Closing your eyes with intention can be transformative. The sound of your breath amplifies in your nose and throat; your senses sharpen to taste, touch, and scent. The external world melts away for a moment as you withdraw into yourself. Your stream of consciousness, now unveiled, reveals the magnitude of thoughts, emotions, and memories you might normally push aside or attempt to silence. Feelings of deep relaxation take hold, and you may even drift into a few minutes of sleep. Whatever your meditative experience involves, the longer you allow yourself to stay in this altered state of consciousness, the more profound the physiological response in your body: from lowered blood pressure to a strengthened immune system and altered gene expression, pain relief and increased energy, reduced performance anxiety and improved creativity. Most impressive is meditation’s ability to target and release stress, a positive shift that directly affects your gut health and the trillions of microorganisms that make up your microbiome.
Meditation is a practice of nonjudgmental observation, typically involving the breath as an anchor to ground yourself firmly in the present moment. This can range from focusing on your experience of breath (noticing the cool air as you inhale and the warmth as you exhale); the sound the breath makes as it moves in and out of your nose; the feeling of your chest rising and falling or your belly expanding and contracting. Meditation can also include mantras or repeated phrases that help you to focus your attention; visualizations that bring you into a state of deeper relaxation, or practices of loving kindness and gratitude to cultivate positive emotions.
Tapping into the expansive neurological benefits meditation offers requires some consistency of practice. Research conducted on non-meditators participating in an 8-week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) intervention, involving approximately 30 minutes of daily practice, found increased gray matter in the left hippocampus (responsible for learning and memory) of participants’ brains. Additional research links meditation to a thickening of the insula (regulating emotional self-awareness) and decreased amygdala response (the area of the brain that perceives danger and primes the nervous system to respond accordingly).
The impact of meditation on gut health is also beneficial, as meditation activates the parasympathetic or ‘rest and digest’ response. This can alleviate digestive issues by easing symptoms of IBS, maintaining a healthy gut barrier and reducing inflammation, as well as improving nutrient absorption and metabolism. The parasympathetic nervous system is joined by the sympathetic nervous system (the source of the ‘fight or flight response’) and the enteric nervous system (ENS), which consists of a network of approximately 200-600 million neurons responsible for overseeing gastrointestinal functions including motility, blood flow, absorption and secretions. Together, the trio forms the autonomic nervous system that oversees the functionality of internal organs.
While the fight-or-flight response of the sympathetic nervous system is a life-saving mechanism that allows us to perceive potentially harmful events and quickly respond to danger, our physiological reaction to stress wreaks havoc on our body, regardless of the severity of the scenario. Chronic hyperactivity of the sympathetic nervous system without a parasympathetic reset can lead to elevated blood pressure, irritability, anxiety, insomnia, pain, and impaired immune function. It can also increase the chances of developing heart disease, diabetes, and digestive disorders.
Chronic stress directly inhibits normal gut activity, changing the speed of digestion and gastric secretions, increasing the likelihood of intestinal permeability and inflammation, and promoting the development of inflammatory bowel diseases including Crohn’s and ulcerative colitis. Chronic stress is also linked to dysbiosis of gut microbiota, which can lead to weight gain, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), depression, and brain fog.
As a stress-reduction technique, meditation encourages the cultivation of beneficial microbes that govern essential neurotransmitters in the brain-gut axis, including the mood regulator serotonin, 95% of which is found in the gastrointestinal tract. Meditations with a compassionate focus, such as the practice of loving-kindness, can enhance the ability of the vagus nerve, which works alongside the gastrointestinal flora to promote gut-brain communication.
Meditative practices that involve mindful eating strategies can also reduce stress and improve digestion. Rapid consumption of food in our fast-paced life increases the likelihood of indigestion and overconsumption. Embracing the art of eating as a pleasurable experience by slowing down the act, quieting external distractions, fully engaging with the senses, cultivating an appreciation for food and considering its origin allows your body time to catch up with your brain and receive the signal that you are indeed, full.
Meditation is too powerful of a tool to be used only for occasional relaxation: the physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual benefits of the practice deserve your daily attention. Consistently finding a few minutes every day to sit quietly, observing your thoughts and bodily sensations, then reframing back to the experience of your breath, can lead to profound alterations in your life and health. Given the may forms meditation can take, finding the right kind of practice that appeals most to your personality is key. With time, you’ll establish a peaceful reference point, a mental place you can always visit when the barrage of external stressors begins to overwhelm your body. Unlocking the simple power of breath is transformative: for peace of mind and microbes.