Meditation can make you younger

Tree Yoga Pose balancing on a rock overlooking expanse of Ocean with overcast skies in background. Finding balance through focus and contemplation of the massive expanse of the two toned sea.

Photo by Debbie Ducic / Unsplash

 

Relaxation Techniques, Belly Breathing Benefits and Stress in Healthy Adults

Meditation has been studied extensively in scientific research, showing various physiological and psychological benefits that have been identified for many years in a variety of settings from psychology, psychiatry, medicine, and neuroscience. Let me introduce you to a brief introduction to meditation, then focus on “belly breathing” which many of us outgrow by the age of around 5 years old. We will then look at  why meditating and “belly breathing” in  particular helps our health, stress levels, and slow breathing down when feeling anxiety kick, enabling antiaging physiologically and mentally (Luders et al, 2015; Plini et al, 2024.

If you want results like better skin, improved blood pressure and to be on the ball more mentally – what is stopping you? Meditation is supercharging you even more if you take it outdoors wherever possible too, (Koniver, 2023). 

What is meditation?

One review article on such an empirical classification system (Matko and Sedlmeier, 2019), unpackaged the idea that meditation in an umbrella term which considers a numerous and diverse scope of practices, looking at the most popular 20 techniques. A scaling was used to look at “activation” and amount of body “orientation”.Body “orientation” is when, when sat chanting, or singing mantras and attention is directed during movement to targeted body areas are activated in particular areas such as through manipulated breathing techniques in the nostrils, or belly,  or scanning the body in the mind's eye. “Activation” is when thoughts and emotions are noted, movement is introduced into the meditation through walking, different types of movement and noticing the altering senses. Within these 2 areas seven main clusters emerged: mindful observation (letting thoughts come in be acknowledged and let go); body-centred meditation (such as a body scan); visual concentration (e.g. focusing on an object); contemplation (with regards to a  a question); affect-centred meditation (instigation intention setting for feelings, e.g. compassion);  mantra meditation (meditation to sound e.g chanting); and meditation with movement (e.g. manipulated breathwork). It was decided that there is not one definition as such for meditation, but instead different groups and practices that may show different effects. These groups broke down into two main areas: “focussed attention” and “open monitoring” practices. Each area can be used for different outcomes and some of the benefits and key findings can be considered below:

Here are the three key benefits to meditation:

Psychological Benefits of Mediation:

Reduced stress: meditation can lower the body's production of cortisol, the stress hormone, thereby reducing stress levels. In fact, studies have shown that meditation can help reduce stress by up to 40% (Babu, 2022; Duchemin et al 2015). Practices like mindfulness meditation have been shown to improve the ability to manage stress. Improved emotional health: Regular meditation can lead to improvements in overall emotional well-being and reductions in symptoms of depression and anxiety. It promotes positive thinking and emotional regulation. Enhanced self-awareness: Meditation encourages greater self-awareness and introspection, helping individuals understand their thoughts and behaviours better. Mindfulness meditation can increase awareness of the present moment and enhance self-reflection. Better focus and concentration: Meditation practices, such as focused-attention meditation, can improve attention span and concentration. It enhances cognitive performance and the ability to focus on tasks without being easily distracted.

 

Physiological Benefits of Meditation:

Reduced blood pressure: Meditation can lead to a reduction in blood pressure, contributing to better heart health. It may help the body produce more nitric oxide, which relaxes blood vessels. Improved immune system: Regular meditation practice can enhance immune function, making the body more resistant to infections and diseases. Stress reduction through meditation contributes to overall immune health. Decreased inflammation: Meditation can lower levels of pro-inflammatory cytokines, which are associated with inflammation and various chronic diseases. It helps reduce markers of inflammation in the body. Brain structure changes: Long-term meditation can lead to changes in brain structure, such as increased gray matter in areas associated with learning, memory, and emotional regulation. The practice can enhance connectivity between different regions of the brain, promoting cognitive and emotional health. Taking better care of ourselves helps many stressed out professions take better care of others, (Safran et al, 2022).

Mechanisms: This is in relation to the action which happens during meditation.  

Neuroplasticity and meditation

Meditation promotes neuroplasticity, the brain's ability to reorganise itself by forming new neural connections. It helps the brain adapt and respond to new experiences, learning, and emotional challenges. Autonomic nervous system regulation: Meditation affects the autonomic nervous system, balancing the sympathetic (fight or flight) and parasympathetic (rest and digest) responses. It leads to a state of relaxation and reduces physiological stress responses. The vagus nerve is known as the "wandering nerve" because it has multiple branches that diverge from two thick stems rooted in the cerebellum and brainstem that wander to the lowest viscera of your abdomen touching your heart and most major organs along the way. Vagus means "wandering" in Latin. The words vagabond, vague, and vagrant are all derived from the same Latin root. The vagus nerve is the prime component of the parasympathetic nervous system which regulates the “rest-and-digest” or “tend-and-befriend” responses. On the flip side, to maintain homeostasis, the sympathetic nervous system drives the “fight-or-flight” response. Altered brainwave activity: Meditation can change brainwave patterns, increasing alpha and theta waves associated with relaxation and creativity. These changes in brainwave activity contribute to a state of calm and focus.

