Harness the Mind, Heal the Body: An Introduction to Meditation and Mind-Body Medicine

"Je pense, donc je suis.” I think, therefore I am. The famous statement made by French philosopher Rene Descartes has been a heavy topic of discussion since he first wrote his Discourse on the Method in the mid-17th century. One may assume that these discussions would be confined philosophical circles, but the idea that our consciousness defines our existence is actually a crucial piece of neuroscience, psychology, and even medicine. Our minds are defining elements of who we are as human beings, the things experienced by these minds go beyond the metaphysical. We now know that thoughts have direct effects on our physiology. Our mind and body are not separate from one another; they are as entwined as the double helices of our DNA.

Now that we have that out of the way, let’s talk about what this really means for us as humans. The mind-body connection can no longer be denied by science (the placebo/nocebo effect is a perfect example of this connection), which indicates it is something we should be able to manipulate to optimize our lives. For thousands of years, practitioners of meditation, prayer and mindfulness have been doing exactly that. For those less spiritually and metaphysically inclined in the modern age, these techniques have been described as “mental skills training” or “stress reduction exercises.” Regardless of what you want to call it, we are all capable of harnessing this power of the mind over the body. The use of this power for the improvement of one’s health is known as mind-body medicine.

To contextualize all this, it’s important to first explain the proposed mechanism behind mind-body medicine. It is all centered around stress. Now what is stress? Essentially any disruption of our baseline environment, mental state, or physiology can be considered a stressor. Cold weather without a jacket? Stress. Fight with your significant other? Stress. Big test coming up? Stress. Overconsumption of alcohol? Stress. Hard workout? Stress. Got the flu? More stress! Because of the coexisting nature of the body and mind, your physiology does not know the difference between physical, environmental, and mental stressors. They all induce the release of many different hormones and neurotransmitters that have varying effects on our bodies. These substances are designed to help us survive and combat acute stressors, like a sabertooth cat trying to eat us. Humans are almost unparalleled as stress-response organisms, but the substances produced as part of these responses take their toll when we are exposed to them chronically. This is where techniques like meditation come in. By establishing a calmer state of mind to reduce the chronic secretion of these stress hormones, there is less exposure to their toxic effects and a quicker return to our physiological baseline.

But why not reduce the physical stressors instead? Wouldn’t it make more sense to prevent this stress from occurring in the first place rather than managing after the fact? Absolutely. That’s why body is a portion of mind-body medicine. Healthy diet, hydration, exercise, adequate (but not excessive) sunlight and reducing exposure to negative environmental factors are all very important. There is one unfortunate truth to life, however: stress is inevitable! No person is always able to eat the perfect foods, exercise properly, or escape the effects of worsening pollution. Additionally, we are constantly exposed to mental stressors in our daily lives. Although in the developed world these stressors are rarely life-threatening, the same substances are released by our neuroendocrine systems as if they were. Mitigating the effects of stress is more important now than it has ever been because we survive the overwhelming majority of our stressors.

I know what you’re thinking. “Alright, Doc, that’s enough pontificating about the possible connections between mind and body. How is any of this actually helpful? And how can you prove it?” I’m glad you asked. A quick search on Google Scholar can give you the answer to those questions. While researching for this article, just the terms “beneficial effects of meditation” produced 239,000+ results. Let that soak in for a second. Over the last few decades, the benefits of mind-body practices have been incredibly widely researched. And guess what? The research looks good. Meditation has been shown to lower blood pressure, decrease mental stress (in those with and without mental illness), accelerate recovery from physical exertion in athletes, treat chronic pain, improve anxiety and depression, treat insomnia, slow telomere degradation (yes, that is slowing aging!), boost the immune system in patients fighting infection, decrease relapse rates of autoimmune disease, increase emotional intelligence, improve work performance, treat addiction, slow cognitive decline in Alzheimer’s patients, and even accelerate wound healing postoperatively. And those are just to name a few! Clearly, reduction of stress via meditation and similar practices has a direct and undeniable effect on our physical and mental health. It’s hard to argue that this isn’t a form of medicine.

So now for the actionable part of all my nerding out that you’ve been reading above! The studies use the term “meditation and associated practices” very frequently, which tells us that there is no singular way to use these techniques. This is a good thing, because the idea and practice of “meditation” can be difficult for some. There are many ways to meditate. Common elements of meditative practices are minimization of distractions, use of certain body positions, controlled breathing, focused attention, and an open attitude. These things can be accomplished in multiple ways, wouldn’t you agree? It’s not just sitting in a temple or on a mountaintop reciting mantras, as Hollywood would have us believe (although Zen Buddhism has arguably perfected the practice of meditation). Everything from one’s prayer at the end of the day, to a walk in nature, to martial arts such as Tai Chi, to lifting weights and anything in between can be meditative! All of these things share some of the common elements mentioned above. It’s all about figuring out what works for you to achieve that meditative state. The studies have shown significantly beneficial effects with as little as 10 minutes per day. For me, I do this during my lunch hour with a guided meditation app on my phone (which is exactly what I recommend for new practitioners of meditation). I can absolutely tell the difference on days where I miss out.

In this day and age, we are constantly on the lookout for the “next thing” that will improve our lives. Unfortunately, most of these next things are either snake oil or dangerous shortcuts that both result in poor long term outcomes. What if this next thing is, in fact, a really old thing like meditation? I personally can’t think of a lower risk intervention with a higher reward potential, and the evidence very clearly supports this. We’ve all got 10 minutes a day. So what are you waiting for?

In case you’re wondering where to look for more resources on this, here is a VERY minimal list:

  • Headspace (app)

  • Calm (app)

  • Military Meditation Coach (podcast)

  • Virtual Hope Box (app)

  • Anything written by Thich Nhat Hanh (Zen Buddhist monk and author)

  • Anything written by Jon Kabat-Zinn (molecular biologist, mindfulness researcher, professor, and author)

  • The Center For Mind Body Medicine (cmbm.org)

  • Or just google “Mindfulness” or “Meditation” and you will definitely find something that works for you!