Mindfulness meditation has been linked both to a whole lot of health benefits over the years, from altering cancer survivors' cells to improving heart health. And while it sounds pretty new-age, research has shown that meditation really can change the shape, volume, and connectivity of our brains. But until now, no one's known how those brain changes can impact our overall health.
Now new research could help explain that link between mind and body, with a study showing that stressed-out adults who practised mindfulness meditation not only had their brain connectivity altered, they also had reduced levels of a key inflammation biomarker, known as Interleukin-6, four months later. That's important because, in high doses, Interleukin-6 has been linked to inflammation-related diseases such as cancer, Alzheimer's, and autoimmune conditions.
"We've now seen that mindfulness meditation training can reduce inflammatory biomarkers in several initial studies, and this new work sheds light into what mindfulness training is doing to the brain to produce these inflammatory health benefits," said lead researcher David Creswell from Carnegie Mellon University.
To figure this out, the team recruited 35 unemployed, high-stress adults, and sent them on a random three-day retreat - one that either taught them mindfulness meditation, or one that simply helped them relax, without any focus on mindfulness.
Brain scans before and after the retreat revealed that the brains of the people who'd completed the mindfulness retreat developed increased functional connectivity - that means the brain cells in regions involved in attention and executive control were working together better than they were before the retreat. These changes weren't seen in the people who'd simply gone away to relax.
Even more impressive, when the researchers looked at blood samples taken four months after the retreats, the mindfulness meditation group had reduced levels of Interleukin-6 - a biomarker that can indicate unhealthy levels of inflammation in the body. Again, the relaxation group didn't get this benefit.
If confirmed by further studies, the results suggest that changes in brain connectivity brought about by meditation could actually be lowering the volunteers' risk of inflammation-related disease, even four months on.
"We think that these brain changes provide a neurobiological marker for improved executive control and stress resilience, such that mindfulness meditation training improves your brain's ability to help you manage stress, and these changes improve a broad range of stress-related health outcomes, such as your inflammatory health," said Creswell.
The sample size involved in this study, which has been published in Biological Psychiatry, was very limited, so more research needs to be done before we can say for sure that mindfulness meditation is affecting this inflammation pathway.
But the study adds to a growing body of evidence that suggests mindfulness meditation produces very real and measurable health benefits throughout the body. Even better, it's also free, and doesn't have any adverse side effects (that we know about). In fact, mindfulness meditation simply involves spending a period of time being present in the moment, rather than being distracted by your thoughts or the world around you. You can practise it yourself with some of these guided meditations.
Excuse us while we go and focus on our breath for a few minutes.