By: Josh Soler
From Tibetan monks to your everyday layman, anyone can reap the benefits of meditation. After two weeks of meditation, studies show the brain undergoing some form of neuroplasticity (Tang et al., 2012). MRI studies are increasingly finding that various forms of meditation are associated with neuroplasticity of the brain similar to that of learning a skill where practice makes perfect (Boccia et al., 2015). While further investigation in how mechanistic relations of synaptic change relate to the benefits of meditation is needed, the benefits produced still may have preventative and therapeutic applications such as healthier behaviors and pain reduction (Tang et al., 2015). Various forms of meditation can be a useful tool for both pre- and post-operative therapy and can be used as a form of buffing the brain through cognitive “housekeeping,” or as a preventative measure that can be accessed and practiced by anyone.
Plasticity is the rewiring, strengthening, and weakening of specific neural circuits that can be manipulated through consistent usage or neglect. Neuroplasticity is revealed in fMRI scans of long-term meditators. It is apparent that with more usage of specific brain circuits, such as attentional regions through mindfulness meditation, one could produce lasting brain changes that strengthen beneficial circuits (Hasenkamp, et al., 2012). MRI scans of meditative practitioners reveal structural neuronal changes that may be associated with improved attentional performance; by application, one may have strengthened cognitive control over sensory experiences with high levels of mindfulness meditative practice. This could imply that pain processing could be altered to benefit patients. A functional connectivity MRI study revealed that at least 8 weeks of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) training had altered intrinsic functional connectivity related to consistent attentional focus, enhanced sensory experience, and reflective awareness (Kilpatrick et al., 2011). Though hours of practice of meditation may not be practical for all, it suggests that there are ways one can buff the brain’s ability to focus and better cope with pain. Even in beginners, it has shown that they can exert more prefrontal (and therefore executive) control in regulating emotions (Tang et al., 2015).
How is this relevant? It is well known through years of research that eating right, exercising, and getting enough sleep are key to being healthy and happy, but what about meditation? Exercise to improve cardiovascular health is as meditation is to neurocognitive health. Yet even exercise could be considered a form of meditation that requires focused attention to the breath, muscles, and activity at hand which ultimately affects neurochemistry through biomolecules such as BDNF—a neurotrophic factor that supports neuron growth (Sleiman et al., 2016). Whether it is done through sports, religious practice, or some other ritual, mindfulness meditation has increasingly been shown to improve cognitive wellbeing (Kilpatrick et al., 2011). Meditation can be considered a tool through which neuroplasticity can be exploited and harnessed for maximum benefit. Like exercise, short-term meditative practice can reap immediate benefits. Boccia et al. reveals in “A Comprehensive Meta-Analysis of MRI Studies“ that meditation activates brain regions involved in self-processing, interoception, adaptive behavior, and focused problem-solving. These are processes that can help mitigate stress and anxiety and reduce pain processing. It is further implicated that long-term meditative practice is associated with lasting structural and functional changes—at baseline the brain can do more with less brainpower.
A study on select markers of the immune system such as inflammatory markers suggests the supplemental benefit of mindfulness meditation practice through changes in those biological markers of aging and cell-mediated immunity (Black et al., 2016). Even other forms of meditation may impact physiological pathways such as those that foster compassion, where findings suggest reduced stress-induced immune and behavioral responses (Pace et al., 2009). Likewise, brain images of Buddhist monks were taken during meditation and their frontal lobes were activated as expected; where on the other hand, the area that overreacts when lonely was attenuated (i.e. the parietal lobe) (Davidson et al., 2008). This important finding suggests similar mechanisms of social support that mitigate the stress of loneliness are at play. The same way mindfulness meditation promotes present-mindedness; it has also activated the areas that make one feel connected to others (Davidson et al., 2008). Furthermore, another fMRI investigation revealed that higher feelings of attachment are related to lower stress-related brain activity and could imply that meditation could support stress reduction through social neural circuits (Karremansa J. et al., 2011). Evidently, stress has varying impacts on the body’s immune system, which is particularly vulnerable postoperatively due to its state of heightened stress. A number of studies have even correlated preoperative anxiety with postoperative morbidity, but research on complementary medicine—non-mainstream practice used in conjunction to conventional medicine—finds that along with standard care, complementary medicine can help reduce preoperative anxiety (Attias et al., 2016). Additionally, factors affecting the brain’s plasticity can give us insight into rehabilitation strategies even after brain injury—this can be used to harness the brain’s plasticity for post surgical recovery and overall brain health (Kolb et al., 2014). MBSR and the like could be implemented to reduce preoperative anxiety and strengthen the immune system for postoperative recovery. Regular meditative therapy can be leveraged to benefit postoperative recovery to regulate stresses that may impact the immune system.
While meditation’s direct effects on the brain should be further investigated, it is increasingly shown to have benefits when practiced like brushing one’s teeth or exercising. Similar to brushing one’s teeth daily to prevent cavities and plaque, meditation could be promoted to reduce chronic stress. Its adaptation to regular routine practice can considerably transform the lives of many. It will not only boost a healthy individual’s overall wellbeing, but it will also act like an investment in brain capital to safeguard against any future ailments. With increased immune resistance, we may even see a decline in the dominating era of chronic disease. For those patients who will need surgery, a meditative component could be added weeks or months before as a phase for both surgical preparation and time to decide if surgery is the step they want to take. If meditation was taught early on as a healthy behavioral practice and included in healthy behaviors such as diet and exercise, then long term change could be accomplished over one’s life and benefit those who enter later in life with various chronic diseases.
Making meditation a practical and trusting supplement to medicine for trauma-related, post-operative, chronically ill, or even healthy individuals could help us move forward in health care. Moreover, learning meditation could be a simple tool to give one’s brain the edge it needs to manage pain better, redirect anxiety, and buff immune system functioning—all of which can be applied to overall health and wellbeing, injury recovery, and operative resilience.
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