Diaphragmatic breathing benefits

Now let's focus just on diaphragmatic breathing, abdominal breathing, otherwise known as “belly breathing”, with its mechanism to induce calm breathing, and its link to the parasympathetic nervous system. The purpose of diaphragmatic breathing as it is also known is to help induce calm breathing. The diaphragm is linked to the parasympathetic nervous system, and this breathing can activate the vagus nerve. The vagus nerve is different to the other nerves in that it is 2 ways; and can send messages not only from the brain to the body, but also the other way body to the brain. This deep belly breathing stimulates the vagus nerve when the diaphragm pulls the intercostal muscles down from the ribs and massages the abdominal, mainly stomach below. This is called the bottom-up approach. Diaphragmatic breathing  is common in infants to pre-schoolers (Trachsel et al, 2022), but it tends to switch off unless we focus on this as we get older. You will find it is a breathing technique that singers, wind instrument players, endurance athletes and yoga and meditation teachers use and need to have peak performance (Gordon and Reed , 2020). It has been shown that when not using this technique we have 70% less oxygenated blood. 

Diaphragmatic breathing  unsurprisingly encourages full oxygen exchange, slows the heart rate down, and helps stabilise or lower blood pressure. It reduces chest breathing (which is what most adults do), shallow breath, hypoventilation during attacks of panic or anxiety.  Another big benefit of belly breathing is the resistance of the release of the   hormone cortisol (stress hormone) which is linked to the adrenal response ‘flight or fight’ which can leave you exhausted and red faced literally and take a while to calm the body down thereafter. 

The additional benefits of “belly”, abdominal, diaphragmatic breathing are that: it increases the supply of oxygen and nutrients to cells throughout the body, therefore anti ageing; helps increase the supply of blood and nutrients to muscle and bones; relaxes muscle spasm and relieves tension; and releases and reduces muscular tension that eventually may cause structural problems.  

Calm breathing (sometimes called “diaphragmatic breathing”) is a technique that helps you slow down your breathing when feeling stressed or anxious. Newborn babies naturally breathe this way, and singers, wind instrument players, and yoga practitioners use this type of breathing.

Diaphragmatic breathing (also called "abdominal breathing" or "belly breathing") encourages maximum potential of oxygen exchange in the respiratory system. The benefit is of incoming oxygen for outgoing carbon dioxide. Not surprisingly, this type of breathing slows the heartbeat and can lower or stabilise blood pressure.

For those who tend to breathe up high in their chests with a short, shallow breath, diaphragmatic breathing is a great tool for increasing oxygen intake and allowing the diaphragm to get more involved. However, diaphragmatic breathing  can cause trouble just like shallow chest breathing can if not done properly as it should involve more use of the rib cage and surrounding intercostal muscles. Initially it may make you feel light headed with the rush of oxygen, or if not deep enough have no resolve in introducing more oxygen to help the body. 

Deep breathing is central to the practice of Meditation

Diaphragmatic breathing has massive benefits to our bodies to be peaking in its performance. It’s at the centre of the practice of meditation, which is known to help manage the symptoms of conditions as wide-ranging as irritable bowel syndrome, depression and sleeplessness.

Here are additional rewards this type of breathing can have: It helps you relax, lowering the unhealthy effects of the stress hormone cortisol on your body;  your heart rate can be lowered too far;  lower your blood pressure; allows you to cope with the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD); it may improve your core muscle tone; enhances your body’s ability to tolerate intense exercise; lowers your chances of injuring or wearing out your muscles; reduces your rate of breathing so that it expends less energy. One of the major benefits of diaphragmatic breathing is reducing stress.

Being stressed keeps your immune system from working at full capacity. This can make you more susceptible to numerous conditions. And over time, long-term (chronic) stress, even from seemingly minor inconveniences like traffic, issues with loved ones, or other daily concerns can cause you to develop anxiety or depression. Some deep breathing exercises can help you reduce these effects of stress.

Who needs to practice Belly breathing


It’s often recommended for people with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). COPD causes the diaphragm to be less effective, so doing breathing exercises that benefit the diaphragm specifically can help strengthen the diaphragm and improve your breathing. Here’s how it helps:

• With healthy lungs, your diaphragm does most of the work when you inhale to bring fresh air in and exhale to get carbon dioxide and other gases out of your lungs.

• With COPD and similar respiratory conditions, such as asthma, your lungs lose some of their elasticity, or stretchiness, so they don’t go back to their original state when you exhale.

• Losing lung elasticity can cause air to build up in the lungs, so there’s not as much space for the diaphragm to contract for you to breathe in oxygen.

• As a result, your body uses neck, back, and chest muscles to help you breathe. This means that you can’t take in as much oxygen. This can affect how much oxygen you have for exercise and other physical activities.

• Breathing exercises help you force out the air buildup in your lungs. This helps increase how much oxygens in your blood and strengthens the diaphragm.

This self-regulated technique is great particularly when you cannot ‘relax’ and go for example a massage or a bath. Diaphragmatic breathing allows you to control and bring about calm when you cannot leave a stressful, difficult or anxiety-inducing situation for example a meeting at work, confrontation, difficult discussion, delivering a presentation, or when you feel anger rising. It is also a great one for kids too. 

 

Breathing technique - a deep breathing exercise

To practice diaphragmatic breathing , place one hand on your heart and the other on your belly. Or even put your hands behind your head.  Lying slightly back in your chair or lying down on the bed, even in the bath you want to see your belly move out on the exhalation out, and fill up and rise on the inhalation in. Try this breathing in for 10 seconds, hold for 10 seconds; exhale out for 10 seconds; pause for 10 seconds and repeat at least 4 times. Notice how you feel before and after. Feeling calmer, more relaxed and centred? Do this several times during your day, and notice how it can help manage your stress, energy and anxiety in just 4 easy breaths. 

Overall, scientific research supports the numerous benefits of meditation on mental and physical health, highlighting its potential as a valuable tool for improving overall well-being. It seems the busier we are the more we should be accessing meditation or perhaps singing, being more mindful, active and outdoors where possible, to increase our lung capacity to its fullest to use tools we can already access naturally.

 

Contact me for more information: Louise@mindbodysoulscientist.com

 

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