Meditation has many benefits, and the practice actually changes our physiology. Researchers have conducted studies to find the chemical changes that occur inside our brains when we meditate. Here is what they’ve found:
Meditation reduces cortisol and adrenaline. Adrenaline is the “fight-or-flight” hormone which increases heart rate and blood pressure. Cortisol is the primary stress hormone which increases blood sugar, suppresses immune function and digestion, and acts on brain regions connected with mood, fear, and motivation. Chronic stress has been linked to depression, anxiety, heart disease, weight gain, digestive problems, insomnia, and problems with learning, concentration, and memory.
Meditation increases DHEA. This chemical is known as the “anti-aging” hormone; its levels begin to drop at about age 30, and this decline is related to a host of conditions including weight gain, cancer, and heart disease. Because of its link to ageing, people are experimenting with DHEA supplementation. But meditation alone boosts DHEA levels. Feeling younger already?
Meditation releases dopamine: Dopamine is linked to our ability to focus and acts on the pleasure and reward centers of the brain. Because of its involvement in pleasure and reward, dopamine is implicated in addiction. ADHD is believed to involve decreased dopamine levels. Healthy dopamine levels seem to help us feel rewarded, experience pleasure, and to focus.
Meditation boosts serotonin: Serotonin helps us feel calm and happy. Serotonin deficits are linked to depression, anxiety and insomnia; in fact, the SSRI antidepressant drugs such as Prozac are designed to boost serotonin levels. Serotonin is such a big part of good moods that it is sometimes called the “happiness hormone”.
Meditation boosts oxytocin: Known as the “love hormone” or the “monogamy hormone”, oxytocin makes us feel calm when we are with loved ones, especially when hugging or cuddling. It is released by mothers during childbirth and causes the production of milk in mammals. It is also released during orgasm and is thought to explain why we tend to feel close to partners after we have had sex. It has an inverse relationship to stress and stress hormones. And the more oxytocin we have, the more we are likely to trust others.
And the good news is that you don’t have to be a Zen master to receive these benefits. If you are interested in beginning a meditation practice, the most important thing to remember is probably that it is a practice. Be patient with yourself as you begin to try a new skill and remember all the benefits your brain will receive!