By Brad Marshland
With the arrival of the New Year, millions of people resolve to get their bodies into better shape with exercise and diet. And while those are excellent plans, there's also increasing evidence that meditation can improve both mental and physical health – potentially even reducing the recurrence of cancer.
Meditation Can Be Done Anywhere
When meditation was first introduced to this country, it generally came wrapped in eastern religions. People felt they needed a guru to learn how to meditate. But now, the practice is coming out of the ashram to universities like UCLA, to medical clinics, and even to a storefront on Wilshire Boulevard in West LA, where the former executive fashion editor for Glamour Magazine, Suze Yalof Schwartz, has started her own meditation studio, Unplug Meditation.
“We're so hyper-connected right now that people need to really just stop and give themselves a time out, so they can actually connect with who they are instead of doing, doing, doing,” says Schwartz. “We need to be human beings again.”
The fact is, anyone can learn to meditate, and it doesn't require a guru. UCLA's Mindful Awareness Research Center offers guided meditation classes on the internet for free. And if you want a teacher you can talk to, studios like Schwartz's are increasingly popular.
“My goal is literally to just teach everyone how to meditate. I don't care where they do it. We teach a traffic meditation. We teach a waiting online at Starbucks meditation. We want people to bring it into their lives,” says Schwartz, “Because it has incredible benefits for every single person that does it.”
Healthier and Happier
Dan Harris, ABC News anchor and author of “10% Happier”, attests to the power of meditation first hand. “It's actually a skill. You can train your brain and your mind, just the way you can train your bicep in the gym. And by the way, another thing that's a skill is compassion. You can make yourself nicer. There is an enormous body of evidence that a specific kind of meditation called compassion meditation can make you happier, healthier, and nicer.”
According to Dr. Michael Irwin, Director of the Cousins Center for Psychoneuroimmunology at UCLA, studies have shown that meditation can reduce stress, reduce depression, decrease anxiety, and help alleviate insomnia. That all seems intuitive – that meditation, or any technique that helps calm the mind, will naturally improve one's mental state. But what may be surprising is the extent to which the positive mental effects get transferred to the body.
“People under a lot of stress are more likely to die earlier and die of cardiovascular disease, cancer, have rheumatoid arthritis, as well as depression,” says Irwin. “Mind/body interventions – tai chi, yoga, meditation – actually change how the brain is processing information, but more importantly, change how it's regulating the stress pathways from the brain to the body.”
For example, stress-related hormones regulate high blood pressure. By reducing stress, many of the negative consequences of stress may also be reduced. But the benefits of meditation on the body go far deeper. When one practices meditation, even for a very short period of time, there's a decrease in the chemicals that lead to high heart rate and high blood pressure, but also a decrease in the chemicals that lead to inflammation. Says Irwin: “What we are showing is that meditation, and particularly tai chi, significantly reduces inflammatory processes.”
Prevention of Cancer Recurrence
This has significant implications for a range of inflammatory diseases, infections, and even for cancer treatment. Studies at UCLA and elsewhere have shown that meditation, tai chi, and yoga all foster a down-regulation of the genes that lead to inflammation, and an up-regulation of the genes that help protect the body from viral infections.
Once a patient has been diagnosed and treated for cancer, one critical predictor of cancer recurrence is inflammation. “Among breast cancer survivors, for example, women who have inflammation are at much greater risk for developing a breast cancer recurrence,” says Irwin. “And so if you can show that inflammation is dramatically reduced, translating those effects over time may in fact have implications for decreasing cancer recurrence.”
In no way does Dr. Irwin advocate meditation as a replacement for medical treatment of any medical condition. But as a supplemental treatment, he says the benefits are becoming increasingly clear.