How Can Mindfulness Improve Physical Health?

June 30, 2022


Anna Burke

What is mindfulness?

Jon Kabat-Zinn defines mindfulness as “the awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally”. The scientist, writer, and meditation teacher was one of the first researchers in Western society to use mindfulness to treat chronic illness. By doing so, he created a technique called Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) and has used the method as treatment for physical ailment and for prevention of illnesses that derive from chronic stress and anxiety. 

Mindfulness and the brain:

After only forty days of mindfulness meditation, the brain literally begins to change shape. Cortical thickness increases in brain areas involved in sensory processing, emotional regulation, and executive functioning meaning that meditators are better able to unravel sensory information and control fight or flight responses to external stimuli. Better ability to manage the fight or flight response means better control over decision-making which decreases stress, anxiety, and symptoms associated with depression.

Physical benefits of daily mindfulness:

  • Cortisol. In addition to the brain literally changing shape, daily mindfulness practice can improve serum cortisol levels. Cortisol, a steroid hormone, is created by the body to help it respond to stress, regulate blood sugar, and fight infections and is associated with many chronic diseases. Reduction of serum cortisol in individuals with higher than average perceived stress not only reduces feelings of stress but improves the body’s ability to fight infections and even improve glycemic regulation. This means that under close care of a physician, meditation as an additional treatment, can improve symptoms of diabetes.

  • Sleep. This is a domain that is highly disrupted in our fast paced world which is filled to the brim with innovation and thus stress. Mindfulness practitioners report better quality of sleep than non-meditators, but if you have great sleep hygiene already, it is unlikely that mindfulness meditation before sleeping will improve sleep quality. Do not be discouraged, just sample other meditation techniques until you find one that is right for you. If sleep hygiene is not the issue, then you might try a practice called Progressive Muscle Relaxation which has been shown to improve sleep quality, racing thoughts before sleep, insomnia, and perceived stress. 

  • Exercise. Mindfulness-based interventions have proven to improve pain relief and physical functioning especially in individuals placed in physical therapy after operations. In older adults, mindful walking is just as effective as balance training in preventing falls. It is never a bad idea to have multiple treatments available. Alas, there is no specific research stating that meditation or breathwork exercises improve exercise performance for the average person, but research does suggest that meditation improves symptoms of COPD including quality of breath. If meditation can improve the quality of breath in COPD; maybe just knowing that could bring some ease to your exercise routine as you return to the breath over and over again.

  • Eating habits. Meditation has been indicated as a helpful adjacent treatment in management of obesity. This means that meditation, when combined with other interventions, is effective in addressing overeating and emotional eating while simultaneously improving restrained eating habits. These results are especially profound in women. Meditation is a useful tool for weight management, but it must be paired with other lifestyle changes to be fully beneficial.

  • Other. Meditation and mindfulness practices have been studied in relation to a plethora of illnesses and there is more to come! Improvements have been documented in some surprising illness after adding a mindfulness routine including the following: Cancer, Rheumatoid Arthritis, Fibromyalgia, Chronic Pain, Parkinson’s, Migraines, Multiple Sclerosis, Heart Disease, Menopausal Disorder, Glaucoma, Tinnitus, COPD, HIV, and Asthma. 

Meditation and Body Image:

Perhaps the most important role that meditation plays in physical health is a more positive body image. Meditation and gratitude practices decrease body dissatisfaction and body shame while increasing self-worth, self-compassion, and body appreciation. Having a healthier self-image does not mean that we are now ignoring unhealthy habits, it means that we can take off our blinders or rose-tinted glasses and see our body for what it is. The human body is an incredible powerhouse that we are honored to use during our lifespan. Meditation is a tool that we can use to treat our bodies with more respect, care, and love.

Does this mean I can stop taking my medication?

No! Please do not make any changes to medications, therapies, or other continued interventions without consulting your doctor. Meditation and mindfulness practices should be added to your lifestyle, not replacing your lifestyle. 

As I mentioned, the body is an incredible piece of art. Each body, brain, and mind is different meaning each practice will be different. Take your time finding the right practice for you and your body. Play around with the time you practice each day, the length you practice, and the style of practice. Changes will come, but remember that it often takes around 40 days to see changes. Remember that mindfulness is not paying attention to the breath and present moment each and every second of the day; Mindfulness is the ability to come back to the breath and the present moment on purpose and without judgment.

To fully understand the benefits that you could experience through mindfulness, you really should try it yourself. We can all use some stress reduction. If you’re ready to jump in, try this exercise; notice how you feel before and after the exercise.

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