When we talk about wellness and the mind/body connection, we often think of the importance of exercise and healthy eating for good physical and mental health.  But did you know that one of the most helpful activities for promoting total wellness dates back thousands of years?  It’s the ancient practice of meditation, and its use is showing surprising results among 21st century researchers.

Because of its benefits, an increasing number of physicians are prescribing meditation as part of their patients’ healthcare routines.  Clinics and hospitals across the nation now integrate meditation and related mind/body techniques into their clinical practice.

Physical Health Benefits of Meditation

The daily practice of meditation has been associated with improvements in a variety of health problems, including hypertension, insomnia, irritable bowel syndrome, and chronic pain.  Just 20 minutes twice each day is sufficient.

Over 500 research studies have been conducted to determine the effect of regular meditation on health problems.  Current research is examining more long-term effects and looking at the role of meditation in preventing chronic diseases and increasing longevity.

Mental Health Benefits of Meditation

Because of its relaxing effects upon the mind and body, meditation has long been used to reduce stress and anxiety.  Meditation appears to help activate the parasympathetic nervous system.  As it slows the release of stress hormones as well as heart and breathing rates, it improves the body’s overall relaxation response.

Research now shows that meditation can also reduce depression in affected individuals.  In one study of family caregivers, it was found that research participants who meditated had lower levels of depression than those who only listened to relaxing music.

Additionally, meditation may increase brain alertness. Meditation appears to improve people’s cognitive abilities, including attention and memory.  Research using medical imaging has demonstrated that meditation improves the functioning of certain circuits in the brain, as well as potentially reducing shrinkage in older adults’ critical brain centers.

Moving Forward

At the National Institutes of Health, the Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine has provided funding for several new studies to determine the effect of meditation on many health conditions.  It is anticipated that further research will bring new findings on the best types and frequency of meditation, along with other practice issues.

Most clinical practices today use meditation techniques based on Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction.  This type of meditation was developed by the University of Massachusetts’ medical school and utilizes yoga, stretching exercises, and mindfulness meditation.  Mindfulness meditation pays close attention to breathing techniques while the individual sits in a restful posture.

Whatever the approach, making a commitment of no more than 40 minutes each day may be a small price to pay for improved physical and mental health.

You may have heard the expression: “healthy mind, healthy body.”  But do you know what it really means?  For centuries, a connection has been theorized to exist between physical and mental health.  Modern science has now demonstrated that such a connection really does exist.

The role of a healthy diet, proper sleep, regular exercise, and other lifestyle practices in promoting better mental health is at the core of many behavioral health treatment regimens.  Such practices may also play a role in preventing future mental health problems.

Conversely, physical health is dependent upon one’s state of mind, as the body responds to the ways in which each of us feels, thinks, and acts.  This fact is at the heart of the mind-body connection. Emotional or mental imbalance creates physical symptoms, from aches and pains to elevated blood pressure.  These in turn can lead to chronic health problems and disease.

Ideally, an individual should strive for a state of total wellness, one in which there is a sense of balance in the mental, physical, spiritual, and social elements of his or her life. Following wellness principles can help one achieve increased resiliency, greater longevity, and overall better physical and mental health.

The Role of the Mind upon the Body

Mental or emotional problems are associated with the development of physical disease. An estimated 95% of all illnesses can be caused or aggravated by stress. Individuals with high stress levels are even more likely to catch colds. It is not uncommon for individuals to develop hypertension or an ulcer after particularly stressful life events.

Depression has been linked to a range of disorders, including strokes, heart disease, and diabetes.  Other mood and emotional problems can also take a toll. In one study, people who had difficulty coping with anger were found to have a ten times greater risk for the development of heart arrhythmias.  Anger-prone physicians have been found to have higher risks of heart attacks than even smokers or individuals with high blood pressure.

The right attitude and social supports can affect health in more positive ways, however. The old saying, “Laughter is the best medicine” is true, as it has been found to reduce pain, speed healing, and increase creativity. Being active in a group—even something as simple as a bowling club—can actually increase one’s longevity, regardless of other health habits. Social networks also provide needed support. In one study of women with metastatic breast cancer, participation in support groups doubled survival rates.

Scientists have found that individuals with mental health or substance abuse problems have a life expectancy decades lower than the general population.  Taking care of one’s physical health is a critical part of the recovery process for those with behavioral health problems.

The Role of the Body upon the Mind

Research supports the role of physical activity in helping manage mental disorders. Active people have been found to be less depressed than inactive ones, and people with chronic depression are more like to go into remission with regular exercise.

Due to increased levels of oxygen and endorphins, individuals who exercise regularly feel more alert and have more energy, better memory retention, and a greater sense of wellbeing. As little as 20-30 minutes of vigorous physical activity daily is sufficient to achieve results.

Yoga, meditation, and other relaxation strategies have been found to ease stress, depression, and sleep problems. There is growing evidence that the practice of meditation can even slow cognitive decline in older adults.

Eating healthy foods in moderation can increase emotional well-being and reduce many of the physical problems often associated with mental illness, such as fatigue and obesity.

Getting approximately eight hours sleep per night is a goal few adults achieve, but the benefits are worth the effort.  Adequate sleep improves mood and concentration, as well as decreasing physical health risks.

By following these healthy lifestyle practices, individuals may significantly improve both their mental and physical health.