breath. She teaches weekly classes for young people with disabilities and weight issues.
Meditation Changes How Genes Work
The change in attitude from controlled breathing and increased focus isn’t just in the mind – it actually reaches all the way to changes in your brain structure and how your genes operate.
In 2012, Harvard neuroscientist and radiology instructor Gaelle Desbordes explored what happens to the brain during meditation using MRI scanning that took pictures of the brain and measured brain activity. Comparing before and after scans of people who learned to meditate, she found changes in how the brain works. Other researchers showed meditation changed the areas of the brain for focus, body awareness, memory, emotion regulation and communication.
Just 15 minutes a day of clearing your mind can also alter how your cells function. A 2017 Harvard Medical School Study showed that after meditating 15 minutes daily for eight weeks, the meditators had changes in 172 genes that control inflammation, sleep-wake rhythms in the body and how sugar processes
. Those changes lowered their blood pressure.
Meditation Might Help You Live Longer
Other Harvard researchers looked at what happens to markers of aging in our cells after people take up meditation.
The researchers measured telomeres and telomerase.
Telomeres are protective protein caps at the end of DNA strands. Telomerase is an enzyme that helps protect and lengthen those protective DNA caps.
The more telomerase and the longer the telomere caps, the more times a cell can regenerate – and the longer your life span. As we age the protein caps on our DNA get shorter and we have less protective enzyme.
Those who meditated in this study saw their telomeres get longer, while the control group remained the same.
UCSF Department of Psychiatry professor Elissa Epel, Ph.D., explained that shorter telomeres have been linked to chronic stress and depression. And the length of these protective protein caps is related to how our immune system and cardiovascular system works. Cells die faster and are more prone to disease with shorter telomeres .
How To Get Started With Meditation
There are many ways to meditate with fancy names and meditation traditions, but all of them have four things in common:
- Find a quiet location with few distractions
- Get comfortable. You can sit in a chair or on the floor, lie down, or walk in a circle.
- Focus your attention. Repeat a chosen set of words like “Be, Here, Now,” or “I am”. Focus on an object like a candle or concentrate on your breath going in and out.
- Keep an open attitude. Don’t judge your thoughts or follow them. Refocus when your mind starts to wander.
Set a timer and start slow with 10 minutes. Build up time as you get more practice at clearing your mind. Setting a time to practice regularly is also key to seeing the benefits.
Try an app or online video to help guide you. Or join a meditation group or yoga studio if you need support in meditating. But in times of stress, remembering to take time for those 5-10 deep, slow breaths can work wonders.