Daily meditation practice helps people stay focused on the present moment and feel more connected to the divine. However, meditation is more than just a disconnected spiritual practice — it actually helps improve your health. Among other benefits, meditation can help people control pain and inflammation in their body, and researchers are finally starting to understand why.
One reason meditation is so effective is due to its influence over the vagus nerve, which is found in the brainstem and stretches down through the organs in the abdominal cavity. A major role of the vagus is to control inflammation all over the body.
When you have an adrenaline response to perceived danger, the body is flooded with stress-related chemicals like adrenaline and cortisol. The vagus then helps the organs relax following a stressful situation. “If your stressed-out body were a burning building, the vagus nerve would be the hose that carries the water that quells the flames and restores things to a nonemergency state,” the Cleveland Clinic Wellness notes.
That function is essential in combating numerous diseases, like diabetes, stroke and heart disease. On the flip side, an impaired vagus nerve can lead to chronic inflammation and associated negative health outcomes like arthritis.
On one hand, we are learning more about improving vagal function through conventional medicine. Neurosurgeon Kevin Tracey conducted one experiment where drugs aimed to control inflammation in the brain of rats had the unexpected effect of blocking inflammation elsewhere in the body as well. Tracey figured if he could discover a way to regulate the vagus, doctors would have another tool at their disposal to fight disease.
“The body’s immune response only becomes a problem when it attacks your own body rather than alien cells, or when it is chronic,” researcher Paul-Peter Tak said to Mosaic. “So the question becomes: how can we enhance the body’s switch-off mechanism? How can we drive resolution?”
The research team designed a pacemaker-like device to implant in patients’ chests that would prompt the vagus to send out anti-inflammatory messages to the body. During a trial with arthritis patients, who used a magnet to activate the device for three minutes a day, subjects reported almost miraculous recoveries.
The scientists are hoping that vagal stimulation can be used for other inflammation-related ailments, like diabetes, asthma, chronic fatigue syndrome and inflammatory bowel syndrome. The nerve is implicated in just about every disease that involves by the body attacking itself or not functioning as it should.
For example, doctor Gabor Maté notes in his book When the Body Says No: Exploring the Stress-Disease Connection that people who suffer from acid reflux can be influenced by stress via the vagus nerve. He cited a study in the New England Journal of Medicine, which backs up this theory.
“While the perception of reflux-associated heartburn by these patients was markedly increased during the stressful stimuli, the objective measures of acid levels were unchanged from one stimulus to another,” Maté wrote. “Stress, in other words, lowered the pain threshold.” The stress-influenced vagus could also signal the esophageal sphincter to relax, which would lead to more acid backing up.
The really good news is you don’t need to have a pacemaker implanted in your body to get your vagus function back up to scratch: A preliminary study showed that daily meditation practice promoted healthier vagal action. “That was the first experimental evidence that if you increased positive emotions and that led to increased social closeness, then vagal tone changed,” researcher Bethany Kok said to Mosaic. Follow up studies are currently underway to provide more data about how meditation can help the vagus and therefore improve your overall health.
The research only confirms what regular practitioners already know. “When you consciously engage in slow, diaphragmatic breathing, you activate the vagus nerve, which acts as a balancing system to all that stress,” notes the Cleveland Clinic Wellness. “Even one conscious breath begins to activate your vagus nerve and kicks off a wonderful cascade of benefits: Your heart rate slows, your blood pressure drops and your body enters a state of mental and physical calm.”
Meditation can also impact the body and spirit in a number of other beneficial ways. There is substantial evidence that daily practice can help limit the symptoms of multiple sclerosis, a neurodegenerative disease with no known cure. Another study showed that regular meditation can actually keep your brain from aging.
There you have it — if you’re looking for relief from stress, pain or the pressures of the modern world, try sitting quietly, focusing on your breathing and start improving your health today.